In the late 1990s Deogratias Niyizonkiza grew up in a culture that taught that God had divided its population into two camps meant to kill each other — Hutus and Tutsis. As Nyizonkiza explains in the 20-minute-long documentary above, made by filmmaker Ole Schell, the wretched living conditions caused by Belgian colonial masters combined with this myth to keep Burundians subjugated.

The myth became deadly three and a half decades after the colonizers left, when a genocidal civil war broke out in 1993. Three hundred thousand Burundians were killed.

Niyizonkiza was a student at the University of Burundi medical school when Tutsi soldiers assassinated President Melchior Ndadaye, head of a Hutu-dominated party. Hutu militants swiftly moved to wipe out the Tutsis. Niyizonkiza hid in his dorm room under his bed, eventually escaping to find scenes of death and slaughter everywhere. Later he would flee to the United States. As he watched from his departing plane he knew the massacres were still under way.

In New York City Niyizonkiza could get only odd jobs. He was poverty-stricken and homeless, living in Central Park. Over time the kindness of strangers saw him learn English and become a legal resident. He was admitted to Columbia Medical School, where he studied under the famed humanitarian physician Paul Farmer. He joined Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, to help bring medical care to the world’s most impoverished places. In 2005 he returned to Burundi. When he saw the poor condition of the hospitals there, he resolved to build a medical facility.

Niyizonkiza succeeded. Together, Burundians in his area have constructed a utility and agricultural infrastructure and industrial cooperatives, producing, in Niyizonkiza’s words, “decency where it had been lost” and bringing “joy into these communities.”

“We are not people who are created by God to kill each other,” he says. “It is the living condition that is so harsh that has dehumanized us. It is not because we were born Hutus or Tutsis. So now that we have figured out what exactly the thing is, the reality is to tackle the root causes of these social ills in our communities, so that they can be part of a healthy future, a healthy world, a peaceful world.”

For his remarkable strides toward that end in his home country, Deogratias Niyizonkiza is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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