THOSE WE THROW AWAY ARE DIAMONDS
A Refugee’s Search for Home
By Mondiant Dogon with Jenna Krajeski
At one point in Mondiant Dogon’s poignant memoir, “Those We Throw Away Are Diamonds,” the author takes issue with the negative associations that cling, cobweb-like, to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he remembers as “the most alive place in the world,” a fertile Garden of Eden. There’s a certain irony to the complaint, for those who have felt misgivings about the country of Dogon’s birth will finish this book with many of their prejudices confirmed.
Dogon’s story begins in 1995, when his family hits the road running, warned that local villagers — neighbors they laughed, chatted and drank with — are headed their way, bent on slaughter. Dogon’s family, members of eastern Congo’s Bagogwe community, has become collateral in neighboring Rwanda’s ongoing genocide. As ethnic hatred spills out across the border, the Bagogwe, who belong to the targeted Tutsi minority, are transformed into strangers in their own land.
Dogon is 3 when he sees his uncle beheaded by a militiaman. His baby sister dies in his mother’s arms as they trek toward the frontier. A few years later he watches as Hutu extremists, attacking a supposedly protected Rwandan refugee camp, gang-rape a family friend. During yet another massacre, in a scene that is the stuff of screaming nightmares, he saves himself by hiding in a latrine, burrowing into the sewage and bodies of slaughtered fellow refugees.
Notwithstanding the brutality he describes, Dogon’s tale possesses a beguiling delicacy. We never lose sight of his humanity, even if he often doubts it himself. His brief recruitment as a kadogo, or rebel errand boy — “being a refugee can be radicalizing,” he writes, “we had so little to lose” — leaves him guilt-stricken. Despite searing hunger pangs, he is profoundly ashamed of pilfering fruit. More tellingly, he chides himself when he realizes that his dreadful experiences are making him hate not just the people who killed his loved ones, but the Hutu community as a whole.
As he reminds himself, for every neighbor who used the post-genocide turmoil as an opportunity to loot and rape, there was a local villager, a stranger on the road, who warned his family members of approaching danger, hid them at great personal risk and treated their wounds. Scrupulously recorded, these are the moments that restore his — and his readers’ — faith in mankind.
The last few years have witnessed an outpouring of refugee memoirs and stories, which is as it should be: How prosperous, stable societies respond to those fleeing conflict in Syria and Myanmar, Haiti and Afghanistan is one of the thorniest questions of our era. This book beautifully captures the colossal waste that the refugee experience — essentially a state of suspended animation — represents. “For so long, all I saw were hundreds of white tents,” Dogon writes of the refugee camps that were his home for years. “Rows and rows of white tents as far as you could see. White blocks concealing thousands of stalled lives.”
These stories of frustrated talents have been deposited on a bedrock of cynicism and indifference: that of host nations that allow thousands of refugees to set up camp but won’t grant them citizenship, of international aid organizations supplying demeaning rations but never opportunities for self-fulfillment, and of Western governments that exploit geography to embrace “out of sight, out of mind” policies.
Dogon’s own story closes with a possibility of Rwandan citizenship, but it is far from assured. Reality rarely offers the neatness of happy endings. Flotsam and jetsam of the modern world, refugees are engaged in a dogged battle to endow a modicum of dignity to lives over which they exert almost no control. Dogon rises to that challenge far better than most of us would.