In October 1993, Tutsi soldiers assassinated Burundi's Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. The killing plunged the country into a spate of ethnic violence that would ultimately claim the lives of 300,000 people.
Deo Niyizonkiza, then a 20-year-old medical student, heard the news of the president's death from a friend at the hospital where he was studying. The friend warned that Hutu militiamen were approaching the hospital, and they wanted revenge. Niyizonkiza, a Tutsi, ran to his dorm room and hid under his bed. When he came out after the killers had left, piles of bodies were lying on the floor. "There was the smell of burned meat," Niyizonkiza recounted. "There were piles and piles of bodies."
Niyizonkiza's harrowing experiences in 1993 and his inspiring quest for a new life in the wake of the tragedy are at the center of a new documentary by New York-based filmmaker Ole Schell.
In an interview with HuffPost Live on Thursday, Schell explained that the sharp divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities date back to the Belgian colonial period, noting that the 1993 genocide was just one of several episodes of violence between Hutus and Tutsis.
Schell highlighted Niyizonkiza's remarkable path from Burundi to Rwanda, the United States and back to Burundi.
After the 1993 killings, Niyizonkiza first sought refuge in neighboring Rwanda, but returned to Burundi after six months when the security situation in Rwanda took a turn for the worse. From Burundi, he traveled to the United States, where after living homeless in Central Park for some time, he made it to Columbia and Harvard Universities. Niyizonkiza eventually returned to Burundi to start his own clinic.
"It's quite a story of redemption and overcoming the odds," Schell said. "If he can overcome the odds," he added, "why can't the rest of us?"
"Everyone experiences loss, but take a cue from Deo, who experienced the ultimate loss and the ultimate horror but overcame," the filmmaker said.
Watch Ole Schell's remarkable documentary about the life of Deo Niyizonkiza in the video below.