Penguin Press • Release Date: October 12, 2021
Those We Throw Away Are Diamonds, the new autobiography by Mondiant Dogon (with Jenna Krajeski), begins with an introduction that is essentially a caveat. It contains an overview of the story’s arc, a brief history of the title’s inspiration, a note about why Dogon decided to revisit his past, why we must never pan the camera away from the refugee after they have arrived in the camp, and a brief acknowledgment. Reading this introduction feels like listening to a warning about a haunted house: the hair on the back of your neck stands. But Dogon’s voice is so soulful; he pulls you in and you can’t put the book down.
Those We Throw Away Are Diamonds chronicles Dogon’s experience in the Congo and Rwanda wars. It begins with the war, which stretches through the years, throughout most of the pages. It is difficult to say when the war ended for him and his family. Did it end when the rival groups agreed to put down their weapons? When refugees returned to their homes or made the camp their new settlement? When they struggled to integrate into host communities? The prejudice they suffered and the hard decisions they had to make to survive? When did it end for Dogon? After he moved to New York and struggled to understand what happened to him and his family? After he immersed himself in history books and tried to comprehend the woven threads that birthed the wars—a kind of second torture? And how do you recover what you have lost: the years, the childhood, peace even if liminal? Dogon became an adult when he was only three years old.
The story of the wars, although it dominates the book’s breadth, is not the point of Dogon’s story. Those We Throw Away Are Diamonds is a jarring reminder that we must never forget the refugee. We must never think that peace has returned when people who lost everything, people with different value systems, and people who are grieving in varying ways, are crammed in a camp. The horror of being forgotten, Dogon writes, is what he wishes would never befall present-day refugees around the world who are struggling. He says: “I hope that none of these new refugees would be forgotten as we were for decades, forever refugees lost in permanent impermanence.”
Dogon also writes because he wants to remember the beauty before the gore— “the sound of the wind in the forest of Congo and the stories my grandmother told me and my siblings before we went to sleep.” Before their neighbors brought war to their doorstep, he was just a vibrant child who listened in on his mother’s conversations with their neighbors. He was happy. He played with his peers. He obeyed his parents’ admonishments about the forests. He adored his little sister, Patience, who was always “full of milk.” Then everything changed: his father came home one day, bleeding in the face; violence was erupting all around them and they had only a few minutes to escape a massacre. They hid with other Tutsis in a cave flanked by impenetrable forests and scarred landmarks—relics from the country’s colonial history. Dogon grew up hearing warnings about the forest crowded with snakes and animals, but during the Congo war, it was this dangerous wild that offered them succor.
The book is split into three sections, each part exploring different times of his life, from childhood to adulthood. He remembers times during the wars when mothers “breastfed their babies to keep them quiet” to evade murderers, when fear was a relentless part of their existence. He writes that “children can forget,” and as a child, his uncle’s beheading felt like a fantasy. At a point, the wars were “like a movie,” something they were trapped in and couldn’t get out of. There are snatches of laughter and joy, like moments when he made friends and when he was a child again. But then, he lost his friends and many times almost died. These experiences aged him. He writes, “living through a war makes you older.” The war haunted his family as they moved from camp to camp. “War surrounded us like weather,” he says.
The book is melancholic. You want to step away from it and catch your breath. But Dogon’s writing, his poignant yet commanding tone, has a sentient quality. He constantly tries to see the best in people despite all his family went through, despite the scars— both physical and emotional— that he still wears. And this is what makes Those We Throw Are Diamonds spectacular: war destroys; war burns things to the ground; war strips us naked. But our ability to retain our humanity afterward is what keeps us going.
In Rwanda, Dogon refused to judge the locals who were wary of him and his people. He understood their apprehension. He, himself, had to steal to eat. With this book, he wants the reader to see him in full and understand what war does to people, and why we must never forget refugees.
Some gaps had to be filled in his memories and Dogon did the job: he subjected himself to the second torture of wading through murky histories, because if he must tell this story, then he must tell it well. He gathered fragments, learned about the political dramas that sprouted these wars. He collected stories from his parents and paired them with his research. And the result is this powerful and meticulously detailed narrative that is both a personal and a national biography.
Ukamaka Olisakwe is the author of Ogadinma.
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