Rwanda's Agony

An Ordinary Man     By Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner

xvi + 207 pp, Viking Penguin 2006. ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


      The book's title is a wry understatement: it is an autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose courage, resourcefulness, shrewd tact and personal presence saved more than 1000 lives when a spasm of genocide swept Rwanda in 1994. It is the story of his entire life, from village childhood in the "country of a thousand hills" in central Africa, to reluctant exile after the genocide. If you have seen the film "Hotel Rwanda," you already know about him. But where a movie, even a powerfully moving one, gives at most momentary glimpses, this small book paints a much more comprehensive picture. By all means, read it. Slowly.

    If you have not seen the film, read the book first, then go watch it. The film itself packs an enormous emotional punch, but with the book you suddenly understand it much better. Indeed, this ought to be required reading in high schools and universities anywhere, teaching a lesson any young citizen needs to absorb when facing the 21st century. A lesson about genocide, about a willful attempt by one social group to exterminate another, and if the one of Rwanda may not have been the largest one, the authors here show (and Tom Zoellner shares full credit) that it stood out from the rest in ferocity, intensity and cruelty.

    The forces which led to genocide built up over many years. Rwanda and its sister-state Burundi are two small states on the spine of Africa, enormously fertile and densely populated by two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. That division, Rusesabagina makes clear, was the root of the evil which followed. In the middle 1800s, the writings of explorer John Hanning Speke presented it as a fact of life, and the rest of the world accepted it without question--tall, elite Tutsis who had arrived from the east and tended animals, and squat Hutu peasant farmers from west Africa, a lower class in society. Maybe at one time such a division existed, but intermarriage and a common language and culture (many had become Christian) gradually blurred it. There was nothing unusual in Rusesabagina, a Hutu, taking a Tutsi wife.

    What sustained and strengthened the division were the Belgian colonial rulers, whose identity cards demanded the bearer to be ethnically defined as Hutu or Tutsi. Dividing the country helped their rule, but it also sowed new seeds of hatred. After WW-II, when Belgium and other colonial powers left Africa, corrupt politics soon brought a general deterioration. The Hutu majority group ruled the country, and in the early 90s it launched by radio a vicious campaign of hate propaganda. A militant organization formed and weapons were hoarded, preparing to "ethnically clean" the country of its "cockroaches." Tutsis exiled to neighboring countries meanwhile established their own military force.

    The storm broke in April 1994, with the murder by missile of the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi (no one ever found who did it). What followed is hard to describe in just a few sentences. In all, about 800,000 people died within 100 days, more than a tenth of the population. Most were Tutsis, but Hutus trying to stem the hate died too. Ordinary citizens, seemingly peaceful and friendly, suddenly ganged up on their neighbors, hacking them apart with machetes, then looting their homes. At roadblocks, passengers were taken off cars and those with Tutsi identity cards were hacked to pieces, their bodies rotting by the wayside or floating down a river. The spasm of violence might have been nipped in the bud--but the UN stood aside and ordered its troops not to intervene, while France, hoping to gain political influence, actually helped arm the Hutus, and protected them after they were beaten.

    All this is described in a measured, matter-of-fact language by Rusesabagina, in the tone of a citizen used to peace and order, yet forced by circumstances to face raw evil. And yet those sober, controlled words convey their message more forcefully than any outraged adjectives could do. Here is the manager of the most prestigious hotel of the capital, skilled in catering to the needs of important visitors and pleasing diverse guests in an orderly and non-obtrusive fashion--and suddenly he is in a battle zone, his hotel turned into an unarmed city of refuge. Lesser men may have tried to flee, less resourceful ones may have died--indeed, he himself was reconciled to the thought of never getting out alive. Yet he survived, as did every person in his hotel.

    Luck helped, of course, again and again. But it would not have happened without the author's strong moral character, and the book also tells (what the movie does not) how that character was molded by a strict but kind family, especially by a mentoring and encouraging father. Luck alone would not have sufficed without the author's fine-tuned psychological insight. People who may seem purely evil, he tells us, often have hard and soft sides to their personality--for instance, that police chief siding with the murderers may not be completely at peace with what he is doing. Avoid judgment, find his soft side, and gently encourage it. Talk to the enemy holding a gun on you--if he converses with you, he is less likely to shoot. Bring out a bottle of good wine, share it with the general leading the gangs, and talk to him over drinks. It may help.

    The film ends when all the hotel's occupants escape to the Tutsi rebels, but the book goes on, and the story is not all sunny. The Tutsi forces too were harsh, and did not always distinguish friend from foe. After they capture the capital city Kigali, many of the country's Hutus, guilty and innocent alike, flee in panic across the border. Rusesabagina's nightmare seems over: new identity papers omit any ethnic identification, and once again he manages a high class hotel.

    But devastation remains. Of the family of his brother-in-law, only two little girls survive, whom he raises with his own children. Laconically he comments "I have lost four of my eight siblings. ... For a Rwandan family, this is a comparatively lucky outcome."

    And the dangers remain, too: enemies are still loose, often unidentified. His life is threatened and he ends up accepting asylum in Belgium and driving a cab in Brussels. Hard work brings prosperity--another cab and more, then a trucking company in Zambia, and then quite by chance, his story is discovered and made into a film. After a delay of years, Paul is acclaimed for his heroic deeds and even invited to the White House.

    But he still cannot return home. True peace continues to elude Rwanda, whose new government again seems to enter a path of cronyism and corruption, evils which preceded the genocide. It is a small country with limited area and resources, far from stable Europe and from an indifferent US. Can the past horrors happen again? The authors fear that they can, and give convincing reasons.

    There is much to be learned from this honest tale, and Rosesabagina and Zoellner express it quite well. They have no solution, no one does, but if one is reached some day, this slim book has been an important contribution towards it. Read it!



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Last updated 20 June 2006