‘An Ordinary Man’ comes face to face with genocide in harrowing memoir

August 23, 2012

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was managing a luxury hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. As civil war broke out and ethnic tensions were ratcheted up by both the rebels and the corrupt government, Rusesabagina sought to maintain a normal life for himself, his family, his employees and his guests.

But on April 6, the president’s plane was shot down, and all hell broke loose. The nightmarish aftermath of that assassination is detailed in gripping fashion by Rusesabagina and co-author Tom Zoellner in the 2007 memoir An Ordinary Man.

The events of spring 1994 are today known as the Rwandan genocide. Perhaps 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered over the course of three bloody months. Many victims were of the Tutsi ethnic minority; others were members of the much larger Hutu ethnic group who were targeted for trying to protect their fellow Rwandans from violence. As much as three-quarters of the Tutsi population were murdered.

The killers and victims were often acquainted. One widely listened-to radio station dehumanized Tutsis and their sympathizers by repeatedly calling them cockroaches. Once the killings began, Rusesabagina writes, the station would broadcast minute-to-minute reports as certain targets were hunted down in the streets.

In a report on Rwanda 10 years after the killings, The Economist — which estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 died — wrote: “It was perhaps the fastest genocide in history, although the killers were mostly armed, not with guns or poison gas, but with farm tools.”

This was the nightmare Rusesabagina faced down. He not only survived along with his family, he enabled more than 1,200 people who sought refuge in his hotel to wait out the massacre until an evacuation could be arranged.

Death waited literally outside the Hotel Mille Collines’ gates, and men with bloodied hands and murderous intent occasionally stepped inside the building. But thanks largely to Rusesabagina’s efforts, not a single guest was killed.

The memoirist is largely humble and straightforward, although there may be some false modesty in his description of himself as an ordinary man. Born to a farmer in rural Rwanda, Rusesabagina received an excellent education and studied for a time to be a minister before realizing that his calling lay in the world of business.

His aptitude for dealing with irate hotel guests earned him a scholarship, which in turn enlightened him about expensive wines and other finer points that upper-echelon hospitality managers are expected to know. Managing not one but two of Kigali’s most luxurious hotels enabled Rusesabagina to bank favors with many of the country’s power brokers. Once the genocide began, he needed every one of those markers.

But the memoir’s title is apt in one sense. Most of the killers in the Rwandan genocide, like most of the victims, were ordinary folks; so, too, were most of the people who intervened, as were those who stood by passively. The most important message of An Ordinary Man is not that the Rwandan genocide — or any genocide — was inevitable; rather, it is that when one person stands up for the rights of other people, some good usually results.

Rusesabagina certainly does not paint himself as a great savior; in the book’s prologue, he drily notes that the roughly 1,200 lives he helped preserve is a much smaller figure than the 10,000 or so who died on each day of the massacre. Rather, he argues that collective action by many ordinary men and women can be a powerful check against bigotry, thuggery and murder.

It’s worth emphasizing that Rusesabagina’s tools were not threats and weapons but words and favors. He notes unapologetically that he relied on the kindness of murderers to preserve the refugees at his hotel. It is better to deal with an enemy face to face and one on one, whenever possible, than to refuse to engage him altogether, Rusesabagina writes, because it is hard to deny the humanity of a person to whom one has talked.

It’s even harder to kill someone whose hospitality one has enjoyed. The hotel manager frequently plied menacing figures — both before and during the slaughter — with free drinks, free meals and, on at least one occasion, a cash payment for each person granted safe passage.

Although the Mille Collines was a luxury hotel, waiting out the genocide was no picnic. Water to the building was cut, forcing the manager to ration water from the famed swimming pool. The hotel was quite crowded, as it was housing roughly three times its intended capacity. And Rusesabagina had to play his cards close to the vest, knowing that there were at least a few spies among the staffers who remained in the hotel.

Telephone lines were also severed, except for the fax machine, which had a link that was installed separately from the main phone system. That lone cable, the existence of which Rusesabagina kept secret, provided a lifeline for the manager, enabling him to seek protection from power brokers around the city.

The author also made pleas to the United Nations, the United States and other foreign governments — all to no avail. Rusesabagina is forthright about what he sees (and others have condemned) as spineless inaction by these powers.

I listened to a recording of An Ordinary Man read by Dominic Hoffman, and I was impressed by every aspect of the book and the recording. Rusesabagina’s story inspired the film Hotel Rwanda, which I recently purchased (but have not yet watched; the movie, incidentally, preceded the memoir). The text is clear and informative, regardless of whether Rusesabagina is recalling his childhood or describing the colonial history that played a major role in the nation’s ethnic slaughter.

An Ordinary Man is a book that both saddened and inspired me. I suspect that anyone who reads or hears Rusesabagina’s tale will not soon forget it.

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