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A Far from 'Ordinary Man'
An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda - Paul Rusesabagina
Member Name: catsholiday
An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda - Paul Rusesabagina
Date: 23/10/11, updated on 24/10/11 (58 review reads)
Advantages: An inspirational story of a far from 'Ordinary Man'
Disadvantages: Sad that it happened at all
WHY READ THIS?
I bought this book prior to our holiday in Rwanda and read it before we went. I had watched the film a few years ago and had been horrified by what had taken place but somehow a film I tend to be able to see as a story far more than reading a book written by the person involved in the events.
On the front of the book is a quote from the Daily Mail (not a paper I read but a valuable quote none the less; "Read this book. It will humble and inspire you." Paul Rusesabagina was assisted in his writing of the book by Tom Zoellner who is a freelance journalist and writer from the USA.
AN ORDINARY MAN
The book begins simply enough and in fact throughout the book the tone taken by the author is one of humility "My name is Paul Rusesabagina. I am a hotel manager." This is indeed the story of an ordinary man with a family who worked as a hotel manager in Kigali but during the 100 days between April and July in 1994 what he did was far from ordinary. He saved 1268 lives during this time by talking and negotiating with some of those people involved in the atrocities.
Throughout the book Paul Rusesabagina constantly says that he wished he could have saved more people and the 1268 lives he did save were a mere drop in the ocean compared to the shocking figure of over 800,000 Rwandans who were slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia, because of their racial background. He points out early in the book that considering how many people were slaughtered in that short time the lives he saved equate to only four hours of murders so out of one hundred days he calculated that he stopped the genocide for only four hours with his actions.
The author explains that he really was a very ordinary man, the son of a Hutu farmer and a Tutsi mother living in a house made of mud and sticks. He was very close to his parents and was one of nine children. His greatest hero was his father who was a mild gentle thoughtful man. He describes how they made banana beer which is an important drink offered to all guests to any Rwanadan house. It is "the drink of reconciliation". And as such is shared by the perpetrator and his 'victim' when a 'gacaca ' or local court of village elders came to a decision over some disagreement. The author's father was very respected in these 'gacacas' and always spoke last as he was the most influential elder.
Incidentally we tried it while we were in Rwanda as our lovely guide bought a bottle for us to try as we had been talking about it. It definitely tasted of banana, slightly fermented , more like a wine than a beer. I can't say I would rush to drink it again and it was VERY strong in alcohol, stronger than wine, more like a sherry.
So we have the scene set in a peaceful country, a happy family living in a village with people from all tribes getting on with daily life.
A BIT OF HISTORY BEHIND THE GENOCIDE
A lot of the blame for the racial divide within Rwanda can be blamed on an extraordinary piece of text written by a British explorer called John Hanning Speke in 1863. He talks of Tutsi being "taller and have slightly more angular noses than those of their subjects". He continues to describe the Hutu as " curly head, flab nosed, pouch- mouthed negro". They, he decided had descended from Ham in the bible. It is a work of pure fiction in reality but seems to have had a big influence on the way Europeans behaved towards the tribes in Rwanda after colonisation.
The European colonisers continued with giving privileges to the people who had been closest to the King of Rwanda. The differences became more obvious with those in positions of power getting richer while those further from those with influence became poorer and more reliant upon growing simple crops to fee d themselves like cassava and potatoes.
The Belgians took over Rwanda as a colony after the First World War and it was at this time that the racial divide became a matter of legality.Belgian scientists were actually sent to measure noses and decided that a typical Tutsi nose was "at least two and a half millimetres longer than a Hutu nose". This beggars belief in my view but in 1933 all people in Rwanda were issued with identity cards known as 'books' which identified their racial class. These effectively became death warrants to thousands of innocent people in 1994.
Tribal violence began way back in the 1970s when violence against Hutu people spread from Burundi and many Hutu people came to Rwanda to escape the slaughter in their country. The Rwanda government began taking reprisals against Tutsi people in revenge.
All this background and more incompetent ruling by the Belgians which encouraged a racial hatred was then the Belgians shifted their favour towards the Hutu during the 1950s. When the Rwandan King died in 1959 there was an election and the Hutus won 90% of the seats. Now it was desirable to be a Hutu and thousands of Tutsis fled the country when in 1962 Rwanda was handed to a Hutu government by the Belgians and the UN .The author points out that one of those who fled at the time was a young boy called Paul Kagane, the current President of the country.
These Tutsis who fled were angry and resentful and led many attacks into Rwanda. They became known as 'cockroaches' as they attacked at night. As the attacks grew so did reprisals against Tutsi still in Rwanda. Propaganda broadcast through' Radio - Television Libre des Milles Collines' (RTLMC ) - incidentally nothing to do with the famous hotel which is central to this story, the broadcasts changed gradually from subtle racial hints through to less subtle declarations of hatred and actual encouragement to attack and kill 'the cockroaches'. If at this time the West had just provided a plane to jam these radio signals so stopping this major source of incitement to violence then maybe all those people might not have been killed, who knows?
The Interahamwe were Hutus and the book does explain very well the way the genocide was engineered by those in control. The UN soldiers in Rwanda had orders only to fire if fired upon, and so many stood by and watched the murder of children in front of them. The leader of the UN repeatedly told the general in Rwanda to only get involved if Un lives were attacked and to do nothing to interfere. The US refused to accept that these killings were acts of genocide, because they would be forced to take action and after the shocking "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia, they were understandably reluctant to get involved again in Africa.
Too little and too late the US sent in aid money once the slaughter was over and as often happens it got into the wrong hands and went to shelter those who had committed the atrocities.
Bill Clinton has publically said that the USA's lack of action over Rwanda is his biggest regret from his time in office and this sentiment is repeated by the UN leader at the time too and so they should feel badly as perhaps some intervention early on might have saved thousands of lives. Apparently when Clinton visited Rwanda to apologise he did not even leave Kigali airport. The author says he often wonders how these people in positions of power at the time who could have acted to help can continue with their lives, guilt free, knowing that 800,000 are dead.
HOW DID HE SAVE THESES PEOPLE?
Rusesabagina himself was mixed race, although officially a Hutu after his father. His wife Tatiana was a Tutsi, and so their children were very much mixed race. When the slaughter began he first took himself and his family to the hotel he managed in the capital of Kigali, 'The Diplomates', and when the Belgian manager of the 'Mille Collines' left Rwanda he was immediately made general manager of this hotel and moved his family there. The Mille Collines had been the place to be seen and where important people met on business but it became for those 100 days a shelter for those in danger.
This 'Ordinary Man' decided that he would turn no one away. He used no violence, no weapons except his quick thinking, bribery and negotiating skills he had learnt as a hotel manager. Luckily he had a cellar of champagne and other booze to share with those he needed to negotiate with. This luxury hotel was now a refugee camp and times became very difficult, they had to use the water from the pool rationed to wash and flush the toilets with as the water and electricity was cut off by those in power.
We passed this hotel while we were in Kigali and it looked to be a fairly block like building reminiscent of sixties architecture. It is still one of the nicest hotels in Kigali and has had a major refit. I did find it hard to think of the descriptions of dead bodies piled in the streets and hacked to pieces as we were driving around Kigali which today is a very peaceful, safe and pleasant Africa city.
Obviously we know that he manages to save these people but the book is such a wonderfully humble but at the same time humbling piece of writing that I would urge anyone with an interest in history, politics, Africa and especially Rwanda to read this book. Although Rusesabagina continually says and believes that he is an ordinary man, and that anyone would have done the same to save those people I am not so sure. I feel he is selling himself short as what he did has to be an amazing act of bravery. I think it would take a very brave and selfless man to do what he did.
AFTER THE GENOCIDE
Sadly Rusesabagina has been criticised for 'talking' to those accused of atrocities and has since has to leave his country of birth and now lives in Belgium. His heart is still with Rwanda and he has business connections with countries in Africa. He left with nothing, began by driving taxis and has built up a good life for his family in Belgium but it is sad that his actions were not seen by some in Rwanda as an act of bravery rather than one where he 'worked with' the perpetrators. As he said in the book he did not care whose friendship he had to court nor who he had to bribe with generous presents in order to to save those in the hotel with him.
He writes quite strongly about his negative opinion of Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame who was a leader of the Tutsi rebel army the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the genocide. Kagame seems to be very popular in Rwanda and certainly the country has moved on very quickly since 1994. So possibly this attitude will not make him welcome back in Rwanda.
I was very moved by this book and the simple unassuming way which it has been written. I have not watched the film 'Hotel Rwanda' for a few years but have bought that and 'Shooting Dogs' which I plan to watch in the next few weeks to see how they compare with the book. It is a very inspiring book despite the content. There are some very hideous descriptions which the author describes factually rather than emotionally but the reader still gets the full horrific picture never the less. Sitting in my living room comfortably is such a far cry from what this man and those with him in the hotel must have gone through. Like 'Schindler's List' it is an inspiring story of what one man can do in a time when the world seems to have lost all reason.
The book is written in a very straightforward conversational tone and is a very easy book to read. His explanations of events gave me a good understanding of the events leading up to the genocide in 1994.
My visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial brought this story back to my mind. As I read of the awful atrocities and of the children who were slaughtered by machetes in the arms of their mothers I thought how very brave Paul Rusesabagina had been when he had seen with his own eyes what could so easily happen to his family and those he was sheltering.
He says "I still don't understand why those men in the militias didn't just put a bullet in my head and execute every last person in the rooms upstairs but they didn't. I survived to tell the story, along with those I sheltered. There was nothing particularly heroic about it....." I think that is such a very selfless statement and I salute this very brave and 'ordinary man'.
It is nice to know that Paul Rusesabagina has been given the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Civil Rights Museum's 2005 Freedom Medal so he has at least had some recognition of his bravery.
This may be the story of 'An Ordinary Man' but I know it is a story that will will affect you deeply and stay with you long after you finish reading it.
Thanks for reading. I hope this review may be of interest to you and even enlighten you a little.
This review will be posted on other sites under my same user name.
Summary: The true story of 'Hotel Rwanda'
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