An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda

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An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda by Paul Rusesabagina, book review“My name is Paul Rusesabagina. I am a hotel manager.” So begins An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda. This is the story of an ordinary man, a hotel manager, who saved 1268 lives during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Over the course of 100 days between April and July 1994, over 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia, because of their racial background. The Interahamwe were Hutus, and the build up to the genocide was filled with words of hate against the Tutsi “cockroaches” and the moderate Hutus who lived in peace with them. 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 US was reluctant to describe the events as a genocide, as this meant they would have to act – following the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, they were reluctant to get involved in Africa.

Rusesabagina was mixed race, although officially a Hutu after his father. His wife Tatiana was a Tutsi, and their children were mixed race. When the murders began he moved himself and his family to the hotel he managed in the capital of Kigali, the Diplomates, and shortly afterwards to its sister property, the luxurious Hotel des Mille Collines, of which he was immediately made general manager. The Mille Collines soon became a shelter for those in danger from the Interahamwe, and Rusesabagina made it his priority to turn no one away. He used his quick thinking and the negotiating skills he had learnt as a hotel manager to ensure that his people were kept safe from the militia. His weapon was words, and he believed that sitting down with someone over a drink, even someone who was his enemy and who had committed despicable acts, could lead to compromise as they softened during the conversation.

As a result of his actions, 1268 lives were saved that otherwise would have been lost. Yet Rusesabagina points out early in his story that given the volume of the massacre over such a short time, these lives equate to only four hours of murders – he says he stopped the genocide for only four hours.

Rusesabagina believes he is an ordinary man, and that anyone would have done the same to save those people. Perhaps everyone would hope they could do the same, but not many people would be capable of such courage, strength and quick-thinking. What he did during those dark days was not ordinary. It may only equate to four hours worth of lives, but one man alone managed to save 1268 people. That is no ordinary achievement.

If there is one thing which does back up Rusesabagina’s assertion that he is an ordinary man, it is his writing. It is straightforward and unassuming for large parts of An Ordinary Man. He states the facts simply, tells his story and often repeats “I am a hotel manager”, something he is proud of and which is clearly an important part of him. Yet he becomes eloquent and lyrical when describing his country, people and traditions, most notably in the first few chapters during which he writes about his childhood and family, particularly his father. This simple change in his writing shows how much he loves Rwanda, even though he no longer lives there. This mixture of styles forms a beautiful narrative, straightforward and shocking, direct and devastating.

An Ordinary Man is a simply told story that will affect you deeply.”

In addition to relating the events of those dark 100 days, Rusesabagina also discusses the wider picture. He explains the background to the genocide, and writes about the failure of the world to act. He believes that very little military invention would have been necessary to prevent much of the slaughter, yet it was not forthcoming. The US sent in aid money once it was over, which went to shelter those who had committed the atrocities – a small portion of this money could have been used earlier to provide a plane which jammed radio signals, therefore knocking out a major source of the hateful words which spurred people into action.

Bill Clinton has publically said that the USA’s lack of action over Rwanda is his biggest regret from his time in office. I would certainly hope so. Rusesabagina clearly did not think much of Clinton’s visit to Rwanda to apologise, during which he did not leave Kigali airport. He wonders how the people who could have acted to help can continue with their lives, knowing that 800,000 are dead.

Rusesabagina has been criticised for his closeness to those who gave orders during the genocide, those who are now war criminals, but I agree with his reasoning – it helped save those 1268 people. He says he did not care whose friendship he had to court to save them. Following the genocide he received death threats and moved to Brussels with his family, where they still live. He speaks openly in An Ordinary Man about his negative opinion of Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame (leader of the Tutsi rebel army the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the genocide), and apparently this has led to a public enmity.

I have been incredibly moved by An Ordinary Man, much as I was by the film of Rusesabagina’s story, Hotel Rwanda (which, incidentally, he speaks highly of). I cannot fathom what it must have been like to live through such horror, and I believe that Paul Rusesabagina is an ordinary man who became extraordinary. The story of the Rwanda genocide is one which must not be repeated, and one which the world should be ashamed of – and remember. The story of Paul Rusesabagina, An Ordinary Man, is one which inspires hope in the goodness of individuals, and which deserves to be known the world over. One man, armed with nothing more than a liquor cellar, a black binder of contacts and his wits, saved 1268 lives – imagine what the UN could have done, had they acted.

I urge you to read An Ordinary Man. It is a simply told story that will affect you deeply.

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An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda
by Paul Rusesabagina

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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