AN ORDINARY MAN
AN ORDINARY MAN
with Tom Zoellner
“Many fledging moralists in those days were going about our town proclaiming that there was nothing to be done about it and we should bow to the inevitable. And Tarrou, Rieux, and their friends might give one answer or another, but its conclusion was always the same, their certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that, and there must be no bowing down. The essential thing was to save the greatest possible number of persons from dying and being doomed to unending separation. And to do this there was only one resource: to fight the plague. There was nothing admirable about this attitude; it was merely logical.”
—From The Plague, by Albert Camus
The authors wish to thank Kathryn Court, Jill Kneerim,
Alexis Washam, and Paul Buckley for their invaluable
assistance in the production of this book.
This is a work of nonfiction. All of the people and events described herein are true as I remember them. For legal and ethical reasons, I have given pseudonyms to a handful of private Rwandan citizens. Each time this is done, the change is noted in the text.
My name is Paul Rusesabagina. I am a hotel manager. In April 1994, when a wave of mass murder broke out in my country, I was able to hide 1, 268 people inside the hotel where I worked.
When the militia and the Army came with orders to kill my guests, I took them into my office, treated them like friends, offered them beer and cognac, and then persuaded them to neglect their task that day. And when they came back, I poured more drinks and kept telling them they should leave in peace once again. It went on like this for seventy-six days. I was not particularly eloquent in these conversations. They were no different from the words I would have used in saner times to order a shipment of pillow-cases, for example, or tell the shuttle van driver to pick up a guest at the airport. 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. None of the refugees in my hotel were killed. Nobody was beaten. Nobody was taken away and made to disappear. People were being hacked to death with machetes all over Rwanda, but that five-story building became a refuge for anyone who could make it to our doors. The hotel could offer only an illusion of safety, but for whatever reason, the illusion prevailed and I survived to tell the story, along with those I sheltered. There was nothing particularly heroic about it. My only pride in the matter is that I stayed at my post and continued to do my job as manager when all other aspects of decent life vanished. I kept the Hotel Mille Collines open, even as the nation descended into chaos and eight hundred thousand people were butchered by their friends, neighbors, and countrymen.
It happened because of racial hatred. Most of the people hiding in my hotel were Tutsis, descendants of what had once been the ruling class of Rwanda. The people who wanted to kill them were mostly Hutus, who were traditionally farmers. The usual stereotype is that Tutsis are tall and thin with delicate noses, and Hutus are short and stocky with wider noses, but most people in Rwanda fit neither description. This divide is mostly artificial, a leftover from history, but people take it very seriously, and the two groups have been living uneasily alongside each other for more than five hundred years.
You might say the divide also lives inside me. I am the son of a Hutu farmer and his Tutsi wife. My family cared not the least bit about this when I was growing up, but since bloodlines are passed through the father in Rwanda, I am technically a Hutu. I married a Tutsi woman, whom I love with a fierce passion, and we had a child of mixed descent together. This type of blended family is typical in Rwanda, even with our long history of racial prejudice. Very often we can’t tell each other apart just by looking at one another. But the difference between Hutu and Tutsi means everything in Rwanda. In the late spring and early summer of 1994 it meant the difference between life and death.
Between April 6, when the plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down with a missile, and July 4, when the Tutsi rebel army captured the capital of Kigali, approximately eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. This is a number that cannot be grasped with the rational mind. It is like trying—all at once—to understand that the earth is surrounded by billions of balls of gas just like our sun across a vast blackness. You cannot understand the magnitude. Just try! Eight hundred thousand lives snuffed out in one hundred days. That’s eight thousand lives a day. More than five lives per minute. Each one of those lives was like a little world in itself. Some person who laughed and cried and ate and thought and felt and hurt just like any other person, just like you and me. A mother’s child, every one irreplaceable.
And the way they died …I can’t bear to think about it for long. Many went slowly from slash wounds, watching their own blood gather in pools in the dirt, perhaps looking at their own severed limbs, oftentimes with the screams of their parents or their children or their husbands in their ears. Their bodies were cast aside like garbage, left to rot in the sun, shoveled into mass graves with bulldozers when it was all over. It was not the largest genocide in the history of the world, but it was the fastest and most efficient.
At the end, the best you can say is that my hotel saved about four hours’ worth of people. Take four hours away from one hundred days and you have an idea of just how little I was able to accomplish against the grand design.
What did I have to work with? I had a five-story building. I had a cooler full of drinks. I had a small stack of cash in the safe. And I had a working telephone and I had my tongue. It wasn’t much. Anybody with a gun or a machete could have taken these things away from me quite easily. My disappearance—and that of my family—would have barely been noticed in the torrents of blood coursing through Rwanda in those months. Our bodies would have joined the thousands in the east-running rivers floating toward Lake Victoria, their skins turning white with water rot.
I wonder today what exactly it was that allowed me to stop the killing clock for four hours.
There were a few things in my favor, but they do not explain everything. I was a Hutu because my father was Hutu, and this gave me a certain amount of protection against immediate execution. But it was not only Tutsis who were slaughtered in the genocide; it was also the thousands of moderate Hutus who were suspected of sympathizing with or even helping the Tutsi “cockroaches.” I was certainly one of these cockroach-lovers. Under the standards of mad extremism at work then I was a prime candidate for a beheading.
Another surface advantage: I had control of a luxury hotel, which was one of the few places during the genocide that had the image of being protected by soldiers. But the important word in that sentence is image. In the opening days of the slaughter, the United Nations had left four unarmed soldiers staying at the hotel as guests. This was a symbolic gesture. I was also able to bargain for the service of five Kigali policemen. But I knew these men were like a wall of tissue paper standing between us and a flash flood.
I remembered all too well what had happened at a place called Official Technical School in a suburb called Kicukiro, where nearly two thousand terrified refugees had gathered because there was a small detachment of United Nations soldiers staying there. The refugees thought—and I don’t blame them—that the blue helmets of the UN would save them from the mobs and their machetes. But after all the foreign nationals at the school were put onto airplanes safely, the Belgians themselves left the country, leaving behind a huge crowd of refugees begging for protection, even begging to be shot in the head so they wouldn’t have to face the machetes. The killing and dismemberment started just minutes later. It would have been better if the soldiers had never been there to offer the illusion of safety. Even the vaguest rumor of rescue had been fatal to those on the wrong side of the racial divide. They had clustered in one spot and made it easy for their executioners to find them. And I knew my hotel could become an abattoir just like that school.
Yet another of my advantages was a very strange one. I knew many of the architects of the genocide and had been friendly with them. It was, in a way, part of my job. I was the general manager of a hotel called the Diplomates, but I was eventually asked to take charge of a sister property, the nearby Hotel Mille Collines, where most of the events described in this book took place. The Mille Collines was the place in Kigali where the power classes of Rwanda came to meet Western businessmen and dignitaries. Before the killing started I had shared drinks with most of these men, served them complimentary plates of lobster, lit their cigarettes. I knew the names of their wives and their children. I had stored up a large bank of favors. I cashed them all in—and then borrowed heavily— during the genocide. My preexisting friendship with General Augustin Bizimungu in particular helped save the Mille Collines from being raided many times over. But alliances always shift, particularly in the chaos of war, and I knew my supply of liquor and favors would run dry in some crucial quarters. Before the hundred days were over a squad of soldiers was dispatched to kill me. I survived only after a desperate half hour during which I called in even more favors.
All these things helped me during the genocide. But they don’t explain everything.
Let me tell you what I think was the most important thing of all.
I will never forget walking out of my house the first day of the killings. There were people in the streets who I had known for seven years, neighbors of mine who had come over to our place for our regular Sunday cookouts. These people were wearing military uniforms that had been handed out by the militia. They were holding machetes and were trying to get inside the houses of those they knew to be Tutsi, those who had Tutsi relatives, or those who refused to go along with the murders.
There was one man in particular whom I will call Peter, though that is not his real name. He was a truck driver, about thirty years old, with a young wife. The best word I can use to describe him is an American word: cool. Peter was just a cool guy; so nice to children, very gentle, kind of a kidder, but never mean with his humor. I saw him that morning wearing a military uniform and holding a machete dripping in blood. Watching this happen in my own neighborhood was like looking up at a blue summer sky and seeing it suddenly turning to purple. The entire world had gone mad around me.
What had caused this to happen? Very simple: words.
The parents of these people had been told over and over again that they were uglier and stupider than the Tutsis. They were told they would never be as physically attractive or as capable of running the affairs of the country. It was a poisonous stream of rhetoric designed to reinforce the power of the elite. When the Hutus came to power they spoke evil words of their own, fanning the old resentments, exciting the hysterical dark places in the heart.
The words put out by radio station announcers were a major cause of the violence. There were explicit exhortations for ordinary citizens to break into the homes of their neighbors and kill them where they stood. Those commands that weren’t direct were phrased in code language that everybody understood: “Cut the tall trees. Clean your neighborhood. Do your duty.” The names and addresses of targets were read over the air. If a person was able to run away his position and direction of travel were broadcast and the crowd followed the chase over the radio like a sports event.
The avalanche of words celebrating racial supremacy and encouraging people to do their duty created an alternate reality in Rwanda for those three months. It was an atmosphere where the insane was made to seem normal and disagreement with the mob was fatal.
Rwanda was a failure on so many levels. It started as a failure of the European colonists who exploited trivial differences for the sake of a divide-and-rule strategy. It was the failure of Africa to get beyond its ethnic divisions and form true coalition governments. It was a failure of Western democracies to step in and avert the catastrophe when abundant evidence was available. It was a failure of the United States for not calling a genocide by its right name. It was the failure of the United Nations to live up to its commitments as a peacemaking body.
All of these come down to a failure of words. And this is what I want to tell you: Words are the most effective weapons of death in man’s arsenal. But they can also be powerful tools of life. They may be the only ones.
Today I am convinced that the only thing that saved those 1,268 people in my hotel was words. Not the liquor, not money, not the UN. Just ordinary words directed against the darkness. They are so important. I used words in many ways during the genocide—to plead, intimidate, coax, cajole, and negotiate. I was slippery and evasive when I needed to be. I acted friendly toward despicable people. I put cartons of champagne into their car trunks. I flattered them shamelessly. I said whatever I thought it would take to keep the people in my hotel from being killed. I had no cause to advance, no ideology to promote beyond that one simple goal. Those words were my connection to a saner world, to life as it ought to be lived.
I am not a politician or a poet. I built my career on words that are plain and ordinary and concerned with everyday details. I am nothing more or less than a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and charged to give shelter to those who need it. My job did not change in the genocide, even though I was thrust into a sea of fire. I only spoke the words that seemed normal and sane to me. I did what I believed to be the ordinary things that an ordinary man would do. I said no to outrageous actions the way I thought that anybody would, and it still mystifies me that so many others could say yes.
I WAS BORN on the side of a steep hill in the summer of 1954. My father was a farmer, my mother his helper. Our house was made of mud and sticks. We were about a mile away from the nearest village. The first world I can remember was green and bright, full of cooking fires and sisters murmuring and drying sorghum and corn leaves in the wind and the warm arms of my mother.
Our house had three rooms. There were small windows with pieces of hinged wood to keep out the sun and rain. The house was built on an incline of terraced farms, but the small yard outside was flat. My mother kept it swept clean of seedpods and leaves with a homemade broom made out of bundled twigs. When I grew old enough she would let me help her. I still remember the happiness I felt on the day when she trusted me to do it by myself.
From the courtyard you could look south across the winding Ruvayaga Valley to the opposite hill. It seemed an awesome distance, like looking into another country. The hill was laced, as ours was, with houses made out of mud and stucco and baked red tiles, dots of cattle grazing, the groves of avocado plants, and the paddlewide leaves of the banana trees that practically sparkled in the sun. On a perfect day you could lie in the grass near our home and see people at work in the fields on the next hill. They looked like ants. Every now and then somebody’s machete would catch the angle of the sun and you’d see the winking of metal across the valley. And far, far in the distance you could make out the clustered roofs of the village called Gitwe, where my parents told me I would one day learn how to read and write, which neither of them could do.
We spoke the beautiful language of Kinyarwanda, in which I first learned the names of the world’s many things in rich deep vowels made in the back of the mouth. Bird, inyoni. Mud, urwoondo. Stones, amabuye. Milk, amata.
To enter our house through the front door you had to step up on a stoop made of gray rocks. It couldn’t have been more than two feet off the courtyard, but it seemed like a towering height. I used to climb in on my hands and knees. To the side of the door was a flat stone used for sharpening machetes. There was a shallow depression in the middle where rainwater would collect. After a storm I would splash my hands around in the cool water, putting it on my face and letting it dribble down my cheeks. It was the best part of the rain. When those storms came in September the lightning and thunder scared me. My three younger brothers and I would sometimes huddle together during the worst ones. And then we would laugh at each other for our cowardice. Thunder, inkuba.
My parents raised nine children altogether, and I was an island in time’s river, separated by six years from my older sister and five years from my younger brother. I got a lot of attention from my mother as a result, and trailed her around the house hoping she would reward me with a chore. The firmament of our relationship was work; we expressed love to one another in the thousands of little daily actions that kept a rural African family together. She showed me how to take care of the baby goats and cows, and how to grind cassava into flour. Even when I came back to visit my parents when I was grown it would be only minutes before I would find myself holding an empty jerrican and going to fetch well water for my mother.
There was a narrow path from the main road that twisted up the side of the ridge and passed through groves of banana trees. I had learned how to walk on this path. It was our connection with a small village called Nkomero, which occupies the top of one of the hundreds of thousands of hills in Rwanda. The nickname for my country is “the land of thousands of hills,” or le pays des mille collines, but this signifies a gross undercount. There are at least half a million hills, maybe more. If geography creates culture, then the Rwandan mind is shaped like solid green waves. We are the children of the hills, the grassy slopes, the valley roads, the spider patterns of rivers, and the millions of rivulets and crevasses and buckles of earth that ripple across this part of Central Africa like the lines on the tired face of an elder. If you ironed Rwanda flat, goes the joke, it would be ten times as big. In this country we don’t talk about coming from a particular village, but a particular hill. We had to learn the hard way how to arrange our plots of corn and cabbage into flat terraces on the sloping ground so as not to turn a farm into an avalanche. Every inch of arable land is used this way. The daily walk up to a family grove can be an exercise in calf-straining misery going up, and in thigh-wracking caution going down. I think our legs must be the most muscular on the African continent.
There is a story about the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, who was asked by the king of Spain to describe the topography of the rugged new nation. Cortés reached for the map on the table and crumpled it up into a ball. “That,” he said, “is what Mexico looks like.” He could just as easily have been talking about Rwanda. If you didn’t grow up here you would be likely to get very, very lost among those seductive hills and valleys.
Excerpted from An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina, Tom Zoellner
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.