Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Ordinary Man

This past week I completed another powerful audio book during my daily commute, Paul Rusesagina's An Ordinary Man. It is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary time, the Rwanda uprising in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, most of them hacked to death by machetes. Rusesabagina was a simple hotel manager at a Belgian luxury hotel who used the only weapon at his disposal to save, if possible, the 1268 people who had taken refuge there. That weapon was words.

The book really is remarkable, and is not about the slaughter per se. Rather, it is about the psychological chess games that must be played out during extreme times when human life is on the line. The killing madness extended 100 days, but Rusesabagina's daily enterprise was to keep the "guests" at his hotel/sanctuary alive for one more day... because with no guarantees about tomorrow today was the only day you had.

Sometimes he bribed, sometimes he flattered, sometimes he deceived, always he remained vigilant. His only aim: to keep the gangs at bay, to maintain the safety of those who had taken refuge there, to hold back the insanity.

The book does more than give an account of the author's experience. The story begins with a detailed history of Rwanda, of how it came about that Hutus and Tutsi's were perceived differently. A strong case can be made that this terrible event is directly rooted in the manner in which white colonialists perceived and labeled these peoples.

The trigger event in 1994 was the shooting down of a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents. Rusesabagina, however, notes that hundreds of thousands of machetes had been imported to Rwanda in advance of this event. The uprising had been planned, and the manner in which was carried out would have shocked the world, had journalists been covering it properly.

I remember exactly where I was that day. I was with Dr. Richard Roach, who lived here in Duluth at that time. Dr. Roach was well connected with a network of missionary doctors who were active at a Madagascar hospital. (I believe they each volunteered for a month a year to staff the hospital and administer services. I wrote about his daughter Tirzah on Tuesday this week.) Dr. Roach said, "This will be very bad." He had friend in Rwanda at that time who notified him, but the story was utterly absent in the newspapers.

The U.S. was not interested in hearing about another complicated African story. The year before saw the humiliation of U.S. efforts in Somalia. Despite every indication that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda -- Hutus slaughtering Tutsis -- the State Department and U.N. refused to label the atrocities as such because legally they would be bound to act. Rather than try to understand what was going on, those who had the power chose to turn their backs on it all.

The newspapers, rather than write about the hundreds of thousands of Tutsi's being hacked to pieces, wrote stories about Jane Goodall's gorillas who were killed, and how her work was disrupted there in Rwanda's jungle. Strange, isn't it? That Jane Goodall's gorillas got more ink than a race of people who were being deliberately exterminated, literally filling the rivers with blood.

The book, which later became the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda, is filled with insight. This humbly told story will have a profound impact on all who read it.

No comments: