June 2006

Jean Peck

nonfiction

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt made famous the term, “banality of evil,” when she described Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann not as the wicked mastermind of the Third Reich’s plan for the extermination of Europe’s Jews, but as a simple paper-pushing bureaucrat who rose to power by unquestioningly following and signing off on the orders of his superiors. According to Arendt, Eichmann was an ordinary man whose hands were stained not with blood, but with ink.

For Paul Rusesabagina, the opposite appears to be true, or so he maintains in his autobiography, An Ordinary Man. He exemplifies the banality of good, a man who went about his humdrum, daily rituals of life, who refused to fall victim to the mayhem and disorder all around him. The manager of a Belgian-owned Rwandan hotel, Rusesabagina was able to save more than 1,268 family members, friends, and employees during the ten weeks of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, by not following orders. He knew how to communicate with people, how to see that their needs were met, their comfort level assured. By following these simple rules of hotel hospitality, he managed to keep alive all who sought shelter in the Hotel Milles Collines. By keeping the lines of communication open with the leaders of the murderous opposition, resorting to bribes when necessary, and by stalling, cajoling, flattering, and supplying the machete-wielding thugs with precious food and drink, Paul Rusesabagina saved lives by relying on the tools that he used every day of his ordinary life.

Rusesabagina’s book (written with Tom Zoellner) lacks the suspense and excitement of the film Hotel Rwanda, but An Ordinary Man is thoroughly readable and accessible. Written in a conversational tone (“Let me tell you more,” he writes in order to explain the complicated relationship between the Hutus and the Tutsis), the author moves the book along by beginning at the beginning. He traces the ugly history of the colonization of Rwanda by the Germans and the Belgians, and cogently explains how the tension between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes was manufactured and then kept alive by the white European settlers and colonizers who feared that if the Hutus and Tutsis united, they could rise up against their white oppressors. By setting one tribe against the other, the colonizers could maintain their power and authority.

The Rwandan genocide followed the Third Reich’s playbook almost to the letter. First, the anti-Tutsi propaganda machine began thrumming on the radio and in the newspaper, then gathered strength; next, the Hutu president of Rwanda was murdered, unleashing the mayhem to come. The Hutus mounted a concerted campaign to dehumanize and degrade the Tutsis in which the Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches,” much in the way the Germans used the epithets “lice” or “vermin” whenever they spoke of the Jews. Soon the Tutsis were totally isolated from society and thrown out of their jobs, and then their homes. Finally, the torture and killings escalated to a frenzied rampage by roving bands of thugs who went house to house with machetes and guns, dismembering, decapitating, stabbing, and shooting their Tutsi “enemies.” Ten weeks later, more than 800,000 Rwandans were dead, their bodies piled up by the roadside or dumped into mass graves. Those who survived were transported to camps in neighboring African countries where they waited for help from the United Nations or America. None was forthcoming.

If you have seen the film, Hotel Rwanda, you already know the story. If you read Paul Rusesabagina’s An Ordinary Man, you’ll never forget it. Either one will deliver the same message: that the only way to stop a genocide is if the banality of good triumphs over the banality of evil. So far, the scorecard is nothing to brag about.  

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina (with Tom Zoellner)
Viking
ISBN: 0670037524
207 Pages