An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography
"Our time here on the earth is short, and our chance to make a difference is tiny. For me the grinding blocks of history came together in such a way that I was able to take what fragile defense I had and hold in place for seventy-six days. If I was able to give much it was only because I had some useful things from my life to give. I am a hotel manager…my job never changed, even in a sea of fire."
- Paul Rusesabagina
According to Paul Rusesabagina, there was nothing extraordinary about his actions during the Rwandan genocides in 1994. "Over and over people kept telling me that what I did at the Milles Collines was heroic, but I never saw it that way, and I still don't. I was providing shelter. I was a hotel manager doing his job. That is the best thing anyone can say about me, and all I ever wanted. And that's really the best I have to give." To this day and despite the overwhelming success of the recent film Hotel Rwanda that brought his heroic deeds international attention, Rusesabagina insists that he was just an ordinary man doing what he thought was right in a time of national crisis.
Although he is right in saying that he should not be treated as superhuman, there is a certain amount of awe and respect with which we must look upon Rusesabagina and those like him, and recognize the immense amount of courage it took for him to do what he did. Using his strength in character, ability to negotiate with any person or party despite what side they were on, and utmost faith in the power of words to produce a workable outcome, he managed to save the lives of approximately 1,268 friends, relatives and strangers by creating a safe but incredibly fragile asylum for them at the Hotel Milles Collines during one of the most volatile and deadly times in Rwandan history, with he as their protector.
For 76 days, Rusesabagina used whatever resources he could find to prevent the hotel from being ambushed or destroyed completely. He kept a secret black book of the names and telephone numbers of people high up in power (in Rwanda and elsewhere) to call in case of an emergency. He offered bribes of cognac and money to blood-hungry colonels who had committed countless killings that day in order to prevent a midnight raid on the hotel that night. He wisely understood that "the cousin of brutality is a terrifying normalcy" and therefore he kept his enemies as close as he kept his friends. "If sitting down with abhorrent people and treating them as friends is what it took…then I was more than happy to pour the Scotch."
In his intelligently written and incredibly moving autobiography, Rusesabagina not only shares his memories of the horrifying period spent trapped inside the Hotel Milles Collines in a straightforward and non-sensational manner, but also he explains the historic significance of the bloody skirmish between the Hutus and the Tutsis and dispels a few ardent myths surrounding its origins. He hints that the nationwide slaughter was not a product of ancient racial hatreds, but instead that this oversimplification was "an easy way for Westerners to dismiss the whole thing as a regrettable but pointless bloodbath that happens to primitive brown people." In truth, these tribal prejudices were "a cheap way to motivate the citizen killers --- not the root cause" and more accurately, the impetus to kill was born out of a desire for power. With a precision that could only come not from a researched historian but from a Rwandan in love with the country that made him, he carefully outlines the circumstances leading up to the massacre so that readers can finally begin to understand how and why such a tragedy was (and still is) possible.
Currently, the Rusesabaginas live in Belgium and are doing their best to move past the indescribable horrors they witnessed in 1994. Following the success of Hotel Rwanda, Paul started the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to provide education and health care to thousands of homeless Rwandan children who were left parentless in the wake of the genocide. He has also written this book in order to set the record straight, for "words are the most powerful tools of all, and especially the words that we pass to those who come after us…. We cannot change the past, but we can improve the future with the limited tools and words that we have been given."
Perhaps the most astonishing gift that Rusesabagina has to offer should not be described as heroism, but instead as a gentle willingness to do what's right in the face of grave danger and a refusal to forgo the pursuit of goodness when presented with an easier way out. Whether he believes he deserves the title of "hero" is well beside the point. He is clearly a shining example of a valiant humanitarian and one who deserves recognition as an "ordinary man" with a resounding message: "Wherever the killing season should next begin and people should become strangers to their neighbors and themselves, my hope is that there will still be those ordinary men who say a quiet no and open the rooms upstairs."
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 13, 2011