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An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul…
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An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography (2006)

by Paul Rusesabagina

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Paul Rusesabagina became known as the man who hid "1,268 people" (pg. iv) inside the Hotel Mille Collines, in Rwanda's capital city of Kigali, in 1994. The refugees who stayed at Hotel Milles Collines were kept safe because Paul saved up gestures of goodwill as favors combined with the use of what appeared to be protection, luxury, friendly-natured relationships with Hutu leaders to stave off slaughters and other abuses from occurring at the hotel. Outside, "…800,000 people were butchered by their friends, neighbors and countrymen" (pg. x). His story became the basis for a movie, "Hotel Rwanda." It was as much a story of the country's colonialist history and resulting genocide as it was about "An Ordinary Man," the name of this book, written collaboratively with Tom Zoellner.

"There was never any 'Hutu homeland' or 'Tutsi homeland.' What divided us was an invented history" (pg 16). The year 1885 was significant in Rwanda's history because it held the Berlin Conference, a meeting which enabled the Germans to carve up their stronghold in Africa without consideration of its inhabitants. During WWI, Germany had to withdraw from Rwanda and surrendered it to Belgium. Unlike the Germans, Belgium opted to colonize Rwanda, extract its resources and abuse its people. Slavery existed, but nobody called it by that name. Hutus took the brunt of the abuses because the Belgians had placed the Tutsi in power positions.

By 1993, all Rwandan were mandated to carry ethnic identification cards. As world opinion of colonialism changed, Belgium started to remove itself from Rwanda, disassociate itself from the Tutsi, and placed the Hutu in power. Paul's father had invited some Tutsi to stay with the family after the people had escaped during the practice genocide attacks of the "Hutu Revolution of 1959" (pg. 14).

In 1973, Burundi's "president ordered his armed forces to crack down on Hutu uprising, and these soldiers took their mission beyond the bounds of rationality" (pg. 19). Burundi soldiers' behavior received support in Rwanda by allowing this course of action to continue into the second country. Rwanda existed as Burundi's sister country in ethnic composition because the two used to be united as one land. The shared culture believed that paternal bloodline determined the ethnicity of one's offspring; so, this same year was when Paul's childhood friend was kicked out of their school for his paternal Tutsi heritage. Paul's father was Hutu; so at that point in history his mom's Tutsi heritage did not force Paul from school. This was one of Paul's early lessons in the cruel reality of his own country's institutionalized racism.

The author educated the reader as to the formation and audience development of Rwanda's first radio station and its long-term plan to be an integral part of both the propaganda and psychological operations of the genocide. When electricity was cut off to most areas, the station continued to perform because its energy source was connected to the Rwandan president's house. In 1994, the already-stationed UN Peacekeepers could have easily snuffed out the war at the launch of the coup due to Rwandan respect for law enforcement. Since the international soldiers were restricted to observational behavior, events escalated from small to massive-scale in a short period of time. Paul explained of how a United Nations representative from Canada, General Romeo Dallaire, wanted to cut the energy supply to the radio station. The general made every effort to suppress attacks and command a successful operation, but his senior management forbade him from progressive forms of action. This international-level decision proved to be an unwise one; "…800,000 people were butchered by their friends, neighbors and countrymen" (pg. x).

Retrospective comments about the genocide were Paul's observations pertaining to human nature. Humans are/were naturally born into a herd mentality; as such, group behaviors become routine to the extent that the ordinary business of killing loses its excitement factor. "And all genocides rely heavily on the power of group thinking to embolden the everyday killers. It is the most important commodity of all, and without it no genocide could take place" (pg. 193).

Paul asserted that genocide should never be dismissed as a country's or people's acceptable behavior. The dismissal mindset motivated international entities to remain disengaged during a critical period that most likely would have crippled the genocide.

Every story that Paul shared had a purpose. Everything in this book was deliberate. It was a gripping story with a worldwide lesson to be learned. Its valuable impact should not be trivialized. ( )
  LibStre | Feb 14, 2014 |
This is the memoir of Paul Ruseabagina, a hotel manager in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. With "a cooler of beer, a leather binder, and a hidden phone" he saved 1,268 people. This is the story of how he used those tools to schmooze and persuade and bribe and conjole to keep the killers from murdering those under his protection. He dealt with some odious people, but as he put it in his concluding chapter, "[e]xcept in extreme circumstances it very rarely pays to show hostility to the people in your orbit." He was able to save those people because he was willing and able to sit down with killers, ply them with cognac and not flinch. That leather binder was filled with high-level contacts he had made in years of treating VIP hotel guests graciously. He wrote that no one is completely good or evil, and what he looked for was not the good or evil side but rather the "soft" versus the "hard" side. Sometimes that meant appealing to self-interest, greed or vanity--not just moral qualms. His approach and outlook on people reminded me of a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that "the line separating good and evil passes... right through every human heart." Ruseabagina calls this memoir "an ordinary man" and in the introduction insists he's no hero.

I beg to differ.

Along the way the book examines the nature of genocide and what caused it to break out in Rwanda, what different infamous 20th century genocides share, and what could have prevented it. A lot went into the toxic cocktail. A legacy of European "divide and conquer" colonialism in Rwanda that ingrained and further stratified what were only (somewhat fluid) class divisions into racial divisions between the Tutsi and the Hutus. Preferential racial policies requiring racial registration and identification and which group was in favor swung back and forth between them depending on who was in power. One big contributor that surprised me was the poisonous role of talk radio that whipped up and organized the murderous hatred, calling Tutsi "cockroaches" and even giving out names and locations of people to murder.

Those were some of the internal factors. Ruseabagina also points outward to world indifference--particularly blaming the United Nations and the United States. I have to admit to feeling ambivalent about that as an American. I don't believe we should be the world's 911--and we get in trouble when we try. But I can't imagine saying that to Rusabagina's face without flinching--800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered right in front of the eyes of the world in around three months. It's hard not to respond to his plea that we mean it when we say "never again" and do better in the future in preventing genocide than the ineffectual UN efforts that stood by as so many were slaughtered. And actually maybe that's part of why Ruseabagina called this book An Ordinary Man--because he wants to emphasize what he did was nothing extraordinary, nothing beyond the reach of an ordinary person--in other words, no we do not get off the hook. At the very least, the book makes you think--it's a gripping quick read and very informative. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Oct 5, 2013 |
This short memoir by a man who saved over a thousand people from genocide in Rwanda in 1994 is cautionary,moving, witty and wise. Quite a window into the personality of Paul Rusesabagina, whose story was dramatized several years ago in the film "Hotel Rwanda." ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
I was only 12 years old when the genocide in Rwanda took place. I heard about it on the news my dad watched every night, but admittedly I was not exactly politically observant back then, and the news was nothing more than background noise to me, so I knew next to nothing when I saw "Hotel Rwanda". The movie was eye-opening, to say the least, and I was incredibly moved by it. But I hadn't known that Paul Rusesabagina had written a book until very recently when I happened to stumble on it here on Goodreads. I'm very glad that I discovered it here, and I'm even more glad to have read it.

For some strange reason, I tend to gravitate towards emotionally difficult subject matter when it comes to my reading material. I've only recently realized this about myself, but I've always been drawn to books about devastating subjects - death, loss, abuse, the holocaust etc. I don't really know why I read these, but I know that they affect me immensely, and that I love the raw feeling that I have when I have read something emotionally horrifying, when I just feel incredibly lucky to be who and where I am. Maybe that makes me a little callous, but if so, then so be it. I think that the gut-wrenching stories help us to understand ourselves and each other and the world better, and there is just something wonderful about books that take us out of ourselves to walk a mile in someone else's shoes - even when there is a rock in one.

So, with that being said, when I saw that Rusesabagina had written his story down, I needed to read it. I had been moved, and awakened, by the movie, and I was thrilled that there was an autobiography that would allow me to learn more about the man himself, and the country that had caused so much devastation for itself and its people.

The book was not nearly as emotionally moving as it could have been. It was written very simply, and directly. No suspense, no drama, just his story in everyday language. A better author could have wrung every tear and every heartache out of these 207 pages, and Rusesabagina did not do that. This is not a criticism though. The lack of artistry lends it a truth and a weight that would have felt fake and forced had it been more showy. Rusesabagina simply told his and his country's story as he understood it.

I enjoyed reading it immensely. It felt intimate, like Rusesabagina and I were having a conversation. This was not the best written book, and I counted quite a few incongruent details and typos and grammatical errors, but aside from that, this was an incredibly compelling story. It did not move me in the same way that I'm used to with talented authors who excel at shaping their words carefully to evoke a desired response out of the reader. This isn't that kind of story. Rusesabagina simply and honestly introduced us to his Rwanda, the Rwanda he grew up in and loved and would always love, and also the sinister Rwanda lurking just under the surface, which would rise in 1994 to kill 800,000 people in a little over 3 months. He gave us the the Cliff's Notes edition of Rwandan history, which showed how something like this could happen, in this day and age, when we've supposedly learned this lesson before. He tells us how the world's most powerful nations failed to act to prevent the massacre, and how he used his wits and his courage and his words and connections alone to save over 1,200 people from a certain and gruesome death.

I don't know how true his story is, but there is a bibliography at the end with other books on the subject, which has given me a place to start, if I decide to read more, specifically "Leave None To Tell The Story: Genocide in Rwanda" by Alison Des Forges and "We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda" by Philip Gourevitch. Even if it is not 100% true, and he's allowed time and memory and perception to rewrite some of the specifics, it doesn't really matter to me. I just know that Rusesabagina's is a heroic and brave story that inspires me. He saved people when his entire country had gone mad. If even half of the thoughts and wisdom imparted actually went through Rusesabagina's head in the moment, then he is nothing less than awe-inspiring and amazingly wise. He shows how a person can rise above the mob mentality and be a hero just by showing common decency and refusing to falter. He shows how a situation like this can happen,and predicted it will happen again, but most importantly, he shows that there is good and evil in all of us, and it is our choice which one we will let rule us.

Rusesabagina's version of "ordinary" is one that we should all aspire to be, I think. ( )
  TheBecks | Apr 1, 2013 |
Rwanda. Rusesabagina is the "Hotel Rwanda" man, and this is his account of his life and role in protecting people from the genocide. Rusesabagina describes village life during his childhood, his career in hotel work, and the events that erupted into warfare and slaughter. He sees his actions as an extension of his ethical responsibilities as a hotelier, which I liked very much. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143038605, Paperback)

The remarkable life story of the man who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda

Readers who were moved and horrified by Hotel Rwanda will respond even more intensely to Paul Rusesabagina’s unforgettable autobiography. As Rwanda was thrown into chaos during the 1994 genocide, Rusesabagina, a hotel manager, turned the luxurious Hotel Milles Collines into a refuge for more than 1,200 Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees, while fending off their would-be killers with a combination of diplomacy and deception. In An Ordinary Man, he tells the story of his childhood, retraces his accidental path to heroism, revisits the 100 days in which he was the only thing standing between his “guests” and a hideous death, and recounts his subsequent life as a refugee and activist.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:24 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

The riveting life story of Rusesabagina--the man whose heroism inspired the film "Hotel Rwanda"--is sure to become a classic of tolerance literature. "An Ordinary Man" explores what the film could not: the inner life of the man who became one of the most prominent public faces of that terrible conflict. 8-page photo insert.… (more)

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