Monday, June 24, 2013

Forgiving and Negotiating with Evil: Memoirs of the Rwandan Genocide (2/2)

This summer and fall I’ll have students read Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiography for the Rwanda portion of my course.  He hid Tutsis at the Hotel Mille Collines where he served as hotel manager.  His heroism became the inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda.  The insights I gained from this book were pleasantly surprising.  Rusesabagina’s survival and his protection of over 1,200 people depended on his ability to negotiate.  The power of words got him through this difficult ordeal, though it didn’t hurt to have other negotiating “tools” at his disposal, such as alcohol and money.  His earlier training as a pastor had helped sharpen his communication skills.  Above all, Rusesabagina possessed innate political savvy.  He knew how to size up a person and how far he could go in negotiation.  He was a shrewd observer of poolside politics.  “Around this small square of water is where the real business of the Mille Collines is conducted.”  He learned how to use charm and work through the unspoken patronage system that governs relationships and grants favors.  This experience provided a valuable education and came into use during the genocide.

Rwanda was a multilateral failure, and Rusesabagina calls it like he sees it.  The UN was “worse than useless.”  Indeed, any credible book on the Rwandan genocide is essentially an indictment of UN peacekeeping missions.  The author doesn’t even spare General Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander on the ground, who was one of the few third-party officials trying to stop the killing and protect the innocents.  He didn’t do enough, writes Rusesabagina.  While he likes Dallaire on a personal level and acknowledges the Canadian’s efforts, Rusesabagina thinks he should have disobeyed orders from his UN higher-ups in New York and intervened in the conflict.  “At the very least it would have forced the UN to beef up its peacekeeping force and send us real fighters instead of inept draftees from nations who seemed more interested in collecting their per diem payments from the UN instead of doing anything meaningful.”  Whether disobeying orders and engaging militarily in the genocide would have helped I leave up to the reader.

Rusesabagina has less but equally harsh things to say about France, “the policeman of Africa.”  The French government was so concerned about English-friendly Tutsi taking over the country, that President Mitterand sent troops to the southern part of Rwanda in order to protect Hutus; this “peacekeeping mission” gave killers “the chance to look like victims instead of aggressors.”  Rusesabagina weighs in on Uncle Sam’s role as well.  The U.S. could have jammed the airwaves of RTLM, the talk radio program actively cheerleading the genocide.  He recounts a phone exchange he had with a dismissive and apathetic White House staffer.  In another passage Rusesabagina sourly comments that President Clinton, during his mea culpa visit in 1998, never left the airport.  Unlike Immaculeé, the hotel manager is more critical of the United States and Paul Kagame, the current president, a Tutsi leader who commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended the genocide.  Whether these differences have to do with their ethnic background—Rusesabagina is Hutu and Immaculeé is Tutsi—is an open question.

What I most enjoyed about An Ordinary Man was the author’s shrewd assessment of human nature.  His observations of Rwandan history taught him that “most politics is an outgrowth of emotions that may or may not have any relation to the rational.”  Indeed, that’s how I see the rancorous division in the U.S., especially since the days of Clinton and Bush; the differences stem from visceral feelings and not from reasonable arguments.  In another passage of the book Rusesabagina comes back to this idea: “People are never as reasonable as they seem to be—in fact, 'reason' is usually an afterthought, nothing more than a cover story for the feelings inside.”  I’ve espoused the same viewpoint on this blog.  Where we differ perhaps is on the nature of evil.  In the concluding chapter Rusesabagina draws on C.S. Lewis to make the case that common decency is the norm in humanity; evil is an aberration.  Finally, the author ends his book on a realistic note.  He doesn’t give platitudes about a brighter future or give voice to the hopeful but vapid “Never again!” slogan.  No.  There will be genocides in the future.  All we can do is find strength and take example from those who resisted evil or, in the case of the hotel manager of the Milles Collines, negotiated with it to save lives.