An Ordinary Man An Autobiography Summary

Paul Rusesabagina

An Ordinary Man An Autobiography

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An Ordinary Man An Autobiography Summary

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An Ordinary Man is the memoir of Paul Rusesabagina, one of the most famous heroes people have never heard of. Most of us probably know Rusesabagina from the movie Hotel Rwanda, where he was played by Don Cheadle. But to hear Rusesabagina tell it, he’s not a hero deserving of a Hollywood biopic. He is, like the title of his book, an ordinary man.

A manager in Kigali, Rwanda, Rusesabagina prevented the murder of more than 1,200 people who sought refuge at his hotel during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. The guests, mostly ethnic Tutsis, hid for 76 days as rebels, mostly ethnic Hutus, exterminated more than 800,000 people throughout the country.

In this memoir, Rusesabagina describes bribing Hutu militants the old fashioned way: with cognac and a smile. One day rebels came to the hotel, and he invited them into his office where they shared a few drinks. He would persuade them to come back later. This ritual was repeated every day for more than two months. In the end, no one who managed to come to Rusesabagina’s hotel was killed.

Rusesabagina, himself a Hutu, insists that he was doing nothing spectacular. He writes he would have done much the same thing if he were ordering new pillowcases. He expresses bafflement that the soldiers did not just shoot him and then kill everyone in the hotel.

Rusesabagina’s nonchalance about his own bravery permeates An Ordinary Man. While he goes into detail about his own career and what he did during the genocide, he is more interested in exploring complex subjects like identity and conflict.

For example, Rusesabagina is Hutu. (This may have contributed to keeping his hotel safe.) Yet his mother was Tutsi; he was only considered a Hutu because ethnic lineage goes through the father’s side.

Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana is a Tutsi, which means their children are three-quarters Tutsi, but in Rwanda they were considered Hutu. An Ordinary Man poses the questions of what sense can one possibly make of identity when history, society, and even self-definition provide conflicting information.

These questions become all the more pressing as Rusesabagina is unyielding in blaming the violence of the genocide on racism and ethnic hatred. The genocide began with the assassination of the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, which exacerbated ongoing conflicts between African ethnic groups.

The murders of elites reverberate through the lives of ordinary people. Rusesabagina writes: “Murders at the top are usually followed by slaughters of everyday people.”

An Ordinary Man also forces readers to grapple with the question of what their own responsibility is in the face of global violence. When is it possible to do something? When is it better to do nothing? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Rusesabagina shows the difference a single person can make.

Rusesabagina makes it clear that he still feels anger toward those who failed to act during the genocide. For example, while UN peacekeepers were present on the ground, their rules of engagement — as well as international indifference — prevented them from acting even when people were slaughtered right in front of them.

Despite the obvious bitterness, Rusesabagina’s tone generally remains even, even businesslike. He does not have an axe to grind as he explores these complicated themes of identity and conflict.

For Rusesabagina as with many of us, racial conflicts are always “over there” until they are literally at our front door. This book invites us to consider how to mitigate ethnic tensions before they reach a boiling point.

Published in 2006, An Ordinary Man was released to positive reviews, with critics complimenting the straightforward but moving style with which Rusesabagina told his story. Critics both admired Rusesabagina’s bravery and noted that he provides details unavailable to someone who only watched Hotel Rwanda.

Critics also pointed to the uplifting message despite the tragic story the book tells. It’s heartening to learn of a successful effort to save hundreds of lives because of the actions of a single person — the man dubbed Rwanda’s Oskar Schindler. This speaks to the power of individual action even when circumstances are spinning out of control.

While Rusesabagina was reluctant to call himself a hero — indeed he rejected the title — reviewers of An Ordinary Man gave it to him anyway.

To read it only as the story of a hero would miss the point, however. Rusesabagina wants readers to come away with an understanding of the Rwanda Genocide as a whole but more importantly the themes of identity and conflict that lurk just beneath the surface of politics and all human relations. More than 20 years after the end of the Rwanda Genocide, Paul Rusesabagina’s story remains as relevant as ever. An Ordinary Man gives readers the ability to experience it in his own words.