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Reinventing Rwanda

By Mark Fritz,
author of "Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World," who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Rwandan genocide
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A THOUSAND HILLS

Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It

By Stephen Kinzer

Wiley. 380 pp. $25.95

An angry young man, driven from his country, leads a cavalry of fellow exiles on a brilliantly executed crusade to recapture their homeland. He stops the annihilation of his people and forces sworn enemies to live peacefully together in the lush hills of, yes, Rwanda. The end? Not even close. Recent history bedevils Stephen Kinzer's admiring portrait of Paul Kagame, the Tutsi military mastermind who led a crack rebel army that toppled the murderous government of the majority Hutu. His guerrilla war ran parallel to the Hutu-led genocide of 800,000 members of the historically elite Tutsi.

Kinzer's upbeat subtitle is misleading. Kagame has been an authoritarian ruler for 14 years now, building his own résumé of human rights abuses. Twice in the late 1990s he invaded neighboring Congo on the pretext of crushing Hutu insurgents. As Kinzer notes, these adventures destabilized central Africa and killed 3 million people. Kinzer addresses all the criticisms in detail, albeit within an overarching portrayal of Kagame as a pretty good guy with a convincing vision for a successful Africa. This balancing act makes for some frustratingly repetitive digressions and some surprisingly dry secondhand accounts of harrowing events. And Kagame always gets the last word, often in the form of long, self-serving quotations that interrupt the narrative more than they illuminate it.

But the pace picks up in the last quarter of the book, when the author heads into the countryside for an expert's look at how today's Rwanda is grappling with its unfathomably awful past. He witnesses a killer facing accusers after waiting 12 years in jail for that very moment, and he covers a government-supported attempt to reconcile a woman with the neighbor who killed her kids. Mostly, though, he melds extensive Kagame interviews with a roundup of hundreds of previously published accounts by others, framing the man's story as the silver lining in Rwanda's dark cloud of death.

Kagame, a member of the Tutsi aristocracy, was only 2 when his family fled to Uganda in 1959 after the Hutu began their first attempt to purge the Tutsi. Part of a restless and resented diaspora, the brooding youth was a diffident student with an anti-establishment bent. He was among the brainy young Tutsi who in 1981 gravitated toward the rebel movement of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. The enigmatic Kagame had an affinity for espionage. "He was by nature quiet and introspective but also curious, observant, analytical, and conspiratorial," Kinzer writes. "It did not take long for him to become one of Museveni's close protégés and senior intelligence officers."

After helping Museveni gain power, the battle-tested Tutsi diaspora invaded Rwanda in 1990 through Uganda's southern border. They were beaten back by commandos dispatched by France to prop up their longtime stooge, Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. With the Soviet Union unraveling in 1991, the West pressed the superpowers' satellites, run largely by corrupt despots, to embrace democracy or risk losing aid. Habyarimana added moderate Hutus to the government and brokered peace with the Tutsi rebels hunkered down in northern Rwanda, while quietly overseeing a plan to wipe out the Tutsi population.

A genocide campaign that had been surreptitiously underway in the countryside shifted into overdrive on April 6, 1994, when Habyarimana's small jet crashed en route from peace talks in Tanzania. He and a prominent passenger, the president of neighboring Burundi, were killed. Kinzer, like others in recent years, takes it as a given that Habyarimana's plane was shot down, though by whom is grist for more conspiracy theories than the JFK assassination. Published accounts have blamed the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Habyarimana's own officers, various mercenaries and, of course, Kagame. "No one investigated the crash," Kinzer writes. "Much evidence was lost or destroyed. The question of who fired the deadly missiles was never convincingly answered."

Kinzer mentions only in passing that the plane crashed on Habyarimana's lawn. What are the odds of catching a plane home to your sprawling city of 300,000 people and winding up dead in your own suburban back yard? I saw the wreckage. My layman's hunch was that the jet came in low and (for whatever reason) broke apart, pieces tumbling toward the kidney-shaped swimming pool. Perhaps the grizzled Hutu ruler had wanted to show off his lavish estate to his guest, the new president of Burundi.

Whatever happened, the crash accelerated Rwanda's plunge into madness. Hutu government extremists punched the button on the final solution: State radio exhorted villagers to annihilate their Tutsi neighbors. Simultaneously, Kagame's rebels attacked, infiltrated and outflanked the Hutu army until it fled the country. As new strongman, Kagame has pitched his country as a place with the potential to become akin to an Asian Pacific powerhouse. His moves to enforce peace may be brutal, but some Westerners see only a bracing atmosphere of order. The capital, Kigali, rocks with the hot-right-now buzz of a swinging metropolis.

As for Kinzer, he keeps the faith. "A rational person, coldly considering the odds, might not want to wager on [Rwanda's] success," he writes. "It would take a mean spirit, though, not to hope for it."

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