Review: A Thousand Hills

A little over a decade after a terrifying genocide left a million people dead, Rwanda has recovered enough to become a tourist destination in central Africa. As veteran journalist Stephen Kinzer reports in his new book A Thousand Hills, Rwanda is an orderly, peaceful, and economically developing oasis in an otherwise strife-torn region. Kinzer points to Rwandan leader Paul Kagame as the prime mover behind this transformation. Ever the cautious journalist, Kinzer knows the pitfalls of this great-man approach to history. “Naïve outsiders, eager for success stories from Africa, are quick to praise any promising leader. Sometimes they are too quick,” he writes. And indeed, fellow journalist Mark Fritz took Kinzer to task in The Washington Post for being too quick himself.

After all, Kagame isn’t exactly Nelson Mandela. Yes, he brought an end to the Rwandan genocide when his largely Tutsi force overthrew the Hutu government in 1994. But after taking over the helm in Rwanda, Kagame invaded Congo twice, triggering a war that has left millions dead. Human rights groups have also accused him of multiple abuses within Rwanda.

Kinzer doesn’t shrink from quoting the critics and examining all sides of Paul Kagame. He addresses the difficult challenge of balancing individual rights and social progress, and suggests that government controls — such as on freedom of speech — may well be necessary to prevent a return genocide. At the same time, “even if one agrees that reports on Rwanda produced by Western human rights groups do not tell the country’s full story, they are still worth considering,” he writes. “President Kagame could respond to them by saying he is dubious but will investigate every allegation. Instead he angrily condemns and rejects them.”

Plenty of others also come in for considerable criticism: the UN and particularly Kofi Annan (for ignoring the growing crisis), Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright (for shrinking from supporting a multilateral intervention to stop the genocide), and the French government (for arming the genocidaires). When a million people die in a matter of days, there will be many bloodstained hands, and not just the ones wielding the machetes.

But the heart of A Thousand Hills isn’t about assigning blame but understanding the difficult task of reconciliation after unspeakable horrors. And here, the story isn’t about Kagame but the millions of ordinary Rwandans who confront their demons, those within and those without. “My family was killed,” says survivor Bonaventure Niyibizi. “My mother was hacked to death and thrown into a river. I know the people who did it. They confessed. According to law, they have been released after serving seven years in prison. On the political side, I understand this. As an individual, I do not understand.” It is this mysterious gulf between the individual and the political that Kinzer’s book excels in illuminating.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.