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'Ordinary Man' recounts extraordinary actions

An Ordinary Man
By Paul Rusesabagina, with Tom Zoellner
Viking, 207 pp., $23.95

Usually, the book comes out before the movie. But Paul Rusesabagina's inspiring story was first told in the acclaimed film ''Hotel Rwanda." Rusesabagina's role was played by Don Cheadle, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his searing portrayal of the hotel manager who showed such courage and cunning during the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were killed by their fellow countrymen.

In his new memoir, ''An Ordinary Man," Rusesabagina (who wryly remarks that he is not nearly ''as good looking" as Cheadle) fleshes out the Hollywood version with accounts of his rural childhood, seminary days, career as the first Rwandan manager of a European hotel, and his life since the genocide. He weaves the country's history with his personal history into a rich narrative that attempts to explain the unexplainable.

And he seems sincere when he says he is an ordinary man; the book's emotional power comes from his understatement and humility. ''I am a hotel manager," he begins. ''In April 1994, when a wave of mass murder broke out in my country, I was able to hide 1,268 people inside the hotel where I worked."

As his country descended into bloody chaos, as the militia and Rwandan army came to kill his ''guests," as Rusesabagina calls the refugees, he was able to sit the soldiers down, pour them a drink, and talk -- or bribe -- them out of their task. Just outside the Hotel des Mille Collines's gates, a bloodbath was taking place. As a Hutu married to a Tutsi, Rusesabagina himself was a target, but with a pocketful of favors owed him by those in power -- and a store of liquor, imported cigars, and cash -- he was able to deflect the machetes, one day at a time. A black binder filled with the names and telephone numbers of the country's elite was indispensable, and a secret phone line became his lifeline to the outside world.

But his most powerful tool was words: endless arguments, flattery, and pleading. Similarly, the words he writes are powerful in evoking a world gone mad. The way he sees it, five people were killed per minute during the 100-day slaughter. ''At the end, the best you can say is that my hotel saved about four hours' worth of people. Take four hours away from 100 days and you have an idea of just how little I was able to accomplish against the grand design," he writes.

That grand design was the plan by the extremist Hutu majority to annihilate the Tutsi minority. Rusesabagina offers a detailed history of the enmity between the two groups, dating back to colonial times, when the British and then the Belgians considered the Tutsis the chosen people, giving them the favored jobs and wealth.

But the most interesting part of the book deals with his own private history. He offers up several small gems, such as his refusal to wear President Juvenal Habyarimana's picture on his suit jacket, which led to harassment by government thugs. The hotel manager says he considered the president -- whose death in a mysterious plane crash triggered the genocide -- ''criminal and a blowhard."

Likewise, Rusesabagina pulls no punches in his disdain for the outside world that ignored the carnage, especially the United States and the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

''Well meaning but useless," he says of the UN troops who were under orders not to use weapons or to intervene. The French, who backed the Rwandan Army, come in for worse in his eyes; their actions at the end of the genocide aided the killers. But he also writes of ''ordinary heroes" who risked their lives to save others: a farmer, a priest, an orphanage director, and teachers. ''I was not the only one who said no," he writes.

Contrary to the movie version of events, Rusesabagina and his wife, who both lost close relatives in the slaughter, stayed on for two more years in Kigali; he reopened the hotel a month after the killings stopped. But death threats ultimately forced them to flee to a new life in Brussels. From afar, he weeps for his country's past, and fears for its future.

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