Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review - A Thousand Hills

Following is a review of A Thousand Hills : Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer, published by John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2008. I believe that I am well placed to comment on the book. I served as U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda from 1995 to 1999, knew President Kagame well and wrote a memoir, In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda (iUniverse, 2005).

Author Stephen Kinzer, a journalist by profession, has written the latest book on Rwanda and one of the best studies ever of its enigmatic leader Paul Kagame. Kinzer uses Kagame’s life story as the structure for the book: flight from Rwanda as a small child, upbringing in Ugandan refugee camps, bitterness at being at “outsider,” signing on and rising to prominence in Uganda’s revolutionary army, plotting and executing an invasion of Rwanda, then taking over command of the Rwandan Patriotic Army and leading it to victory, halting the genocide and taking political power. Kinzer describes Kagame’s vision for a re-born, prosperous and hatred-free Rwanda and his dogged determination to pursue that goal. Finally, Kinzer notes that mostly due to his fierce will, Kagame’s vision is well on its way to achievement.

While sympathetic in tone, even sycophantic and apologetic at times, Kinzer did give space to Kagame’s critics and did show some of the great man’s warts. But overall, there is no hiding the fact that Kinzer admired Kagame’s military genius and his subsequent evolution into a substantive political leader and national president. Kinzer noted that without doubt, Rwanda’s post genocide success bears the unmistakable imprint of Paul Kagame.

The structure the book took was unusual. Kinzer used quoted transcripts of recent interviews with Kagame as commentary on historical events as they unfolded in the chronological narrative. That mechanism gave an interesting perspective – looking backwards – that helped explain occurrences, but also permitted revisionism. Hindsight is always clearer, especially as regards to motives. Perhaps because of that I have several qualms with the facts and the sequence of events as told in the book. I judge, for example that claims were overreaching to having devised a master strategy ahead of time for the first Zairian war leading to the removal of Mobutu. The evolution of conflict there was driven instead very much by the opportunities presented. No doubt Rwanda took good advantage of those opportunities, even in daring fashion, but the initial intervention was intended to empty the refugee camps, not to topple Mobutu. Secondly, I reject the notion that the USG informed any foreign intelligence services about Kagame’s departure from Ft. Leavenworth. I recall keeping his decision under wraps for several days. If someone put a lookout for him in Europe or Ethiopia, it was not the USG. American interests were best served by Kagame’s taking command of the RPF. Thirdly, I believe that the RPA/RPF leadership was quite collegial during its formative years and up to its first years in power. A committee of colonels did make many decisions collectively.

Back to the structure of the book, I found the juxtaposition of quotations to buttress the narrative disconcerting. There were no footnotes as such; instead there was an annex of page notes that did allow for some verification of who really said what, but often the citation was vague or from a “confidential conversation.” At least one (credited) exchange was lifted verbatim from my book and there appeared to be a lot of that in regard to other writings. A journalist’s technique, I suppose, as many news stories are structured in a similar fashion, i.e. report the story and use suitable quotations to prove it. But still, it did not strike me as the most credible way to get to the facts. I also thought that the final chapter invoking the high esteem of religiously motivated Americans for Kagame was pandering and under cut the more effective history presented earlier in the work.

My criticisms notwithstanding, A Thousand Hills does effectively tell the story of Rwanda, especially the story of Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Army. It is a gripping tale as the determination, perseverance and wisdom of the principal figures, chiefly Kagame himself, are carefully delineated. In short A Thousand Hills is a must read for those who want to better understand the complexities of Rwanda’s history and the basis for political and economic decisions being taken today. Finally, it has an excellent bibliography.

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