Skip to main content

Reviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor

Stephen Kinzer, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, pp 380, $25.95

Rwanda has receded back into the obscurity from which it so suddenly and sadly emerged in 1994, when it experienced an epic genocide involving the slaughter – mostly by machetes – of about 800,000 (some say a million) people – mostly the minority Tutsis but moderate Hutus as well – out of a total population of around 11 million. Such obscurity, in terms of international media attention, is usually a good sign for African countries, since they rarely elicit any coverage except for disasters of one sort or another.

Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see two recent Washington Post articles, very positive in tone, datelined Kigali. One reported that in September Rwanda’s parliament became the first in the world where women constitute a majority, startling evidence of emerging gender equality in this traditionally patriarchic society. The articles also reported that the government has changed the language of instruction in schools from French to English; the economy is growing and foreign investors are pouring in; there is a surprising degree of reconciliation taking place; and although “profound tensions and scars from the genocide still exist here, so does a strong sense of national purpose…”

This good news from a country I visited on several occasions when I was U.S. ambassador in neighboring Burundi in the mid-1980s, plus a presentation by the author on C-Span’s Book TV, prompted me to order Stephen Kinzer’s new book on Rwanda. It came with high praise from the likes of Walter Isaacson, the eminent biographer of Kissinger, Einstein, Franklin, and others:

What a fascinating tale! What an inspiration! The courage and triumph of Paul Kagame show the beauty of reconciliation and of transcendent leadership. The world needs to learn his lessons, and Stephen Kinzer’s brilliant narrative will help make this enlightenment possible.

I found this praise to be merited.

This is a ‘life and times’ biography, and both President Paul Kagame’s life and the recent Rwandan history he lived through, and shaped, are dramatically compelling. Forced to flee Rwanda as a child in an anti-Tutsi pogrom at the time of independence, Kagame grew up in Uganda, joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel movement, and when it succeeded became a senior officer in the Ugandan Army. He used that experience and position to organize his fellow Rwandan Tutsi exiles into an effective guerrilla force that set out to overthrow the oppressive, corrupt Rwandan regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.

Habyarimana’s death in a plane crash in April 1994 was used by his lieutenants as an excuse to set off the massive genocide they had been preparing. Kagame’s forces organized an offensive to try and stop it; but the government army, strongly supported by France in spite of the atrocities its troops and allied militias were committing, slowed the offensive. The United Nations, in spite of having a peacekeeping force on the ground, refused to intervene.

Eventually the insurgents, much better led and disciplined though poorly equipped, were able to prevail and end the genocide, as thousands of its Hutu perpetrators fled with their families into neighboring Tanzania and especially Congo, where they – not their victims – received the bulk of the post-genocide support from the international community.

Kagame and his victorious forces inherited a traumatized, devastated country. Yet somehow they managed to overcome overwhelming obstacles and launched a process of reconciliation, social engineering, and economic development that in only 14 years has transformed Rwanda from an international basket case to an amazing success story that is drawing global attention.

Kinzer, a veteran New York Times correspondent who has published several previous books, skillfully tells President Kagame’s personal story and the story of Rwanda’s descent into the genocidal abyss and emergence from it, illustrating the historical narrative with ample anecdotes and details drawn from extensive interviews, especially with Kagame. He obviously admires Kagame, but is balanced and doesn’t hesitate to point out his shortcomings. For the serious student, he also provides an extensive bibliography of material on Rwanda.

The book is a good read for the general reader, and is especially valuable for anyone interested in contemporary Africa, political leadership in failed states, the process of development, and recovery from genocide.


J. R. Bullington
J. R. Bullington

J. R. Bullington, editor of American Diplomacy, was a career Foreign Service Officer, with postings in several Asian and African countries. He was also Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. He currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.


Comments are closed.