Twelve years later, Stephen Kinzer attempts to answer the question in "A Thousand Hills." It is the latest book in which the former New York Times correspondent and current Northwestern University lecturer takes us to the remoter corners of the world's geo-political dramas.
Paul Kagame—a tall, skinny minority kid who grew up to be one of Africa's most respected, if controversial, leaders.
A man of extraordinary determination, Kagame helped put together a Tutsi-led rebel force inside neighboring Uganda's regular army, finagled military training in both the U.S. and Cuba, and then led his rebels to invade and take over Rwanda in 1994. Their imminent victory helped ignite the genocide led by the previous Hutu-led government, and ultimately ended it.
Kagame now governs Rwanda with an authoritarian grip, brooking only limited dissent and angering human-rights activists and free-expression advocates even as he is applauded by anti-poverty campaigners for his promotion of entrepreneurship and his emulation of the Asian tiger economies. So far, under the thumb of Kagame's security forces, the country remains calm and relatively safe. Kinzer gained impressive access to the guarded Kagame, and he studs the book with italicized passages of his remarks. They are windows into his bitter, impatient focus on not allowing Rwandans to fall prey again to the evil politics that turned them against each other.
The book moves fairly quickly. Kinzer lets genocide victims tell their haunting stories, but also captivates with episodes such as Kagame's near-arrest in an Ethiopian airport with a brief case full of money while trying to return to his rebellion.
Kinzer recounts at length the events preceding and immediately following the genocide. While it is always shocking to be reminded of the inaction of the UN and Clinton administration, readers familiar with those episodes might become a little impatient before getting to the details of what drives the new Rwanda, the focus of the last quarter of the book. Those chapters present the new generation of Rwandans forging a new kind of reconciliation, if not unity, helping the genocide's orphans and widows and pursuing the economic development that would help alleviate the inequalities and rivalries that stoked the killing.
There too is Kagame's outsized vision for his little country as a modern commercial hub for the region, and as a safe place where police actually write traffic tickets. One wonders whether the book was written too early. From the opening pages, anyone who knows Rwanda will anxiously wonder about all that can still go wrong. It might also be argued that Kinzer is not harsh enough in his portrait of Kagame, a brutally efficient leader who restricts democratic opposition, spies on his own people and dawdles at building the institutions that would keep Rwanda at peace after he is gone.
Kinzer, who crossed paths with his share of autocratic rulers in years reporting and writing, wants to give Kagame and his intentions the benefit of the doubt. While describing the book as merely a "progress report," he makes a good case that Kagame's recipe is what troubled Rwanda needs. "The eyes of all who hope for a better Africa are upon him," Kinzer writes. "No road map exists to guide this extraordinary man through the dense web of challenges he and his nation face. Modern Rwanda is a thrilling place, but its story is still unfolding."
A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It
By Stephen Kinzer
John Wiley, 380 pages, $25.95