In early May 1994, one month into the Rwandan genocide, I was driving down a mountain road in northern Rwanda when my car was overtaken by a speeding convoy. Curious, I followed the vehicles into a nearby compound, where I found myself the only correspondent at a meeting between Paul Kagame, chief of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and General Romo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations forces. At the time, the mass murder of the Tutsi population, carried out mostly by Hutu interahamwe militias in league with their military sponsors, was in full swing: eight thousand civilians were dying every day, hacked to death at road blocks, blown to pieces by grenades as they sought refuge inside churches. Kagames RPF was advancing across the country in one of the greatest military campaigns of recent times, and would eventually send the genocidaires fleeing into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). I vividly recall Kagamepipe-cleaner thin, bespectacled, looking more like a gangly graduate student than the leader of a guerrilla armyemerging stone-faced from his encounter with Dallaire, during which, I was later told, he had scoffed at a UN pledge to send in more troops and vowed that the RPF would pursue total victory. There was a grim determination, a contained ferocity to Kagame that I would never forget; I would encounter it again months later, in the ruins of Kigali, when I interviewed him for Newsweek and listened to himin his thin, reedy voicecast scorn on the outside world for its abandonment of Rwanda. His country was determined to make it on its own, he said, without the help of the United Nations or international aid agencies. Rwanda can go it alone, he assured me.

In the decade and half since then, Kagame has been both canonized and vilified by the outside world. To some, he represents a model African leadera heroic figure who has brought Rwanda back from the dead and achieved a degree of ethnic reconciliation and economic self-sufficiency that few could have imagined possible in the genocides aftermath. To his opponentsand there are many of themhes a ruthless autocrat who tolerates no dissent, oppresses the countrys Hutu majority, and has turned a blind eye to the murder and mayhem carried out by his Tutsi brethren. Now comes Stephen Kinzers A Thousand Hills: Rwandas Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It, one of the first full-length biographies of the rebel commander-turned-Rwandan president. The title suggests a hagiography, and Kinzer makes no secret of his admiration for Kagame as both a military tactician and a political leader. (Kagame sat for more than thirty hours of interviews with the author, and his willingness to cooperate certainly helped burnish his image in this book.) But Kinzer, a veteran New York Times foreign correspondent and the author of the bestselling All the Shahs Men, about the U.S.-backed overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, is too seasoned a journalist to give Kagame a free ride. The result is a balanced look at how one mans doctrine of self-reliance has made his impoverished, decimated country a potential model for the rest of Africa.

A Thousand Hills is really two books. The first half is a slam-bang narrative with echoes of Graham Greene and John Le Carr. Kinzer recounts the storynow familiar to most Rwanda watchersof how Rwandas Belgian post-World War I colonizers created an elite Tutsi overclass, then abruptly shifted their support to the majority Hutus in the years before Rwandas independence. The newly empowered majority quickly exacted vengeance on their former Tutsi oppressors, carrying out a series of slaughters: In the so-called practice genocide of 1959, Kagames family was saved from near-certain death by Rwandas royal family (the queen was a cousin of Kagames mother) who dispatched a chauffeur to whisk them to the palace as Hutu marauders closed in on their hillside. The Kagame family eventually joined the Tutsi diaspora in Uganda. Grudgingly tolerated by the murderous Idi Amin, and his successor, Milton Obote, suffering discrimination and daily slights, the Tutsis dwelled for the most part in refugee camps in southwestern Uganda. There, Kagame and a small group of Tutsi students nurtured their dream of building a rebel army and returning to their homeland by force.

Much has already been written about how the Rwandan Patriotic Front took shape in the refugee camps of Uganda, and became battle-hardened while fighting for the National Liberation Front, the army of Yoweri Museveni, which seized control of Uganda in 1986. But Kinzers reporting turns up a trove of fresh information. I was unaware, for example, that the integration of Rwandan Tutsi soldiers into the NLF and later, the Ugandan army, was part of a methodical covert strategy by KagameMusevenis director of military intelligence and RPF cofounder Fred Rwigyema, Musevenis chief of staff:

Together, they conceived one of the boldest and largest-scale covert operations ever to spring from the conspiratorial mind. There were already about fifteen hundred Rwandans in the Ugandan army; Fred and Paul would quietly encourage more to enlist. Then, using their command positions and influence, they would discreetly guide the careers of these soldiers, steering as many as possible to training courses and field commands.

According to this version of events, which was apparently related to Kinzer by Kagame himself, Museveni was taken by surprise when Rwigyema led a Tutsi force bearing Ugandan weapons, driving Ugandan trucks and jeeps, and wearing Ugandan uniforms with the army insignias torn off across the border into Rwanda in November 1990. (Rwigyema was shot dead on the second day of the operation. Kagame was in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for military training when the invasion began; his frantic journey back to Uganda via New York, London, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, narrowly escaping arrest by hostile security forces in both African capitals, is one of the most gripping sequences in the book.) Museveni later turned into one of the RPFs biggest supporters, allowing the rebels to travel through his country at will and channeling them weapons and other supplies. That the initial RPF attack turned into a rout was no tribute to the ability of the Rwandan government army, whom Kinzer describes as ill equipped and poorly trained. Rather, the Hutu supremacist regime led by President Juvenal Habyarimana was saved solely by French special forces, which pounded the Tutsi rebels with artillery, inflicting devastating losses and driving them back across the border.

Kinzer unfolds the story of the 1994 genocide with fine pacing and clarity, drawing heavily on Romeo Dallaires memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil. The basic facts have been recounted many times, but they lose none of their power in Kinzers retelling: Habyarimanas being dragged, reluctantly, to Arusha to sign a power-sharing agreement with the hated Tutsi adversaries. The covert preparations for slaughter of 1.2 million Tutsis by the akazu, the radicals led by the dictators wife. Dallaires desperate, futile memos to craven UN bureaucrats in New York, begging for authorization to raid arms depots and crack down on the interahamwe militias. The downing of the presidential jet on the evening of April 6, 1994. The shameful withdrawal of all but a handful of UN soldiers in the wake of the killing of ten Belgian peacekeepers. The 100-day genocide, carried out by machete, grenade, and bullet, with active French support.

The second half of the book is more problematic for Kinzer. Up until this point hes had a straightforward story to tell: how Kagame and his ragtag force, abandoned by the outside world, took on an army of French backed killers, and drove them to defeat. The plot gets murkier in the post-genocide era, when heroic victory gave way to moral ambiguities and controversy over human rights and other issues. Kinzer charts the post-genocide guerrilla war waged by remnants of the Hutu force in Zaire, the 1996 invasion of that country by Kagames army, the crafting of a rudimentary justice system, the sprouting up of businesses, and the sputtering reconciliation process, Here, the material is fresher, and Kinzers first person reportage lends a degree of immediacy that was missing from the first half of the book. But the narrative loses focus, and what started as a compelling story becomes an often meandering, inconclusive tour of contemporary Rwanda.

Kagames reporting about the reconciliation process is nicely nuanced. He describes the difficulties of dispensing justice in a country where 10 percent of the population were victims and perhaps 30 percent were murderers. He visits a gacaca one of the homegrown courts set up to try killersand a village where murderers and their intended victims live side by side in an awkward, painful, and often futile attempt to create mutual understanding. Kinzer also does a good job of navigating through the thicket of accusations leveled against Kagame and the RPF. Some of these seem patently absurd, such as the indictment of Kagame and a dozen other RPF leaders in a French court for masterminding the missile attack that brought down Habyarimanas plane. (The charge led Kagame to break off diplomatic relations with France, which bears singular responsibility for abetting the genocide and has never apologized.) Some have more weight, such as the alleged assassinations of the regimes outspoken enemies, including former cabinet minister Seth Sendashonga, gunned down in Nairobi in 1998. Kinzer cites Kagames most persistent critic, Alison des Forges, the chief Rwandan specialist at Human Rights Watch, who describes contemporary Rwanda as a country where journalists face intimidation, harassment and violence, and human rights advocates are forced to flee the country for fear of being persecuted or arbitrarily arrested. But he tends to view such criticism as overhyped, and he largely accept Kagames defense that Rwandas traumatic recent history give the government some leeway in silencing or even locking up those who fan ethnic hatred or call for a new genocide. Kinzer is careful, however, to point out Kagames autocratic tendencies, and to underscore the dangers inherent in stifling the development of real democracy in Rwanda.

Kinzer is less persuasive when he turns to an assessment of Kagames economic philosophy. As Kinzer explains it, Kagames approach to poverty relief is one part self-actualization seminar, one part Rick Warren-style evangelism. Kinzer cites a handful of Rwandan entrepreneurs who have built trendy restaurants, experimental farms and other successful businesses, and he cites Kagames determination to quadruple the countrys per capita income by 2020 by turning the country into the high-tech hub of Africa. Its a noble goal, and given Kagames track record and strength of will, its certainly not impossible. But theres little in the book to suggest that this still-impoverished, vastly overpopulated nation 95 percent of whose citizens still depend on subsistence agriculture to survivecan break out of the cycle of poverty within the next decade.

Oddly, I found that the biggest frustration reading Kinzers admirable and often gripping book was getting a bead on its chief protagonist. This surely isnt Kinzers fault. The author gives Kagame plenty of opportunity to tell his story, breaking away from the narrative to insert italicized excerpts of his interviews with the Rwandan leader. One encounters a figure steeled in hardship and seething with contempt for both the United Nations and the Western nations that turned their backs on his country. But theres a strangely detached quality to many of these passages. One hears about Kagames courtship with his wife, for instance, but never gets any sense of what drew them together; one longs to hear how he felt when he encountered the churches filled with corpses of his Tutsi brethren, left behind by the fleeing Hutu army. This may reflect Kagames personality: hes a former intelligence operative and trained soldier, who rose through the ranks by observing intently and revealing next to nothing about himself. I sensed that opaque quality when I interviewed Kagame in the rubble of Kigali more than a decade ago. Indeed, Kagames very unknowability is part of his mystique. In A Thousand Hills, Kinzer may not have gotten Africas most intriguing leader to bare his soul, but he comes closer than any other journalist yet to capturing the energy, will, self-discipline and angerthat brought Rwanda back to life.

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Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a freelance foreign corespondent based in Berlin, now working on a book about German colonialism in Africa.