In the summer of 1982, as a recent college graduate hitchhiking through central Africa, I spent two weeks in Rwanda, a gorgeous country of a thousand hills, all crowded with terraced farms and houses and huts.
The capital, Kigali, was a small city, little more than embassies, a few banks and hotels, the Maison du President, and a big military encampment. This was the first African country I’d seen where women served in the gendarmerie-like the lovely, tall twenty-five-year-old I met one night at a popular four-star hotel, the Milles Collines. She was named Jeanne, and we sat outside at the bar by the swimming pool and had a drink; we danced and flirted a little. Jeanne wore a soldier’s uniform decorated with a lapel-button picture of the president, General Juvenal Habyarimana. I’d read about the colonial history of Rwanda, including the Hutu-Tutsi riots of the 1960s, when thousands had been killed, and I asked Jeanne-she herself was a Tutsi, she told me-about the situation between Hutu and Tutsis.
“That belongs to the past,” she said, somewhat guardedly. “There is no longer any problem.” Pas de problème.
Today I shudder to remember Jeanne, and to imagine what might have befallen her twelve years later, in the holocaust in which nearly one million of her fellow Tutsis were massacred. Back in 1982 it was impossible, amid the confident, stylish ambience of the hotel, with its easy-seeming mix of...