Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for Hotel Rwanda, the feature film that brought the harrowing story of the Rwandan genocide to the world’s attention, delivered a lecture to a packed gymnasium at MCLA last Thursday night as part of its Public Policy Lecture Series. In his speech “Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to be Learned,” he recounted how he survived the 100-day genocide, simultaneously rescuing 1200 refugees by housing them in his hotel in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. He detailed his true-life experiences as the nation fell apart around him, discussed the film and finally spoke to the attendees on their responsibilities on the world stage.
After a brief introduction by Robert Bence, MCLA professor of political science, the crowd welcomed Rusesabagina with a long standing ovation. He began with a brief history of Rwanda and the series of events that led to the genocide in 1994. “Tonight you and I are going to go together back in history. I would like to give a short hint about who we are and where all our troubles came from,” he said. Rusesabagina then provided a summary of the modern history of Rwanda, tracing the roots of ethnic conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority to colonial intervention.
He described the designations of Hutu and Tutsi as artificial. “We share the same country, we all of us worship the same God, and above all Hutus and Tutsis have been intermarrying and mixing,” he said. “[However], those artificial boundaries meant everything â€“ including death.”
The fight for liberation from colonial domination and control began in 1959, and the war was accompanied by the first of several outbreaks of persecution against the Tutsis that would define Rwanda’s history for the next several decades. “People always think a genocide comes from nowhere,” Rusesabagina said. “The genocide comes in slow motion, just like a car moving to hit a kid. We want to close our eyes to what is happening. It always comes from somewhere.”
He noted that with a peace treaty signed in 1993 between the Hutu leader JuvÃ©nal Habyarimana and the Tutsi leadership, there was a clear “sign of hope.” But on April 6, 1994, Habyarimana was assassinated along with the president of Burundi. Within 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis were dead.
Rusesabagina recalled his shock at the beginning genocide by evoking Americans’ reactions to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “If I was to ask where you were on September 11th, 2001, you will tell me,” he said. “That is something you will never forget. You can also ask me where I was that night [that President Habyarimana was shot down]. I will never forget that night, chatting at the car, saying ‘Goodbye. See you tomorrow.’ Tomorrow never came, because they went their way and I went my way and they were killed.”
Within the next few days, terrified neighbors fled to Rusesabagina’s home, prompting soldiers to storm in and demand that he surrender his guests. After two hours of negotiation, Rusesabagina brokered an agreement with the militiamen and received permission to bring his family and neighbors to the hotel where he was a manager. “People think it started at the hotel; no, it started at home.”
For two months, as the country crumbled around him, his hotel became a safe harbor with Rusesabagina at the helm. The people whom he sheltered survived amid harsh conditions at the luxury hotel, which lost both electricity and running water. Rusesabagina was able to use his many connections within Rwanda and with the outside international community to ensure a supply of food and protection from killing mobs. Rusesabagina told about how he used the supplies left in the hotel to “stockpile some favors here and there so I could use them,” he said.
Rusesabagina emphasized the importance of communication and that he was able to save lives with words. “I believe in the power of words,” he said. “I believe that words are the best and worst weapons. Words can kill, and words can save lives.” The hotel had one telephone that was still working. “This phone became our lifeline,” he said. “This phone saved 1268 people in 1994.”
Rusesabagina, as well as his guests, phoned everyone they knew in the international community â€“ the United Nations, the Peace Corps, Paris, Belgium, the European Union and others. “And when I couldn’t phone because I was being listened to, I was already drafting a letter and faxing them,” he said. Eventually, his calls were successful, and the refugees of the hotel were evacuated into comparatively safer areas of Rwanda and across the borders into various other nations.
Despite the eventual aid, Rusesabagina remains angry about the role of the international community during the genocide. “They had an army and they pulled out, abandoning a whole nation to thieves and thugs. The UN has never succeeded in a peacekeeping mission,” he said. Disheartened by the lack of support from the international community both during and after the Rwandan genocide, Rusesabagina has dedicated himself to increasing awareness of past and current genocides and promoting an international discourse. “Being silent is agreeing,” he said. “Being silent is complicity. If you want to shame them you must speak up. This is how I decided today to be a messenger of peace.”
He concluded with a call for action. “Is the Rwandan problem solved?” he asked. “No. Tomorrow is in your hands, you are tomorrow’s leaders. You are the only ones who can shape this world. Go out there and make a difference. Do you want this world to be a better place?”