On April 6, 1994, Paul Rusesabagina let his conscience be his guide. He made a tough decision and saved thousands of lives amid the slaughter of millions.
Rusesabagina gained international fame through the film “Hotel Rwanda,” which was based on the actions he took as a hotel manager during the Rwandan Civil War. Tuesday night, he was the featured speaker at the Larry Adair Lectureship series at Northeastern State University.
The Rwandan Civil War, virtually ignored by the outside world, was sparked when the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down on approach to the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 6, 1994. Over the next 100 days, Hutu militias, or Interahamwe, killed about 800,000 Tutsis, political opponents and “moderate” Hutus.
Rusesabagina said he would never forget the night the plane was shot down.
“My wife had finished work and had left the hotel, but I was there celebrating with my brother and his wife,” he said. “My [sister-in-law] had just completed her degree and got a job, and we were celebrating, having dinner.”
Rusesabagina’s wife called, saying she’d heard some horrible noises coming from the airport near their home, and to come home immediately. He said goodbye to his brother and sister-in-law and hugged them, not knowing he would never see them again. They were killed on their way home.
“We saw the genocide coming years before that night,” he said. “We had already left Rwanda once, and only returned because the United Nations had come in, and we thought we were safe. But once I got home that night, [my boss] called to tell me the president had been killed and I needed to come back to the hotel.”
Rusesabagina said that was the beginning of the massacre that would last three months. Many of his neighbors sought asylum in his home, and at the end of the first day, he had over 26 guests. By April 9, that number had grown, and Rusesabagina thought it best to try and move the people to the hotel.
“We saw soldiers climbing the gates,” he said. “I decided to open a dialogue, and asked them why they were climbing the gates when I would have come had they rung the bell. I always believe that words are the best and worst weapons in human being’s arsenal.”
According to Rusesabagina, the Hutu soldiers were there to transport him back to the hotel, as it was now occupied by the new government and they needed supplies. He expressed concern for the 34 people in his home, and asked to bring them along.
“And the soldier was so nice, saying ‘Of course, bring them with you,’” said Rusesabagina. “But once we got out on the road, they pulled all the cars over, and one told me, ‘Look, you traitor, you’re lucky I don’t kill you today, because we need you. But we’re going to kill all the other cockroaches.’ See, they were already dehumanizing people so they could kill them.”
Again, Rusesabagina used his bargaining skills and convinced the soldiers to allow him to transport his “guests” to the hotel.
“By April 19, I was eye to eye with the devil, and again we came up with a compromise,” he said.
Once he arrived at the hotel, he set to work calling every contact he knew that could be helpful in getting them out of the situation, to no avail. Eventually, food and water became scarce, and he had to ration items to the people staying in the hotel.
“The water in the pool was more precious than gold and diamonds,” he said. “I continued calling people at the state department, the European Union, the Peace Corps, everyone I knew.”
Over the next few weeks, Rusesabagina would encounter more violence, soldiers and generals, and continually employed his bargaining skills to buy time for the refugees.
On June 17, 1994, Rusesabagina struck a bargain with a general from the national army, and managed to get everyone out of the hotel to safety.
Called “Africa’s Oskar Schindler” by some, Rusesabagina used his leverage and contacts as a hotel manager in Kigali to shelter 1,268 Tutsi refugees during the genocide.
Rusesabagina, son of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, and husband of a Tutsi, has not lived in Rwanda since he and his family escaped in 1996. He lives in Brussels and is critical of the Tutsi-dominated government of Rwanda, claiming it is not truly inclusive of all Tutsis and Hutus, that elections are not free and fair.
Today, Rusesabagina is president of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which works to prevent future inter-ethnic conflict by promoting reconciliation in Rwanda and Africa’s Great Lakes region.
During the question-and-answer session, Rusesabagina was asked if the U.N. presence made the situation in Rwanda worse.
“I would say yes,” said Rusesabagina. “Before the U.N. came, we had fled. We had only returned because we thought it was safe. But the U.N. presence worsened the situation. Once violence erupted, the peacekeepers left, leaving only observers, who filled out reports.”
Another audience member asked if the Tutsis could have defended themselves against the violence, and if Rwandans were allowed to own guns.
“No, there was no way to defend against the killing, and Hutus were killing Tutsis and Tutsis were killing Hutus. Rwandans were not democratically allowed - if that’s how you say it - to own guns. If they had guns, they were a secret.”
He was also asked why he chose to stay when the war broke out, and if he felt in some way obligated to do so.
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