The Forgotten Continent

An Interview With Paul Rusesabagina, The Man Behind Hotel Rwanda

Christie Chisholm
12 min read
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“Those 100 days were started somewhere, were started by someone, and never ended, because the killings never ended.”

Paul Rusesabagina seems like the kind of man you'd want sitting next to you if the plane went down, if the train crashed, if a bomb hit. Not because he would necessarily be able to save you, but because you know that if it was at all in his power, he would.

As he speaks about the atrocities he has witnessed, his carefully paced African accent staying the course, I cannot help but feel like a child listening to a great poet, or spiritual leader, or politician. Every word is chosen. Every syllable placed. And with each breath, I hear his story. His story is, in the truest meaning of the word, great, even if incomprehensibly tragic.

If you have not heard of Paul Rusesabagina, then you likely have not seen Hotel Rwanda, a film that tells the main events of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the course of 100 days, nearly one million citizens of Rwanda were massacred. And while pleas went out to the nations of the world for assistance, not one country answered. No one came to help.

The culmination of a deep-rooted conflict between two of Rwanda's ethnic groups—the Tutsi and the Hutu, the genocide, although technically over, in reality still lingers in the country today. People are still disappearing, criminals have yet to be prosecuted, justice remains absent. And still, no one comes to help.

Rusesabagina likes to say that his role was small. In truth, as the manager of the Milles Collines, a luxury hotel located in the heart of the slaughter, he managed to save the lives of more than 1,200 refugees by sheltering them at the hotel. The hotel offered no protection beyond its international connections; but Rusesabagina did all he could to save himself, his family and the people within the hotel's walls, who awaited certain death outside them. He phoned around the world asking for assistance, and when none came he resorted to using favors owed to him to buy temporary protection. None of the people who took shelter at the hotel were killed. When he and the refugees at the hotel were finally able to escape the conflict by crossing rebel lines to a refugee camp, he returned shortly after to aid in cleanup efforts at the hotel. He remained in Rwanda for another two-and-a-half years, until members of the current government tried to kill him and his family and he fled to Belgium to seek asylum, which is where he lives today.

Since 1994, Rusesabagina has been touring all over the world, helping to raise awareness about the Rwandan situation, as well as other conflicts that are ignored by the international community. He has also established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which works to support, care and assist the children orphaned by, and women abused during, the genocide in Rwanda. Most recently, he has written a book, An Ordinary Man, which chronicles the events of and around the genocide, including many things that were not included in the film Hotel Rwanda. This Saturday, April 22, he will be in town to discuss his new memoir. Last week, Mr. Rusesabagina took the time to sit down over the phone with the Alibi to talk about genocide, justice and American responsibility.

What is your life like now that the genocide is in the past and you've escaped that kind of climate?

Well, let's say that that kind of climate, you can never escape it. Because it always follows you wherever you go. You can never forget your friends, your family members who are still in the country. The kind of life now, I think I'm very busy. I have a foundation, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. I have been speaking a lot, all over the world, having speeches everywhere. I have been writing a book, An Ordinary Man. So I have been busy since I left Rwanda in 1996 up to now.

And what is it like to be so busy and to be getting so much attention?

Well, myself, I feel like a normal person. I take myself to be like the poor; that young boy who was born on a farm, grew up on a farm, went to school abroad, and later on became a hotel manager. I can never be anyone else beside a hotel manager.

I read some other interviews you've done, and it seems you don't like the word “hero” when it's addressed to you. How do you feel about that word?

I feel a little bit (laughs), can I say offended? I don't take myself up to that level. So I think of myself as a normal hotel manager, who did his job, from the beginning to the end, but I'm not anyone special.

Were there many others during that time who were trying to help in Rwanda?

Oh yes. Actually, that is what surprises me. There were many people who died trying to help their neighbors. And all of those who died, no one calls them heroes. Because if there are many Tutsis who survived, they were saved by their neighbors. To me, those neighbors, those victims, are the heroes. And, unfortunately, they seem to be forgotten.

One of the reasons more attention has come to Rwanda in the last couple years is because of the movie. What are your feelings about the fact that it took a film to bring attention to something like this? Do you feel that people should have been following it all along, that it shouldn't have taken a movie to bring their attention there?

Unfortunately, it took a movie to draw attention, the international community's attention, to those 100 days. And those 100 days were started somewhere, were started by someone, and never ended, because the killings never ended. It took a movie to show Hotel Rwanda. I wonder if it would again take a movie to show Hotel Darfur, for instance, or Hotel Congo. In the Congo since 1996, when the Rwandan army entered in that country, up to now, about four million people, I say four million people, have been killed. And again the whole world stands by, watches, and doesn't say anything.

A few months ago I went to Darfur to witness with my own eyes what is going on. It is exactly what was going on in Rwanda in between 1990-94. In between [that time] in Rwanda, the rebels were killing, Tutsi rebels were killing Hutus; and as a result, when both presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed, all Hutus took machetes and started butchering Tutsis, and the world was there to watch and see. And even today we are watching. And at the end we might say, “Ah, we have seen it. Those people have killed each other.”

When you were in that moment in 1994 during the genocide, how did it feel to have no one come?

I can never describe how I felt, because I can't find words. I cannot tell you that I was bitter. Was I angry? Those words are so simple. I cannot tell you that we were abandoned; it is too simple. I can't find words to describe what I was feeling. In the end, I was doing all I can, phoning the whole world, sending faxes whenever I couldn't. I phoned even the White House, I phoned even Paris, Brussels, New York, everywhere. But nobody seemed to be willing to help, and nobody did, from the beginning to the end. So how can you feel … . If you can find a better word, we can use that one.

What did the White House say when you called them?

No one seemed to be concerned. Each and every person I was calling was telling me, “But, sir, this is supposed to be treated by my colleague.” “Who is your colleague, can I call him?” “Uh, let me get his number, I might come back to you. I'm sorry, I'm having another line.” So you can imagine. You hear that described in An Ordinary Man; I'm very clear with that.

What are your feelings now toward the countries you called that didn't come; for example, the U.S.?

Before I started speaking, I felt bitter against everyone. But when I started touring, promoting Hotel Rwanda, then speaking all over the world, I noticed that the people themselves are not informed. Even about the Rwandan issue—the people are not informed. I wouldn't blame the people as well. Their leaders were informed, of course, they knew what was going on. But again, I can never blame a whole nation, say that a whole nation abandoned us. In the end, we want to appear on the scene, and also play a role. So we have, again, to get involved in whatever is happening all over the world, so that at least we can try to change things.

Have you come to any conclusions as to why countries didn't come at that time to help?

Well, there are so many reasons. First of all, not only Rwanda, but the whole of Africa is a forgotten continent. Africa is left to Africans as if it was not a member of the United Nations. If you recall what went on in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, the same Clinton Administration that did not intervene in Rwanda when approximately 1 million people were killed in 100 days, 15 percent of the population. The whole world intervened in Yugoslavia, but never in Rwanda. Why didn't they intervene in Rwanda? Because Africa, I think, is a forgotten continent.

Do you think the U.S. has a responsibility to intervene in those situations?

Definitely. As the sole, the only policemen of the world, the only powerful country being the United States, the U.S. has been given a very heavy burden, a very heavy responsibility. I think that is a test from above. Because the U.S. is a strong nation, it is the only one that can change things.

You've spoken to some of this already, but do you think there are things happening around the world today that we're ignoring that we should be paying attention to?

I think that all of these things which are happening should be taken seriously. It is a shame to see dictators, like in the Sudan, killing their own people, butchering them, stealing their money and bringing it in the West, keeping it in the banks, and this money, stolen, is never frozen. It is a shame to notice that, all of these strong Western superpowers, to not send a strong signal to those dictators and at least let them know that whoever kills his own people will one day face justice. This is a shame to mankind.

It seems one of the biggest tragedies in the media right now is that people are so unaware of what's going on, and that maybe if people were more aware, that might make a difference. Do you think that the U.S., as an example, is unaware of what's happening in much of the world right now?

No, I can never think that the U.S. are unaware. Even if someone can tell me that, I will say no. The United States are informed.

What are things like right now in Rwanda?

In Rwanda right now, things unfortunately never improved. Today, you have again people who are disappearing. Can you imagine someone disappearing? A colonel disappearing?

The government has taken about 100,000 prisoners into the Rwandan prisons. All of those people are not tried, since 1994. And the year the Rwandan government got $1.2 billion in Geneva in 1994, to rehabilitate and do justice, justice was a priority. And many people were trained. But all those guys who were trained never worked as judges. Today, justice has been stopped. For 12 years, not 5,000 have been effectively convicted. Do you take that to be normal? That is a failure. And 50 percent of prisoners, if not more, have got no charges. But whenever you talk, they pretend not to know there was a genocide in this country. So the genocide has become a master key to each and every door.

So what do we need in Rwanda? We need justice to be done. Hutus and Tutsis who have killed, they are both killers. They have to be brought to justice–tried, convicted. That is the real way of doing things. And then Hutus and Tutsis have got to come, through dialogue, communication [and] negotiations, to reconcile, and then wield the country.

Do you see any response from the international community right now?

Unfortunately, even now, the international community is standing by, watching, and doesn't want to do anything.

What do you hope people will take away from your book? What message do you hope to leave with them?

The people will take from my book, a message: the powers of words. Words are a very good weapon. They will learn everything about Rwanda through the powers of words; words which can be the best weapon, if used for a good cause, and the worst weapon, if used for evil. The power of words is very important, and my book raises awareness with what happened in Rwanda, what is happening now, and what is happening all around us, especially on the whole of the African continent. So my main objective was to wake up the international community, raise their awareness, so that at least they can do something about other regions.

Thank you for your time.

I thank you very much. I wish you the best.

Paul Rusesabagina will discuss his memoir, An Ordinary Man, on Saturday, April 22, at Woodward Hall on the UNM campus at 4 p.m. Tickets are the price of the book, $23.95, and include a copy of the book. A second ticket may be purchased for $5 with each regular one purchased. Tickets are $5 with student ID. You can get tickets at Bookworks, or by calling the store at 344-8139. Also on Saturday, there will be a free showing of Hotel Rwanda at 1 p.m. at UNM's Hibben Center. Call the Maxwell Museum at 277-4405 for more information.

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