The hotel manager who hid more than 1,200 refugees during the Rwandan Genocide spoke at an all-school assembly Thursday about his experiences and the importance of following one’s conscience instead of the majority.
Paul Rusesabagina introduced himself by giving the meaning of his last name as “he who disperses enemies.”
Rusesabagina’s story was told in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” starring Don Cheadle. A trailer for the film was shown before he began to speak.
Rusesabagina described the 1994 genocide, a clash between the Hutu and the Tutsi ethnic groups, saying Rwandans could see it coming a long time before it happened, “like a mother seeing a car in slow motion about to hit her kid and closing her eyes so she won’t see it, so it happens, and she’s pretending not to hear.”
When a plane carrying the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on April 6, 1994, sparking the genocide in which 500,000 to one million people would be killed, Rusesabagina remembered seeing his wife’s brother and his wife for the last time.
“That was just the beginning,” he said.
Rusesabagina described arriving home to find neighbors and friends crowded into his house to hide from the violence.
“I don’t know the answer, and I have never known the answer to this day – why did they come to my house?” he said.
When the Rwandan government sent an army escort to take Rusesabagina to the Hôtel des Mille Collines, where he worked, and which the government had taken over, he was faced with the task of bringing all of the people in his house with him to be protected. So Rusesabagina told the escort that he would need to bring his family.
“The family used to be six people and maybe two housemaids and a watchman. But that time, that day, it was plus 26 more,” he told his audience. He packed the people into cars “like potatoes.”
As they drove, Rusesabagina said they saw dead bodies littering the streets, some without heads, some with stomachs split open.
“Listen, you traitor, you are lucky. We won’t kill you today,” he remembered the soldiers telling him. “But take this gun and kill all these cockroaches in disguise.”
“They were dehumanizing people before killing them,” Rusesabagina said. The soldiers were from the Rwandan army, and wanted to kill the Tutsis Rusesabagina was trying to protect.
“I pointed to a baby that a woman was holding there. And I said, ‘Are we sure that who we are fighting today is the baby? We can find other solutions.’”
This was the first of many times Rusesabagina would have to use negotiation, bribery and his connections to protect the refugees under his care.
“I had stockpiled favors as a hotel manager,” he said. “I will say that I cashed them all in and borrowed very heavily [during the genocide].”
After two hours, he settled with the soldiers the price he would pay for all of the people that had come with him, and got them all to the hotel.
“That was one of the greatest lessons I learned in my life,” Rusesabagina said. “I learned how to deal with evil and this would follow me for the rest of my life and up to this day. Nothing is impossible as long as you are willing. Lives were saved.”
The longer Rusesabagina stayed in the hotel and continued to shelter people, the more the hotel was attacked, and the more the number he was sheltering grew.
During this time, Rusesabagina was making calls and sending faxes to all of the connections he had from working at hotels in Kigali, trying to reach both local leaders and the international community. He needed their help.
“I was calling the world, at least to shame them,” Rusesabagina said. “Silence – keep this in mind – is agreement, is complicity.”
Another tense time for Rusesabagina was when he and his family were to be evacuated, but he would have to leave many of the refugees behind at the hotel, he said. Many of the people hiding in the hotel asked him to tell them if he was going to leave, so that they might jump to their deaths from the hotel roof.
“That time our main concern was not no one dying, but rather how to die, a better death. A better death was if someone takes a gun to your head and shoots you and you die,” Rusesabagina said, compared to the torture genocidaires would put victims through.
“They would cut off the tongue, then go away to torture more people,” Rusesabagina said. “Then they would cut off hands, then go away again to torture more people.”
In making “the toughest decision” of his life to send his family without him, Rusesabagina said he thought to himself, “If I leave, and these people are killed, I will never be a free man, I will drink and never be satisfied, I will eat and never be satisfied, I will be a prisoner of my own conscience.”
Rusesabagina continued to emphasize the importance of one’s conscience. Later, after he watched his family leave without him, only to return because the truck carrying them came under attack, he said to a mayor who refused to help him, “One day it will all come to an end. And that day, you and I will have to respond to history. Is this the right answer?”
“The important thing is to remain the person you are. Remain yourself. Listen to your inner, your own conscience. Don’t follow the majority,” Rusesabagina said.
“The [United Nations’] mission has never been to make peace or to keep peace,” he said. “Their mission has always been to observe, and then, at the end of the day, sit down, draft a report and send it to New York. And they said, okay, we saw these people butchering each other.”
“And still keep in mind my message, especially you young people,” Rusesabagina concluded. “ I will not be surprised when I am an old man to hear that one of you is the president of this country. Maybe you are the solution. Why not you?”
After the assembly, Rusesabagina signed copies of his autobiography at a reception in Feldman-Horn Gallery.
David Ono of KABC interviewed Rusesabagina in a studio in Feldman-Horn. Students going to this winter’s trip to Rwanda were invited to the interview.
During the interview, Rusesabagina talked about Rwanda’s current state.
“They say Rwanda has changed dancers but it’s the same music,” he said. “We have gone from bad to worse.”
He discussed the failure to stop genocides from happening again after the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, when many had said, “Never again.”
“My message is that ‘never again’ is still happening,” he said. “Let us make ‘never again’ never again. Let us give ‘never again’ back its meaning.”