Emory Report
October 22, 2007
Volume 60, Number 8

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October 22, 2007
‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero describes horrors

By carol clark

Paul Rusesabagina was having dinner with friends the evening of April 6, 1994, when the president of Rwanda’s plane was shot down. Shortly after the missile hit the plane in Kigali, his wife Tatiana called him and said, “I’ve heard something I’ve never heard in my life. Please rush and come back home.”

Her instincts that something terrible was happening were right: the assassination of Rwanda’s president led to an unprecedented genocide that took more than 800,000 lives over the following 100 days.

Rusesabagina, whose role in the events inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” delivered Emory College Council’s “The State of Race” talk on Oct. 16. The 2004 movie, starring Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina, was nominated for three Oscars and put Rwanda on the map of mainstream American consciousness. It dramatizes the story of how Rusesabagina, in the midst of the slaughter, managed to safely harbor 1,268 people in Kigali’s Hotel des Milles Collines.

“I was scared, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life is how to deal with evil,” he said.
No two-hour movie or single person could tell the full story of an event so complex, warned a leaflet passed out to those arriving at Glenn Auditorium for Rusesabagina’s talk. The leaflet, headlined “Hollywood is not reality,” advertised an upcoming November event on Rwanda, to be sponsored by the Rollins School of Public Health, which will feature a panel discussion on the subject.

Tensions between the two main ethnic groups of Rwanda, the Hutus and Tutsis, have periodically boiled over into violence. The 1994 assassination of the president sparked a state of madness — a mass uprising of extremist Hutus slaughtering Tutsis with machetes.

Rusesabagina is of mixed parentage, but he is primarily identified as Hutu. His wife, Tatiana, is Tutsi. Neighbors who were Tutsi began gathering in Rusesabagina’s home for protection during the first days of the genocide, he recounted to the Emory audience. He said he warned his children not to go out of his house, but one of his sons disobeyed to go check on a friend. He found his friend, along with his friend’s six sisters and their mother, murdered in their compound.

“That boy came back crying, went to his room and stayed for four days, not speaking to anyone,” Rusesabagina said.

Rusesabagina was a manager for the Belgian-owned Milles Collines, which was located within the U.N. security zone. He eventually brought 32 neighbors and friends to the hotel for protection. More than 1,200 people, mostly Tutsis, took shelter in the hotel, where Rusesabagina was in charge.

He described the growing air of desperation over the next three months. In addition to worries about being killed, the people crammed inside had no electricity, little food and were forced to ration water from the swimming pool for bathing and drinking. U.N. troops pulled out of the country, leaving Rwanda to its fate. Rusesabagina said he made frantic calls around the world to his employers and former VIP guests, seeking help. He said he also used his diplomatic skills on local militia officers, calling in favors to prevent anyone inside the hotel from being removed.

After the killing stopped, Rusesabagina said he traveled south to his family homestead. He found his mother, six of her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law hacked to death and lying in the bottom of a pit used for ripening bananas. “I will never forget that,” he said.

Rusesabagina now lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium. He has received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other honors, and travels the world spreading a message that the international community must learn from the mistakes made in Rwanda.

He has also stirred controversy as an outspoken critic of the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, saying that Tutsis are now systematically targeting Hutus. “I don’t see why I should hide the truth of what has been going on from 1994 to date,” he said.

One of those who strongly disagrees with his assessment of the Rwandan government is Susan Allen, a physician and professor in the Rollins School of Public Health. Allen has worked in Rwanda for 21 years and is currently director of Emory’s Rwanda-Zambia HIV Research Group.

“The current government is headed by people who stopped the genocide and have done a spectacular job of managing the country,” she said. “They are extremely supportive and welcoming to outsiders, which is one reason why Emory has so many projects there.”

Allen is spearheading the November forum on Rwanda. Although a date has not yet been set, plans call for a panel to include former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, genocide survivors from the Mille Collines and Emory students and faculty from throughout the University who have worked in Rwanda.

“We want to talk about a whole variety of things: the precursors to the genocide, the genocide itself, the current situation in Rwanda and the future,” Allen said.

When Allen learned that Rusesabagina was coming, she asked the College Council to consider the usual debate format for “The State of the Race.” Rusesabagina’s contract, however, precluded that possibility, said Amrit Kapai, College Council vice president for programming. “The point of ‘The State of Race’ is to trigger dialogue, and this event has done that,” he said, adding that he looks forward to the November event.