"Hotel Rwanda" Portrays Hero Who Fought Genocide
Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
|December 9, 2004|
Paul Rusesabagina was never the most idealistic man. As manager of the
Belgian-owned Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in Kigali, the Rwandan
capital, he knew when to slip a bottle of Scotch to corrupt colonels to
keep them in his pocket.
Those street smarts became his salvation when Rwanda plummeted into genocide ten years ago in an event that transformed the genial businessman into an unlikely hero.
As ethnic Hutus began killing their Tutsi neighbors, Rusesabaginaa Hutu married to a Tutsi womanturned his hotel into an impromptu refugee camp for more than a thousand terrified Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Deserted by international peacekeepers, Rusesabagina began cashing in every favor he had ever earned, bribing the Rwandan Hutu soldiers and keeping the bloodthirsty militia (mostly) outside the gates during the hundred days of slaughter.
In the end, he survived along with his wife and three children, as did most of the refugees he sheltered.
Now his heroic story is recounted in Hotel Rwanda, a gripping account of a genocide that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives, mainly Tutsis but also many moderate Hutus.
The movie, which opens in limited release in the United States on December 22, has received some Oscar buzz, especially for Don Cheadle's performance as Rusesabagina.
Amnesty International has hosted several screenings for Hotel Rwanda to raise awareness for another genocide, one that is still unfolding: the conflict in Darfur, Sudan.
Last week, at the premiere in Beverly Hills, Rusesabagina received Amnesty's "Enduring Spirit" award. After the screening, the rotund former hotel manager, who now runs a trucking business in Belgium, appeared decidedly modest about the film's potential to stir the public's consciousness.
"All we want to do is to show what happened," he said, "so that ten years later, people can at least know what it was and how it was."
At the start of the genocide, Rwanda, a nation of six million people, was about 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi. The two groups speak the same language and share the same culture.
The primary cause of the conflict, referred to in the film, can be traced back to European colonialism. The Belgian rulers concluded that the tall and thin Tutsis were superior to the short and stocky Hutus, and favored the Tutsis for all positions of power.
Resentment among Hutus gradually built up. At Rwanda's independence in 1962, a Hutu dictatorship took over and further polarized the ethnic state, blaming Tutsis for every crisis.
The genocide was ignited by the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above the Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Hutu extremist politicians blamed Tutsi rebels for shooting down the plane.
Within hours, the streets filled with Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe, or "those who work together." Spurred on by furious calls for blood by a local radio station, they first killed the Tutsi business and political elite, then turned to ordinary Tutsi citizens.
In weeks the slaughter had spread to much of the Rwandan countryside. Local officials ordered Hutu peasants to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Those Hutus who refused were murdered themselves. At its peak, the genocide claimed 8,000 lives per day, a rate far faster than the Holocaust.
The international community, meanwhile, turned a blind eye toward Rwanda's horrors. Western governments avoided calling the slaughter "genocide." Under the UN Geneva Convention, that would have obliged outside nations to intervene.
To some outside Rwanda, the massacres seemed like an impulsive outburst of ancient tribal hatred, which perhaps partly accounted for the West's reluctance to get involved. In reality, the genocide in Rwanda was precisely planned and executed by one of the most authoritarian states in Africa.
Terry George, Hotel Rwanda's director, is blunt when sharing his opinion about why the outside world deserted Rwanda. "It's simple," he said at a reception after the film's Hollywood screening. "African lives are not seen as valuable as the lives of Europeans or Americans."
After the Holocaust, the international community pledged "never again" to allow genocide to take place. But it did happenin Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda.
In recent years, leaders of national governments and international institutions have acknowledged their shortcomings in Rwanda. During a visit to Rwanda in 1998, President Clinton apologized for not acting. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said he personally could have done more to stop it.
Yet human rights groups say genocide has been unfolding in Sudan's troubled Darfur region since last year.
That conflict erupted in February 2003, when black rebels took up arms against what they saw as years of state neglect and discrimination against Sudanese of African origin.
The Arab government, aided by a militia known as the Janjaweed, cracked down on the rebels and their perceived supporters, creating what the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
More than 70,000 people have been killed or have died from hunger and disease in the area, according to the UN, and another 1.5 million people have been displaced.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said genocide is taking place in Darfur. But so far only an African Union force of 800 troops and 100 observers has been dispatched to the mainly desert region. They are there as peacekeepers and are not allowed to fire their weapons unless in self-defense.
"How far have we really come [since the genocide in Rwanda]?" said Bill Schultz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, who is based in New York. "The Sudanese government has been emboldened by international inaction. They think they can get away with murder, and frankly there's every reason to believe they are right."
Paul Rusesabagina says he understands how easy it is for people to ignore what happens in a war thousands of miles away. As a few people gathered around him after the screening, one woman told Rusesabagina how much she appreciated the film. "I was in my college dorm at the time," she said. "I had no idea this was going on."
Rusesabagina nodded his head. "You can be a messenger," he told the woman. "Now you can tell others what you have seen."
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