Tonight I attended a lecture given by Paul Rusesabagina at Benedictine University. If you saw Hotel Rwanda, you know him as the hotel manager who was the protagonist of the movie. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, he sheltered twelve hundred Hutus and Tutsis in his hotel. Rusesabagina himself is part Hutu, part Tutsi and his wife is Tutsi.
In the course of an hour, Paul told the story of the massacre in his country. Imagine how difficult it must be to recount the darkest days in your history. A couple of things stood out in his lecture.
He spoke of the tragic incident which caused Rwanda to descend into anarchy. It happened when a plane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi crashed, killing both men. He says he remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing when he heard the news just as we all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11th. He was celebrating his wife’s graduation from college.
He said, “I believe in the power of words. Words can kill.” If you are skeptical, consider the situation of a judge sentencing a man to death. Think of bigoted hate speech that sparks violence. Ponder insults spoken in anger between a husband and wife.
He talked about negotiation. He had to negotiate with the soldiers who threatened to kill the people staying in the hotel. He said he was reminded of the English saying, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Despite despising these violent men, he had to entertain them and treat them with manners. He also tried to negotiate with foreign governments in Brussels, Paris, and Washington D.C.
Near the beginning of the massacre, when chaos was breaking out in Rwanda, the United Nations pulled out its troops. UN troops acted as peacekeepers in Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. In some of the most dangerous conflicts in recent history, the UN has kept troops in place. Yet in Rwanda, in 1994, even the UN felt it was too dangerous to stay.
Paul Rusesabagina talked about how there are lessons to be learned from Rwanda. He spoke at length about the current genocide in Sudan. Just as the international community did little to stop the genocide in Rwanda, few are doing anything about Darfur. In Rwanda, Hutus referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches” to justify killing them. Many Tutsis killed Hutus as well. Similar dehumanization is happening in Darfur. Water often becomes a major concern in conflicts such as this. In Rusesabagina’s hotel, people filled dustbins with water from the swimming pool. They had to ration water carefully to stay alive. In Sudan, water is also an issue of contention between the arid regions in the North and the lush jungle areas of the South. Paul emphasized the importance of the round table, of dialogue. There is no problem, no conflict, and no grievance that is beyond speech. With our reason and with our words, we can make a difference.
To find out more about Paul Rusesabagina, you can go to the Wikipedia page on him here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Rusesabagina. I hesitate to endorse Wikipedia for a number of reasons, but in this case, I think it does a very good job of presenting the facts. One important detail that Wikipedia fails to mention is that he has created a foundation, The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which strives to prevent genocide and to help the victims of genocide, http://www.hrrfoundation.org/ (You can donate online with a major credit card, and honestly, what cause is more worthy than the prevention of genocide?). If you have more time, you can read his autobiography (written with Tom Zoellner), An Ordinary Man.