Over the course of three months, 15 percent of a nation’s population was slaughtered by a rebel army of its own citizens as the international community stood idly by. Almost two decades have passed since the Rwandan genocide, and yet the atrocities sprung from political unrest have continued to pour into neighboring countries, resulting in mass killings that still occur today.
In 2004, the critically acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda shed light on those three dark months and the man who risked his life to save more than 1,200 others by hiding them away in the Hôtel des Mille Collines.
Paul Rusesabagina bartered jewelry, money, and beer to protect the thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu people from the Hutu Power army that ransacked Rwanda’s streets, killing anyone who dared cross their path. Though Rusesabagina and his family suffered more than one brush with death, his bravery and morality prevailed. Every single person in his care was evacuated from the genocide and saved.
Rusesabagina spoke at Santa Barbara City College on Friday for a special presentation organized by A Year Without War, a group that aims to cease conflict for one year in 2020. He also made time to answer questions from The Santa Barbara Independent, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Did you ever return to Rwanda? In 2004, before the movie Hotel Rwanda came out, I had a son and two daughters who were about 11 and 12 years old. They needed to see what their country looked like. I knew that when the movie came out I would be unwelcome in Rwanda because the movie portrayed me as someone who was supposed to be a hero and this was not the Rwandan government’s wish. We stayed for 10 days, then I noticed there was some tension, so I left.
Why wouldn’t the government want you portrayed as a hero? Because they wanted to hide everything. I think the president wanted himself to seem like the hero, to be portrayed in movies like I was.
Do you think the movie accurately depicted what happened? Yes, the movie Hotel Rwanda is a true story. However, it is a feature film. If we were to make something as real as the original, it would be a documentary. Sometimes it was less violent than real life. The world can never grasp a situation where, in a small country like Rwanda [with a population of seven million], one million people were killed in 90 days, not 100 as the Rwandan government portrays it. You can’t imagine an average of 10,000 people killed every day. No one can grasp at that.
How did the movie stray from your story? Filmmakers had to add a few spices. For instance [in the film] when I make the decision to evacuate my wife and stay behind alone, it’s shown like I made it in one moment as we were loading her on the bus, when actually we had talked about it the night before. I said tomorrow you’ll be evacuated. They did not understand why I wouldn’t go with them.
And why did you decide to stay behind? I said, if I happened to leave this place — me, the only person who has been able to negotiate with these killers and get them not to kill — if they came and killed the people who are here, I would never be a free man. I would be a prisoner of my own conscious. I could never go to bed and sleep or be satisfied, or have the courage to stand and speak.
In the film, the actor who portrays you, Don Cheadle, sees footage captured by journalists of people being massacred in their own front yards and says, “Show (the rest of the world) this; they will come help us,” to which the journalist responds, “No, they’re just going to say ‘Oh, that’s so sad,’ and keep eating their dinners.” Do you think that mentality has changed at all since the release of Hotel Rwanda, especially in terms of the genocide still occurring in the Congo? This mentality has not yet completely changed, but the advocacy was increased much more by Hotel Rwanda. What happened in Rwanda ended up crossing the border to the Congo, where since 1996 more than six or seven million people have died because of the blood minerals, and the whole world has watched it happen.
I think there are many similarities between what happened in Rwanda and what continues in the Congo and Darfur. Would you agree? In 2005 I went to Darfur to see what was happening, to be a witness and to compare. It is exactly what was going on in Rwanda, but on a smaller scale, because what happened in Rwanda was the killing of approximately 15 percent of the population in three months. The sad thing is that yesterday’s victims become tomorrow’s perpetrators. This is what has been going on in the Congo, where the Tutsi army, the people who were victims in [the Rwandan genocide], we see now in the Congo butchering people like wild animals.
One of the philosophy professors at Santa Barbara City College, Joe White, launched a project called A Year Without War. Are you familiar with that? Yes, I am wearing one of his bracelets. The most important thing to me [about A Year Without War] is the message.
Do you think the world can stop war for a year by 2020? Well, my wish is to see it stopped even for a month. I do agree with him. My wish is to see the world completely changing, but it’s difficult.
Do you know what happened to the Mille Collines? Yes, of course. I followed the Mille Collines. It is still a hotel today.
Are your memories of it fond, or hard to handle? Well, I’ll never forget that place. When I was general manager, I would go down to the swimming pool and sip my coffee at 10 a.m., when all the businesspeople from all over the world would meet, gun dealers and all. In 1994 it became a monument, this swimming pool. It was supposed to be a mass grave. The Mille Collines hotel will always be my home.
You ended up using the pool as a water supply while hiding from the Hutu Power, right? We saw it become a village well. I remember when I had a few minutes of spare time I would go down to the swimming pool and watch the level of water. We were without electricity and running water so I would go and watch it go slowly down wondering where we would get our next drops of water, but we survived.
How many days were you there? We were in that madness for 76 days.
The movie cuts out when you and the Hutu moderates and Tutsi refugees from the Mille Collines cross the border in UN buses. What happened after that? The movie had to end somewhere. I did not actually leave the country at that time, because I still thought we could be a nation of peace. So [after everyone was evacuated], I went back and I went to clean the Mille Collines hotel. I stayed there another two years. I tried to leave when everybody was evacuated from the hotel, but they told me I could only go alone and leave my wife and children, so I stayed.
After those two years, you went into exile. Where did you go? I lived in Brussels many times since 1996. A few years ago, in 2008, I had to move away from Belgium because of security problems, to San Antonio, Texas. As someone who was born and raised in Africa, and lived in Europe for a few years, now staying in America, the change is enormous.
When exactly did you go into exile and why? I went into exile on September 6, 1996, because I was almost assassinated by a soldier from the intelligence services. The guy who almost assassinated me was drunk. When he reached to pull out his gun, I just pushed him, and he fell down. I ran outside calling for help. I was very close to a military camp where all the high ranking generals of the new government were. Immediately they surrounded my house. The following day his boss came to my office and told me that this guy did not have a gun, that it was a toy. I looked at him and said, ‘Friend, what I saw was a gun; it was not a toy.’ But maybe in some way it was a toy, because it did not kill me.