Paul Rusesabagina arrived on UCF’s campus to speak to a large and eager crowd in the Pegasus Ballroom on Tuesday. The real-life hero of the movie Hotel Rwanda recounted the horrible experience he survived in the middle of a savage genocide that occurred in 1994. Not only did he save his family, but Rusesabagina also saved over 1,200 refugees by allowing them sanctuary in his hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. He is recognized as a humanitarian for his bravery and, today, he travels the world sharing his message of survival and inspiration.
When most people hear about the Rwandan Genocide, they think of a ninety-day span during which an estimated 850,000 Tutsis were brutally slaughtered, but Rusesabagina says the threat of genocide was evident long before 1994.
“We saw it coming, but we did not want to act. No one wanted to get involved in that.”
Rusesabagina explained to the packed ballroom that the division amongst Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda has been a violent issue for decades, gaining momentum around 1959 during the Hutu Revolution. Up until that time, the Tutsis had maintained most of the power in Rwanda dating back hundreds of years and used that power to suppress and mistreat the Hutu majority population.
“Genocide is not a thing that folds out of nowhere,” Rusesabagina said, thoughtfully.
By 1962, the Hutu Emancipation Movement had successfully overthrown the Tutsi regime and the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 began as an act of retaliation against centuries of oppression.
Because of his paternal Hutu heritage, Rusesabagina was theoretically safe from the genocide, but his Tutsi wife, Tatiana, was not, so he moved his family to the Hȏtel des Mille Collines to save his wife and children from imminent execution. Before long, neighbors and friends sought refuge with Rusesabagina and his family. He accepted them all.
“We starved together,” he said, describing their time together as they hid. “To be a refugee is to be something. We had no food, no water, and no medicine. It’s an experience that cannot be explained.”
For 76 days, Rusesabagina, his family, neighbors, and friends survived on dry beans and corn, scared for their lives as they hid in the shadows. The hotel was attacked many times; one of those instances Rusesabagina said was the “scariest day of my life.” Under the false pretense of amnesty, he led his family and the refugees out of the hotel to be carried to safety by the new government. Mid-way to a secure shelter, the guards escorting them called Rusesabagina a traitor and ordered him to kill every refugee that he’d managed to save.
“What would you do? What would you say?” Rusesabagina asked the ballroom as the audience stared back at him blankly. Because of quick-thinking, he was able to negotiate his family and the refugees’ lives by offering money to the guards.
“The best and worst weapons in a human’s arsenal are words,” Rusesabagina said. “I like to fight with words, not guns.”
This is a fact proven by Mr. Rusesabagina’s determination to speak out against violence and, more importantly, the lack of action being taken against it. As he travels the globe to encourage action and awareness against the mass-murder still occurring throughout the African continent, naysayers have denied Rusesabagina’s heroic past.
When the crowd was prompted for questions, three audience members asked Rusesabagina to explain his refusal to address the claims that question his heroism and connect him to a violent liberation front in the Congo. He replied that he’d never called himself a hero and that his only agenda was to promote peace and change.
Despite conflicting accounts of Rusesabagina’s story, his message is an important one. Today, the relations between the Tutsis and Hutus remain strained and the mineral war in the Congo has fueled the mass-murder of millions. His agenda to push awareness is crucial. As the old adage says, “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.”
In his closing, Rusesabagina addressed the audience with hope for the future and a call to action.
“If you want to get involved, we can change the world.”
To learn more about Paul Rusesabagina and his Hotel Rwanda foundation, visit http://hrrfoundation.org/