Heroic survivor describes saving 1,200 from Rwandan genocide
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
BY RUSSELL BEN-ALI
Aboard a plane from Sudan, Paul Rusesabagina watched a televised memorial to people killed at Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
He remembered the words "Never again," proclaimed over and over by Western officials who attended the January ceremony, the 60th anniversary of the death camp's liberation.
The words meant little to Rusesabagina, who was returning from Darfur, a Sudanese province where government-backed Arab militias wiped out entire black villages.
" 'Never' and 'again' are the most ever abused words in the world," he told more than 500 students who jammed the Mary Burch Theater in Essex County College in Newark for his talk on genocide in Africa.
The former hotel manager's successful efforts to shield 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from certain death during 100 bloody days in Rwanda were immortalized in the film "Hotel Rwanda."
The movie gave him a global platform, and yesterday he used it to appeal to students to speak against the atrocity of genocide.
Without protest, the mass executions of the Holocaust would be repeated, he told the crowd, which jammed the theater's aisles and lined the walls. More than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda in 1994, while millions died in ethnic fighting in Congo and Sudan in recent years.
"The world stood by and watched what was going on," he said. "No one stands up to ask, 'What's going on?'"
Ethnic tensions between Tutsis and Hutus have lingered for years in Rwanda. But they escalated on April 7, 1994, a day after President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down.
A mass eradication, aimed at the country's Tutsi minority, was launched, with government soldiers, police and Hutu militia taking part in the murders.
"I saw many of my neighbors with guns and I never knew that many of these guys could handle guns," he told the students. "They seemed so humble, so innocent to me. I'd never seen them in militia uniforms."
Dozens of neighbors sought refuge in his Kigali home, viewing Rusesabagina, general manager of the Hotel des Diplomates, as a man of influence. He eventually moved his family and the refugees to the Hotel des Mille Collines, another Kigali hotel owned by the same company, Sabena Airlines.
The crowds that fled to the hotel to escape Hutu warriors quickly surged to more than 1,000 people. Supplies were running out and water from the hotel swimming pool had to be rationed to the families inside. The hotel's managers had all fled; Rusesabagina said he couldn't.
"I made a decision because if I leave these people and they are killed, I will never be a free man again in my life," he said. "I will be a prisoner of my own conscience."
Using wile and craft, Rusesabagina negotiated with army officers to protect the hotel's occupants from the killings taking place daily in the streets outside. In this terror-filled atmosphere, negotiations took hours, sometimes days, and often came with threats to Rusesabagina's life.
To better negotiate, Rusesabagina appealed to Sabena Airlines to fax a letter from Belgium naming him acting manager of the Mille Collines. The company responded with a letter naming him acting manager of all Sabena properties in Rwanda.
His wife, Tatiana, a Tutsi, was not the hearty woman portrayed in the film, he said. After one near-death experience, she remained in bed for weeks, unable to even turn over on her own.
Tutsi rebel forces eventually stopped the genocide.
But the death threats to Rusesabagina continued, and in 1996, after learning of a plot to kill him, he fled the country with his wife and children. They settled in Brussels, Belgium, where Rusesabagina started a transportation company, now based in Lusaka, Zambia.
The talk was organized by the school's Africana Institute, a resource center for the study of race, culture and history.
Many in the audience were African natives exposed to violent conflicts in their birth nations.
Second-year student Lafayette Moore, 21, of East Orange, told of being raised in Liberia, a country that his father, a government worker, was forced to flee as rebels approached the capital, Monrovia. At age 7, he said, he was forced to watch the repeated rape of his mother by rebels.
First-year student Fatmata Mansaray, 17, of Newark, a Sierra Leone native whose family fled fighting for the Ivory Coast, now Cote d'Ivoire, found the talk moving.
"It was sad," Mansaray said of Rusesabagina's account. "I was crying."
© 2005 NJ.com All Rights Reserved.