Rwandan Humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina

Paul Rusesabagina has been hailed worldwide as a hero for saving more than 1,000 people at a hotel he managed in Rwanda in 1994. His story was portrayed in the critically lauded movie Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle. Rusesabagina often speaks out on the issue of debt relief for African nations including Uganda, Benin and Rwanda.

Ed Gordon, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Africans and international aid groups are praising the deal reached by the finance ministers of the eight most wealthy nations in the world this weekend. The G8 ministers agreed to forgive $40 billion of debt to poor nations. The 18 countries, 14 of them in Africa, include Uganda, Benin and Rwanda. The deal came one day after Paul Rusesabagina called for international intervention in Africa. He was speaking to a group of businessmen in Atlanta, Georgia. Rusesabagina has been hailed worldwide as a hero for saving more than a thousand people at a hotel he managed in Rwanda in 1994. His story was told in the critically acclaimed movie "Hotel Rwanda," released last year.

(Soundbite of "Hotel Rwanda")

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): (As Paul Rusesabagina) My name is Paul Rusesabagina. I am the house manager of the most luxurious hotel in the capital of Rwanda, a place that my family and I happily called our home--until the day everything changed.

GORDON: Joshua Levs reports that Rusesabagina described his lost faith in humanity, and called for help to end African dictatorships.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

Paul Rusesabagina is a highly sought after speaker these days, and he doesn't hold back. Addressing a private group of about a dozen business leaders who gathered at the Carter Center in Atlanta to discuss their aid efforts around the world, he described the response of the international community in 1994, when Hutu militias in Rwanda began slaughtering Tutsis.

Mr. PAUL RUSESABAGINA (Saved Over 1,000 Rwandan Lives in 1994): When the most serious things started, we saw them turning backs, closing ears and eyes, and running away.

LEVS: He described how difficult it was for him, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, to save people with no help from the rest of the world, while more than a million people were killed over a few months. And as in the movie, Rusesabagina said he hit a turning point when the militias insisted he kill his own family.

Mr. RUSESABAGINA: That is when, really for the first time, I started dealing. That is when really I started negotiating.

LEVS: How he saved more than 1,200 people is largely captured in the film, which he has praised. What you can't see in the movie is what he feels now, 11 years later. He told the group in Atlanta the genocide reshaped his understanding of humanity. He once thought people were caring.

Mr. RUSESABAGINA: But after what I went through--after seeing people butchering others, bringing dead bodies, making roadblocks, and sitting on those dead bodies drinking beers--I have taken the human being as a wild--for instance, a wild, big fish, which might be lying to the bottom of a sea. It might just jump out anytime and destroy all we can see.

LEVS: He said he no longer trusts anyone. Rusesabagina now lives in Belgium. He said Rwanda is still plagued with problems, including corruption, with money earmarked for reconciliation efforts disappearing and many people imprisoned for no clear reason.

Mr. RUSESABAGINA: We need the international community to intervene and help us, doing justice; and then after doing justice, dialogue.

LEVS: He pushed for aid, saying money and volunteers in Rwanda and throughout Africa could make a big difference.

Mr. RUSESABAGINA: But what Africans need, as a whole, is not only someone who can come and pay their education, but it is also to change the systems in Africa--to help us to change, to find lasting solutions. Africa is ruled by dictators, and those dictators should know that one day they also can be brought to justice.

LEVS: While the film and speaking appearances have given Rusesabagina a larger global platform, it's not clear whether that platform has yet translated into any tangible international efforts. But one attendee to the gathering says she has seen a change. Lisa Foster, assistant director for the International Philanthropy Program at the drug company Pfizer, says people have come to her after seeing "Hotel Rwanda" and asked about a program providing free medicine.

Mr. LISA FOSTER (Assistant Director, International Philanthropy Program, Pfizer): A number of employees who were particularly touched have taken a renewed interest in the programs that Pfizer has internationally, particularly in Africa, and they are asking us--what can they do to help.

LEVS: Foster and others at the gathering said they were moved by Rusesabagina's words. The group Building Blocks International was responsible for bringing him to the US. Building Blocks International focuses on increasing aid from corporations to places all over the world by helping them maximize the effectiveness of the dollars they spend and the volunteers they send. The group's CEO, Jennifer Anastasoff, said Rusesabagina's story shows her how business skills can prove lifesaving tools.

Ms. JENNIFER ANASTASOFF (CEO, Building Blocks International): He was a business guy who was put in an extraordinarily tragic and awful situation and used his business skills and his personal abilities to make a significant difference for the people in that community.

LEVS: She said it makes her think about what an ordinary person could do in an extraordinary situation, though, she says, Rusesabagina is anything but ordinary. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

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