Saving Rwandan Refugees

Commentator Paul Rusesabagina saved more than 1,200 people from being massacred during the Rwandan genocide. His heroism inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. He received a humanitarian award Wednesday from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. Rusesabagina talks about his experiences and his empathy for refugees everywhere.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today in Washington, the UNHCR will present a humanitarian award to Paul Rusesabagina. He inspired the movie "Hotel Rwanda," helping to save more than 1,200 refugees during the Rwandan genocide. Members of the Hutu majority killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus while the rest of the world did almost nothing to stop them. After those first 100 days of terror, Paul Rusesabagina spent time in a refugee camp, then returned to his job at the hotel.

PAUL RUSESABAGINA:

Genocide is madness. It makes monsters of normal people. In Rwanda, it was not just adults who used machetes against their neighbors. Women and children participated. The people of Rwanda, poisoned by hypnotic and ubiquitous hate radio and by years of economic suffering, turned against their fellow citizens.

On July 12th, 1994, my wife, a friend and I drove south of Kigali to see what remained of a district where my relatives lived. The whole country smelled of dead bodies. You couldn't see a live human being; you could only hear dogs barking. When I arrived at my town, the whole region was empty, but by luck, I saw my older brother. He and his wife were the only ones left in a place that had had about a thousand people. We asked him what had happened to his neighbors. He told me that some had been killed by the militia, others by rebels, and others were still burning in houses.

I could see bodies burning, the houses that had been torched. My brother was worried for me. He said, `Listen, my brother, please do me a favor and leave this place because the trees and the walls have ears and eyes.' We then drove to my mother-in-law's. Her two houses had been destroyed. She had been killed with her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren. We sat in the ruins of the houses and cried like children.

That experience opened my mind very wide. It was like coming out of a fog. Up until then, I had not realized the skill of a genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the combat zones surrounding Kigali. The lucky ones were forced to start their lives anew as refugees. Refugee life means all of your plans, goals and objectives vanish. Hunger, bitterness and hopelessness take over. Survivors become very hungry, the way of life loses its meaning.

Today, my heart is heavy for the refugees in Darfur, in Congo, in Burundi, in Somalia, all of whom are experiencing that terror, the hunger, the hopelessness of refugee life. So what I ask is that the nations of the world provide hope to these people right now, the United Nations should implement their resolution and bring the war criminals before the International Criminal Court. An arms and oil embargo should be imposed.

We know that the Sudanese weapons are bought with the profits from oil. We know helping refugees is a temporary solution. The long-term solution is to hold the Sudanese government and militias accountable. It's the responsibility of one of us to ensure that our governments stop genocides. We cannot allow them to evade their duty where thousands or millions perish. Otherwise, we will all be responsible for perpetuating the genocides that will inevitably occur in the future.

MONTAGNE: Paul Rusesabagina lives in exile in Brussels. He was the subject of the movie "Hotel Rwanda."

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