ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Today marks the 12th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. Over the course of 100 days, intertribal violence left nearly one million dead and many more with the psychological scars of ethnic cleansing. One man who witnessed the killings around him did something about it. Hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina saved 1,200 countrymen that sought refuge in his hotel. And his heroic actions inspired the Oscar nominated movie Hotel Rwanda. Actor Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina in the film.
(Soundbite of movie “Hotel Rwanda”):
Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): (As Paul Rusesabagina) There will be no rescue, no intervention for us. We can only save ourselves. Many of you know influential people abroad; you must call these people. You must tell them what will happen to us. But when you say goodbye, say it as though you are reaching through the phone. Let them know that if they let go of that hand, you will die.
GORDON: Now, Rusesabagina has written an autobiography titled An Ordinary Man. In addition to discussing the terrifying days inside the hotel, he offers a wider perspective on colonialism, tribal identity and conflict resolution. He spoke earlier with NPR's Farai Chideya.
FARIA CHIDEYA reporting:
As you state in this book, the genocide killed 800,000 people, an average of five people per minute during the hundred days of killing. How do you make sense of numbers like that?
Mr. PAUL RUSESABAGINA (Rwandan Author): In the 100 days, the Rwandan genocide killed about 800,000 people. That was approximately 12 percent of the whole the population of that small nation in the center of Africa. It was unbelievable; husbands were killing their wives; wives killing husbands; people killing their children; piling dead bodies on the road to make road blocks; sitting on them and drinking beer. The whole country went bad.
CHIDEYA: This all began with ethnic divisions between Hutus and Tutsis. And your mother was a Tutsi; your wife is a Tutsi. How meaningful are these divisions? Obviously, they're meaningful enough to have gotten a lot of people killed, but where did they come from?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Actually, this is rooted in Rwandan history. It started a long time before colonization. During that time, Hutus were slaves to Tutsis. So when colonizers came in, they made such a situation, and again, took Tutsis to be more intelligent, to be more close to Europeans. So they took them as the leaders, whereas Hutus were supposed to follow orders. This then lead to a social revolution, the 1959 Hutus revolution.
CHIDEYA: You saw a lot of things during these 100 days of terror. What was the worst thing that you saw during that time?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: The first bad experience I went through, that was when they (unintelligible) my knife. When I evacuated from my house I was (unintelligible) by the army because the government had taken over the Diplomat Hotel, where I was the general manager. About a mile away from my house I was stopped by the same. Where on the street we were stopped, there were so many dead bodies. Some of them their heads completely cut off, missing heads, others bellies opened; others mutilated. When they stopped me and told me, listen, you trader, we are not killing you, but have this gun and kill all of your cockroaches in these cars, I knew those guys were not joking. They were all around the street. There were many died bodies. So I just stayed speechless for five minutes watching the captain who was handing me over the gun.
And after five I told him, listen, my friend, I do understand you. You guys are tired, but we can solve this problem otherwise. And then we started finding other solutions. After two hours of dialogue, the argument was to take us to the hotel and then I give them some cash. Here, I will tell you that even the hardest heart you have ever heard or seen always has a very small part of it with which you can always play around and get a better solution.
CHIDEYA: Let's listen to you describe the hotel that you ran, where you saved the lives.
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: I suppose then every capital city in Africa, even those in the poorest countries, must have a place like the Hotel Michelin near its heart. All impoverished nations on earth, in fact, have these few basic things: a flag, an army, borders, something resembling a government and at least one luxury hotel. When operatives from the Red Cross in Geneva, or researchers from Amnesty International in London come here on their missions, they don't stay in local guesthouses. They stay where they are treated to higher standards of comfort, even though they've come to work on uncomfortable problems like AIDS, and deforestation, torture and starvation. So there's always a demand for a spurn of opulence in a nation of madhouses. It is not all bad.
CHIDEYA: So the hotel where you sheltered 1,200 people was originally pristine and very fancy and a place where people made deals. How did it look after all of these people crammed into a space that wasn't designed for them?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Well, we had more than a thousand people staying in there. You can imagine a refugee camp that was a hotel. Right from the beginning, our water was cut off. When the water was cut off, I had no alternative than rationing the swimming pool water. I could go down around the--sit or stand around the swimming pool, watch the level of the water always going down and wondering where I could find another drop for the following week or two weeks.
CHIDEYA: Your father, who you loved dearly and who died at the age of 93, told you a story once about a wounded lion. Can you tell us that story and what it means to you?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: That is the legacy from my father. Once, he told me a story about a wounded lion that came to a house. When the lion came in, it is also in our tradition, even a lion, if it comes near to your house, you have to shelter it and help it to get well before freeing it. It was a message to tell me, to tell us, his sons and daughters, now, listen, my children, don't ever push away anyone who comes to you.
CHIDEYA: And in fact, your father and your family sheltered refugees during the 1959 Hutu rebellion or revolution. And you found yourself, many years later, in a parallel situation. Did you ever wish that that burden was lifted from you, that you didn't have to shelter people, that you could just say, you know what, I have to save my family, because you were afraid for them too, weren't you?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Well, I was very much afraid for them. But in 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, I did not have time to sit down and think about my family. On day one of the genocide, I had 26 strangers who came to stay in my house. So when I left my house, my own conscience told me then: Listen, do not leave these people behind, and I took them to the hotel. And by the time I arrived in the Michelin Hotel, there were about 400 refugees already, but I did not have really time to sit down and think about myself. Can you imagine a situation whereby you don't have water and looking, smuggling beans, dry beans and corn that was our everyday meal. And yet, upstairs you have threatened refugees and militia men coming in and soldiers, the army. The whole day, my 24 hours, were always, every day, fully busy.
CHIDEYA: Did the United Nations, did the United States, step in to try to stop this?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Unfortunately, the UN did not respond to our expectations. In 1993, when the rebels, who are now on power, were butchering people in the zones they controlled, we saw the UN coming in with 2,500 soldiers, but when the genocide broke out, just day one of the genocide, the militia -- the army killed ten Belgian soldiers from the UN, the United Nations peacekeepers. Immediately, Belgium decided to pull out, backed by the United Kingdom, the United States, the whole world decided to abandon a whole nation to thugs. So the UN, actually, to us has been a failure, a total failure.
CHIDEYA: Now, another nation is facing a genocide. In Darfur Sudan, people are dying, and there doesn't seem to be the will to stop it. Have we learned anything from Rwanda?
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Last year, I went to Darfur to see with my own eyes what is going on, and what is going on in Darfur is what was going on in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994. There is a militia, the Janjaweed militia, armed by the Khartoum government on horses, killing those people fleeing villages being destroyed. By the time we were there, more than two million people had left their homes and gathered in camps. In Rwanda, between 90 and 94, we had more than a million people displaced within the country, and today, this is the same in Darfur. It is a total disaster, exactly as what was going on in Rwanda between 90 and 94. So history keeps on repeating itself, doesn't ever teach us any lesson, and never again has turned into again and again and again.
CHIDEYA: Paul Rusesabagina is the author of An Ordinary Man. Thank you, Mr. Rusesabagina.
Mr. RUSESABAGINA: Thank you.
ED GORDON, host:
That was NPR's Farai Chideya. You can hear Paul Rusesabagina read from his autobiography, plus read about the moments the killing began. Go to our website at npr.org.