Paul Rusesabagina - the modest Rwandan

Published Feb 22, 2005


By Clare Rudebeck

Paul Rusesabagina is perfectly at home in a suite at the Dorchester. He rises to greet me, shakes my hand and tells me to sit wherever I feel most comfortable. It is immediately obvious why this son of Rwandan farmers rose to become manager of one of Africa's top hotels, the Milles Collines.

His charm is perfectly pitched, instantly putting you at your ease.

It was this same charm that made the Milles Collines a destination for both the Rwandan elite and European tourists. And it was also what enabled Rusesabagina to save the lives of more than 1 000 people during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

A decade after 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days by Hutu militiamen, the story of how Rusesabagina sheltered 1 200 Tutsis in his four-star hotel has been made into a film. Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo and Nick Nolte, received three Oscar nominations last month and, soon afterwards, a British distributor.

Rusesabagina, 50, is in London to take part in the film's press junket. Alongside Cheadle and Okonedo, he has been giving interviews all day. Dressed in a pink blazer, he laughs easily and fields my questions in a soft, measured voice. "How did I save those people?

Well, first of all, I did not save anyone, I just helped," he says.

Despite being made the "hero" of a major film, Rusesabagina remains resolutely modest about his remarkable role during the atrocities.

When I ask him how he feels being compared to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved 1 100 Jews from the Nazi gas chambers, he simply says: "If Oskar Schindler had only had to stay strong for 100 days to save those people, as I did, I would agree with you. But he went through it for five years. He was a very brave man."

Rusesabagina's ordeal began three days into the genocide when the Interahamwe Hutu militia arrived at his home in Kigali. He is a Hutu, but his wife, Tatiana, is a Tutsi. As a result, he was ordered to kill her and their four children. However, he managed to negotiate a bribe with the militia leader in exchange for their lives.

He and his family then fled to the Milles Collines, where the presence of Western tourists afforded them some protection. Within days, every Tutsi in Kigali knew that their best chance of survival was at the hotel and it was soon overflowing.

Hotel Rwanda documents Rusesabagina's three-month struggle to keep the Interahamwe out of the place. During that period, 80 percent of the country's Tutsi population was wiped out.

"If there is a secret to how I succeeded in keeping those people safe, it was that I did not change in any way," he says in English, one of the five languages he speaks. "I remained the hotel manager. I went to my office every day. I made sure there were enough supplies. That helped me to stay calm in that madness."

Instead of tending to the whims of European tourists (who were soon evacuated), he struggled to keep more than 1 000 people alive in a war zone.

"I had to feed those people every day," he says, "yet the water was cut off and we could not go out to get food." He filled the swimming pool with drinking water and rationed its use, and smuggled in food from a market.

Meanwhile, Rwanda's power brokers continued to visit the hotel. Rusesabagina would entertain these men, metres from where terrified Tutsis were hiding.

"The militia came to the Milles Collines all the time throughout the killings," he says. "They would pop in, have a drink and chat with me. If you want to keep an eye on someone, you keep them close to you."

At these meetings, he negotiated for the lives of his charges, bribing those in power with money and alcohol from the hotel's cellars.

He also had a stroke of luck. The militia had tried to cut all the telephone lines, but had missed one fax line into the hotel. Rusesabagina used this to lobby the rest of the world on behalf of the Tutsis.

He called the hotel's owners in Belgium, the White House, the United Nations and the French foreign ministry - everyone he could think of.

"I was just exposing the situation," says Rusesabagina. "When I phoned the White House, I told them: 'This is what is going on. What are you doing about it? Can't the United States convince the rest of the world to intervene, to help innocent civilians who are being butchered in my country?' "

But the rest of the world did not intervene. When the genocide began on 6 April, 1994, there were 2 500 UN troops already in the country, but they did not have a mandate to use their weapons to stop the Interahamwe. Fifteen days later, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to withdraw most of those troops.

Rusesabagina says that those he spoke to in the West's institutions were always sympathetic. "They were kind in words, but not in actions," he says. "There was always an excuse."

Watching the UN desert his country brought him to his lowest point during the genocide. "I almost collapsed when I saw the Westerners being evacuated," he says. "I couldn't believe my eyes. I could not believe that the world's soldiers feared a militia."

This memory - as well as many others from the genocide - is still fresh in his mind. "When I watch the film, as I have done many times, it feels as though the killings happened yesterday," he says.

Now living in Brussels with his family, Rusesabagina runs a transport company and is optimistic about the future. But he says that what he witnessed shook his faith in everything - his countrymen, God and mankind as a whole.

"After what I went through, I had to change," he says. "I used to trust people. I used to think I was a good judge of character. But when I saw people changing, killing their neighbours, I lost faith. I had to adapt how I felt about God as a result."

His anger against the international community is tangible. "I am pleased with the film because it conveys the message I wanted conveyed," he says.

"I wanted to tell the international community that they are failures. I wanted to say to the world: 'What you see in this film has happened and you did nothing. Today, the same thing is happening in Darfur, Sudan, and in other parts of the world. What are you going to do?' "

As an unofficial ambassador against genocide, he visited Darfur this month where, according to UN estimates, more than 1,8 million people have been forced to flee their homes and at least 70 000 people have died in the last two years.

Fifteen years ago, Rusesabagina had no idea that his life would take this course. "Before 1994, I was a peaceful hotel manager, caring for my family, doing my job," he says. "I had a good salary. I had nothing to complain about."

He enjoyed the luxuries his job brought him - good food, whisky and the ear of the elite. And, like Schindler, he was able to save lives because he was a confidant of the mass murderers.

He drank with them, he knew their secrets and he knew how to bribe them. Instinctively, he knew that pleading would result only in a speedy death for himself and those he was trying to save.

Rusesabagina succeeded because he was an ordinary man, who had previously used his intelligence and charm to make his way in the world. But when his country descended into madness, he kept his nerve, held on to his humanity and did what he could.

"When the killings started, I knew I could not follow," he says. "I just tried to handle things in a calm way. I didn't panic - that was all." - The Independent

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