April 21, 2005

Hotel Rwanda Star Relates Genocide at Cornell

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“How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” was the resoundingly shameful question asked by the film Hotel Rwanda’s hero, Paul Rusesabagina, when genocide swept through his nation in 1994. The man, made popular through the critically acclaimed movie, visited Cornell last night to speak about his haunting experience and the movie that sprung out of his unique story.

The sold-out show, sponsored by Cornell’s Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Group (STARS) in the Statler Auditorium was a night of remembering all victims of genocide, particularly the Tutsis of Rwanda.

“Remembering one genocide is remembering the victims of all genocide,” said coordinator Shiri Sandler ’05.

Rusesabagina, greeted by a standing ovation, started his lecture with a succinct history lesson on his country’s past, leading up to the genocide.

“Even dogs were evacuated and human beings left behind,” he told the audience, expressing his frustration with the UN and its lack of mercy.

He told his story to an audience obviously enraptured by the man behind the disturbing and revealing movie.

“Everyone seemed especially grateful to hear from Mr. Rusesabagina. His lecture didn’t just address a past event; he spoke volumes on the condition of our world today,” said Mike Wang ’06.

After another standing ovation, a question and answer session followed. The audience was particularly interested when two Cornellians from Rwanda asked Rusesabagina pressing questions.

With a smile and confident words, the man openly shared his thoughts.

Rusesabagina was a manager at the Belgian-owned Hotel de Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. Father and devoted husband to Tutsi wife Tatiana, he worked mercilessly with “style” to keep the elite hotel afloat and its visitors content. Savvy with his dealings, especially with the powerful, Rusesabagina knew how to work a person towards his favor.

This was an especially indispensable trait when Rusesabagina’s Hutu neighbors began to kill his Tutsi neighbors in a war that demanded Rusesabagina to step up to the plate.

With nowhere to run, Tutsis sought out help from the “only Hutu they can trust.” Rusesabagina could not turn his back on his people and eventually kept 1,200 refugees in his hotel for approximately 11 weeks. By calling in favors and resorting to desperate measures, he managed to keep the refugees alive.

He offered a haven during the dark 100 days when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slain.

The Hutu and Tutsi conflict stems from the time of European settlement in Rwanda, when Belgians distinguished the Tutsis from the Hutus by physical attributes, namely by their lighter skin, taller and more elegant stature, and thinner noses.

“The Belgians used the Tutsis to run the country then when they left, they left the power to the Hutus. And of course the Hutus took revenge on the Tutsis for years of oppression,” said movie character Benedict, an expert on the subject.

The U.S. Department of State website contains folklore that tells of Tutsis subjugating Hutus during the 15th century and later years, establishing a monarch and a feudal hierarchy of Tutsi nobles and gentry, causing division between the two. However, these lines were said to have faded over the years, or at least until the Belgians entered the picture.

Resentment, having grown exponentially over the years, harbored a situation ripe for the genocide. The immediate event that triggered the massacre was the murder of Rwandan president, Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 2004 when he was shot down in his plane.

Continuous peace talks between the Hutu president and Tutsis, specifically the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), Tutsi refugees in Uganda, were underway when the president was shot down in his plane. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis and immediately filled the streets, killing the innocent Tutsis with cheap machetes and gnarled hearts.

The Hutu militia, known as Interahamwe, was merciless. Encouraged by propaganda through the radio, the Hutus killed countless Tutsis and Hutus that didn’t join in on the vicious killing.

Called “cockroaches,” the Tutsis had nowhere to turn. Only some found refuge, like those who turned to Paul Rusesabagina for help.

The Rwandan killings had the “fastest rate of murders for its period in all of the 20th century,” said Rusesabagina.

During the 1994 genocide, heroes were few. While the frenzied Hutus intent on wiping out the Tutsi population ravaged the small Africa country, most shut their eyes.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners,” said reporter Jack Daglish in the movie, when Rusesabagina expressed hope in expecting intervention through media attention of the killings. The hope that Rusesabagina banked on never came.

The battle ended when the RPF captured Kigali in July. The genocide resulted in 800,000 deaths, two million escapes, and one million internally displaced Rwandans.

Questions clouding the genocide still carry on over a decade later. Many relate Rwanda to the current situation in Sudan, burning over the term “genocide,” and trying to stop a tragedy that most of the world does not even see or recognize.

When the world told Rusesabagina, “We think you’re dirt. You’re black. You’re not even a nigger — you’re an African,” instead of swallowing the lies, he stood strong. He is now shaming the world to send help. Perhaps Darfur can actually benefit, or at least that is the hope of Rusesabagina, that the world powers will not pull out, “encouraging the killers.”

“Hotel Rwanda itself is a message,” Rusesabagina said. He encourages students, leaders, superpowers, and the world to hear and digest the message, so that instead of innocent people being wiped out, genocide itself will be.

Archived article by Anita Oh
Sun Contributor