Lyman students learn about genocide from Rwandan 'Power of One' Paul Rusesabagina

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Lebanon - posted Mon., May. 20, 2013
Paul Rusesabagina appeared at Lyman Memorial High School on May 14 to speak of his experiences during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, events that inspired the film 'Hotel Rwanda.'
Paul Rusesabagina appeared at Lyman Memorial High School on May 14 to speak of his experiences during the Rwanda genocide of 1994, events that inspired the film 'Hotel Rwanda.'

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was working as the manager of the Hôtel des Diplomates in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali.  On March 31, 1994, Rusesabagina returned to Rwanda from a trip to Belgium with his wife and 18-month-old son. On that day, “We do not know what is going to happen six days later,” said Rusesabagina, appearing before a packed auditorium at Lyman Memorial High School on May 14.

On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali. The assassination set in motion the Rwandan Genocide and the First Congo War. “Between 800,000 and one million people were killed,” said Rusesabagina, before launching into a brief history of the Rwandan political climate.

The three predominant ethnic groups in Rwanda are the Hutus (about 85 percent of the population), the Tutsis (14 percent), and the Twa (1 percent).  There is a long history of tension between the groups. Responsibility for the 1994 presidential assassination is disputed, but it resulted in the immediate national mobilization of anti-Tutsi militias, the Interahamwe, who proceeded to set up roadblocks across Rwanda and slaughter every Tutsi or Hutu sympathizer until driven away by rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) troops.

On the morning of April 7, said Rusesabagina, his son, who was not quite 14 years old, went over to the home of their neighbors. He found the entire family had been slaughtered, some of them still alive but mortally wounded. The son ran back home, went into his room, and remained silent for days. “To this day he does not understand how a human being could be so criminal,” said Rusesabagina.

By the end of that day, Rusesabagina had 26 people in his home. “Life completely stopped in Rwanda,” he said. From April 6 through July 4, Rwanda was brought to a standstill as the slaughter continued. Rusesabagina described a moment when he faced 20 soldiers sent by the new government. They wanted him to kill all of the people inside his home before coming with them to the Belgian-owned Hôtel des Mille Collines.

“What do you say?” asked Rusesabagina. “All my life I’d been taught to fight with words.” Rusesabagina said that he wheedled and compromised with the soldiers. “I said I didn’t know how to use guns, and even if I did, I didn’t see why I should kill the people with me.” So started the struggle depicted in “Hotel Rwanda,” a 2004 film directed by Terry George. The film resulted in Rusesabagina becoming well-known for hiding and protecting 1,268 refugees at the Hôtel des Mille Collines during the genocide.

“I learned how to deal with evil,” said Rusesabagina.

Rusesabagina used his connections in Belgium and in Rwanda, along with his powers of persuasion, to keep the refugees safe, he said. He described using mattresses for protection against bullets and grenades, and drinking water from the hotel swimming pool. By the end of the massacre, four of Rusesebagina’s eight siblings remained alive. His wife, Tatiana, lost her mother, four nieces and four nephews to the genocide, and her brother and sister-in-law were missing. Her father paid Hutu militia to be executed to escape a fate he felt would be much more horrific.

After the genocide, Rusesabagina remained in Rwanda for two more years before applying for asylum in Belgium. He has spoken out against Paul Kagame, Rwandan president and former head of the RPF. In his autobiography, “An Ordinary Man,” Rusesabagina writes: "Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis... Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own."

He has set up the Hotel Rwanda Paul Rusesabagina Foundation, which claims as its mission: “to prevent future genocides and raise awareness of the need for a new truth and reconciliation process in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region of Africa.” Find out more about the foundation here:

Kevin Brodie, a Lyman teacher who was instrumental in bringing Rusesabagina to Lebanon, said that the school had been trying to secure a visit for many years. The visit was part of the diversity programming at the school for the 2012-13 school year, programming which this year shared an overriding theme of “The Power of One.”

“It’s totally perfect that he’s come this year,” said Brodie. “If you asked me for a person who best describes the power of one, I think Paul would have to be at the top of the list.”

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