By Kristen Miller
Eastern students, faculty and the Richmond community had the opportunity to listen to a speech two weeks ago from a person Eastern President Doug Whitlock referred to as “an authentic hero.”Paul Rusesabagina-whose experiences during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda-spoke on campus Wednesday and gave listeners a chance to hear a first-hand account from someone who endured the violence.
Rusesabagina was born in Rwanda in 1954 and was still living there when the genocide began.
There were two tribes in Rwanda at the time of the killings: the Tutsis and the Hutus.
Rusesabagina said the genocide started when Hutu extremists began killing members of the Tutsi tribe and moderate Hutus.
It did not end until 15 percent of Rwanda’s population had been killed. And Rusesabagina was stuck in the middle of it.
“[After] 9/11/2001, everyone would remember where he or she was. Just like you, I remember where I was,” Rusesabagina said.
He was celebrating his wife’s graduation from the national university when the killings started on April 6, 1994, and remembers leaving his brother’s house for the last time.
“I never knew this was the last time in our lives I would shake their hands,” he said.
His brother and sister-in-law were never found.
Over the next few days, several people showed up on Rusesabagina’s doorstep looking for a place to hide.
That number would eventually reach 32 people, not including Rusesabagina, his wife and children, he said.
When Hutu soldiers showed up on Rusesabagina’s doorstep and took him, his family and the 32 people away, threatening to kill them all, he said he was the most afraid.
“For the first time in my life I was threatened and I was scared,” he said.
But Rusesabagina also pointed out a lesson he learned from that first experience of being threatened by the soldiers.
“Whenever you want to deal with people, come down to their level,” he said. “The best weapon in life is not a missile or a gun.”
Rusesabagina said the best weapon is words and he used his words to talk the soldiers out of killing.
Eventually, Rusesabagina was taken to Hotel des Milles Collines, a hotel he previously managed, with his family.
Refugees fleeing the killings flocked to the hotel and their numbers reached over 1,000, he said.
Rusesabagina used his influence with high-ranking army officials-gained while managing the hotel-to set up roadblocks to protect the refugees, he said.
He even socialized with Hutu soldiers and officials, giving them liquor, money and cigars to keep them close and to learn what was going to happen.
“If you want to know what’s next, you need to keep those people close to you,” he said, repeating the saying, “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”
Rusesabagina, his family and the countless refugees lived for weeks with the constant threat of being killed by Hutu soldiers, Rusesabagina said.
On May 27 and 28, over a month after the killings started, the refugees at the Hotel des Milles Collines were evacuated after weeks of having no water or electricity, scarce food and the shadow of murder hanging over their heads.
Rusesabagina didn’t leave the hotel until June 17.
He remembered walking through the streets after the killings stopped. The roads were covered by dead bodies and the only thing that could be seen were swarms of flies, he said.
“That day was too much for me, for a human being,” Rusesabagina said.
Rusesabagina said he was bitter and angry after the genocide but soon realized that the world didn’t care. Now, he just tries to keep hope.
“I will never cross my hands or fingers and wait for death,” he said.
Rusesabagina’s speech was titled “A Lesson Yet to be Learned” and with the killings going on in Sudan now, Rusesabagina had one question.
“Have we leaned our lesson?” he asked. “I doubt very much.”
Rusesabagina said he’s disappointed to see nothing has been learned from the past and calls the killings in Darfur a “new type of genocide.”
“The whole world has closed eyes and ears,” he said. The words, “never again” are the two most abused words, he added.
Rusesabagina said you have to play the game and make others see what is happening.
“My message to you is to stand up and raise awareness. You are the future leaders of this world. Make it the way you want it to be. The ball is on your field,” he said.
“If you don’t go down to the field and play, you will never score.