The real-life hotel manager

Ten years after a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people, the consumer world's eyes shifted to the small Central African nation called Rwanda with the release of Hotel Rwanda, the thrice Oscar-nominated historical film. The story follows the true-life story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the ruling Hutu militia.

Today, Rusesabagina travels around the world, speaking about his experiences during the genocide and his real-life version of the Hotel Rwanda story. Recently, he paid a visit to Vancouver, speaking to an almost full house at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Although Rusesabagina is globally renowned, he is not a public figure without controversy. Those who are skeptical of his story appeared at his lecture at UBC, and stayed for hours afterwards speaking to those who would listen to their side of the story. They accused Rusesabagina of being a thief who exploited people when they were vulnerable, and as a man who did not “deserve to be the face of Africa.” We, the Courier, have decided to expose both sides of this extremely controversial and sensitive topic and open it up for debate.

More than genocide

The Rwandan genocide ‘officially’ began on April 6, 1994, when President Habyarimana, Rwanda’s democratically elected leader, and Burundian President Cyprian Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was attacked and shot down just as it was about to land in the Kigali Airport. Prior to the plane attack, Rwanda had been experiencing a long history of conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis. The Tutsis governed Rwanda prior to 1959, although the Hutu population overthrew the monarchy in November of 1959. “You could see the tensions … between Hutus and Tutusis,” says Rusesabagina, whose mother was Tutsi and his father was Hutu. “These people had been frustrated for years … the genocide was just the climax.”

The sanctuary

April 6th, 1994 “was the beginning of an endless massacre,” says Rusesabagina. That day, the day the genocide began, Rusesabagina was at a dinner party with some friends.  His friend’s wife had recently graduated and Rusesabagina had helped the family get a good job. His wife wasn’t with them at the time, but when the missile struck the airplane she contacted her husband and warned him not to come back. “We stopped eating and drinking, we stopped enjoying,” reminisces Rusesabagina, who told his friends, “’I will see you tomorrow’ ...but tomorrow never came.”

At the end of the first day, twenty-six people had sought out refuge in his house, alongside his wife, and now four children (he adopted his friends’ children upon their death.) “I do not know why people decide to come to my house,” says Rusesabagina. 

He transported everyone, at the time fitting 34 people into his small car, to the hotel Mille Collines – the hotel that became is now popularly referred to as Hotel Rwanda after the movie. The hotel residents survived on corn and dried beans, without water or electricity. The hotel was also frequently under attack. Rusesabagina told of a time when he had looked outside to see soldiers climbing the walls that surrounded the hotel, and he dealt with the threat in the same way that he always did: Diplmotically. “I’ve come to learn through experiences…” he says, “the best weapons are not guns ... they are words.”

Remaining motivated

When you go through such experiences,” says Rusesabagina of his ability to keep fighting, “you never realize what you’re doing.” He pointed out that the genocide doesn’t just find itself out of nowhere and then disappear in one day. “I have come face to face with evil, and we have come up with a compromise,” he declared. “The worst compromise is always better than any judgement.” At the time, he had never held a gun, and he discussed how important and sad it is that history keeps repeating itself. “Both sides were killing,” he stated, “…the whole country was smelling death.”

Truth and reconciliation

During the question and answer period for Rusesabagina, a row of Rwandan students stood in line to challenge his version of the Rwandan genocide. Right after the first question, he was criticized for supporting General Biziungu who caused extensive damage during the genocide. “A good guy?” asked one Tutsi survivor of the genocide, Gentille U, “If he didn’t kill people, then who killed my family?”

I am not defending General Mungo, because I am not his attorney,” says Rusesabagina, adding that Mungo acted diplomatically with him when his hotel was threatened outside of that situation he did not want to comment.

In order for Rwanda to have a positive future, according to Rusesabagina, truth and reconciliation is the method that needs to be used. He cited the model of South Africa, a country that, though dialogue, brought the whole truth to the table.

He is very critical of Rwanda’s present government, calling it “a gray of elite.” Yet, as one professor mentioned to Rusesabagina, statistically, Rwanda appears to be doing briliiantly: it has a low rate of HIV/AIDS, life expectancy has increased in the past ten years, and the country’s GDP has improved. When compared to South Africa, in this respect, Rwanda is much better off. Rusesabagina, however, does not think these statistics are an accurate representation of Rwanda itself. “You will see that many Rwandans … in rural areas … don’t eat two meals a day.”

After an hour, Rusesabagina walked off the stage, leaving his audience with a powerful message: Rwanda’s genocide was over, but Africa’s war with the world was still ongoing and needed a revolutionary change if things were going to be different.

Against the grain

Two rows of Rwandan students waited patiently for their turn to ask Rusesabina questions but were cut off due to a time limit to the talk. Still, the Rwandan students attempted to speak into the forum's microphone but it had been already turned off. The audience, who had been preparing to exit the Chan Centre, froze in their place and began to listen.

The Rwandans disputed most of what Rusesabagina had included in his lecture, and even accused him of taking money from the people who sought refuge in the hotel. Dan Kashagama, a Rwandan himself, questioned why Rusesabagina would have to do this, taking money from people when they are at their most vulnerable. He pointed out that the economy was suffering anyway, so there was even less of a reason to take from people the little money they had left.

Africa’s Problem
What Rusesabagina and the Hotel Rwanda phenomenon is really about, says Kashagama, is to criticize the current government of Rwanda, which is run by Tutsis, and thereby “keeping score.” Both Hutus and Tutsis were killed during the genocide, and in the aftermath it has become a contest, for lack of a better word, to see who killed more than whom. “Somebody has to decide, ‘you know, the cycle breaks here',” says Kashagama.

Kashagama’s vision goes beyond what happened after the Rwandan genocide. He has a strong vision for all of Africa, and says that “none of these guys [neither Hollywood nor Rusesabagina] should be speaking for us.” He questioned whose interest it was to “perpetuate this kind of violence.” The people who are supplying the weapons, he says, is the answer. He referenced the commonality of machetes during the genocide, but pointed out that there isn’t a machete factory in Rwanda. The machetes came from an outside country, in this instance, that country was Belgium who held colonial rule until 1962.

The answer

The problem with Africa,” he says, “is that generally it is very oppressive.” As well, as a result of colonialism, Africa was divided on the basis of land, in a division of Anglo versus France. He accused the nature of the international system of being short-sighted, of only focusing on the present, on a quick solution, instead of how to fix the problems in the long term.

Let’s demand due process,” says Kashagama. He wants to see tariffs put on international payments, a unified currency for Africa, and a Pan-African Parliament. He hopes that the combination of these factors will help Africa move away from its colonial past and gain independence from the rest of the world.

Aid” for Africa does not come through money, he explained. When you send money or products overseas, you end up crashing the local economy and it makes it more difficult for the countries to remain independent.

By the end, most of the audience and Rusesabagina had left the Chan centre. However, even hours after everyone left, Kashagama was still speaking to a group of seven students listening attentively. It was clear that the dialogue on Rwanda needs to be ongoing.

//Samantha Thompson
assistant news editor

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