Hotel manager, author, humanitarian
For 76 days in 1994, as the central African nation of Rwanda seethed with genocidal fury, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina sheltered 1,268 people who would otherwise probably have been hacked to death with machetes on the streets outside. His resources consisted of a telephone, a liquor cabinet, and an inborn ability to defuse confrontation through conversation. Though he faced likely death on numerous occasions as a result of his activities, Rusesabagina has declined the designation of hero. "A hero is someone who has done something that is miraculous," he pointed out to Robert Taylor of the Contra Costa Times. "When each and every person does what he is supposed to do, shall we call him a hero?"
The film Hotel Rwanda was based on Rusesabagina's story. It has been compared with Schindler's List, which told the true story of a German industrialist who saved the lives of a comparable number of Jews during World War II, but Rusesabagina rejects that comparison as well. "If Oskar Schindler had only had to stay strong for 100 days to save those people, as I did, I would agree with you," he told Clare Rudebeck of London's Independent. "But he went through it for five years.
He was a very brave man." In his autobiography, An Ordinary Man, Rusesabagina argued that "the individual's most potent weapon is a stubborn belief in the triumph of common decency. It is a simple belief, but it is not at all naïve. It is, in fact, the shrewdest attitude possible. It is the best way to sabotage evil."
Raised in Mud House
One of nine children in a rural Rwandan farm family, Paul Rusesabagina was born in 1954 near the village of Nkomero. His father, Thomas Rupfure, was a local elder whose authority in settling disputes was respected. Rwandan surnames are given by parents at birth, and Rusesabagina's, in his native Kinyarwanda language, means "warrior that disperses the enemies." His parents were illiterate, but he was sent to a school operated by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in the nearby town of Gitwe, and by the time he was eight he had learned to read French. At 13 he added English on his way to eventual mastery of five languages.
In 1959 the young Rusesabagina had to sleep outside the house as his family provided shelter to refugees seeking shelter from one of the clashes that occurred periodically in Rwanda between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Rusesabagina in his autobiography, backed by several scholars, contended that the Hutu-Tutsi split in Rwanda was intensified and manipulated by European colonial powers who sought to divide the Rwandan people and thus conquer them more easily; Hutus and Tutsis, unlike the ethnic groups that have come into conflict in other African countries, share a common culture and language. As the minority Tutsis were installed as hereditary rulers by Rwanda's Belgian overlords, the social distinctions between the two groups grew deeper. Hutus gained control in elections held in 1959, and hostilities flared several times after Rwanda obtained its independence from Belgium in 1962. Rusesabagina's father was a Hutu, and his mother was Tutsi.
More interested in getting an education than in becoming involved with ethnic politics, Rusesabagina aimed at first toward a career as a pastor, traveling in 1976 to the West African nation of Cameroon to attend a Seventh-Day Adventist school called the Faculty of Theology. But Rusesabagina found that he was drawn to the excitement of city life rather than to the spartan lifestyle of a small-town minister, and he began to question whether he was really cut out for the ministry. Back in Rwanda he moved with his new wife, Esther, to the capital city of Kigali at the end of 1978.
Entered Hotel Industry
The city was full of young men looking for work, but Rusesabagina had several advantages. He spoke French and English well, and giving practice sermons had turned him into an effective communicator. When a childhood friend alerted him to an opening at the posh Mille Collines hotel, he jumped at the chance. Working at the front desk, Rusesabagina quickly gained the attention of his superiors with his linguistic skills and service-oriented attitude. He was quickly promoted, and before long he was the hotel's assistant general manager. Along the way he learned that the hotel's poolside cafe and bar were frequented by Rwanda's movers and shakers as they talked of political affairs and made deals with European companies. Making careful mental note of their liquor preferences, he began to cultivate contacts among the Rwandan elite.
Rusesabagina's marriage suffered and ended in divorce as he worked long hours at each new job, but in 1987 he met a woman named Tatiana, a nurse from a small village in northern Rwanda. She was Tutsi, but that didn't matter to Rusesabagina at the time. Thanks to his newfound contacts in the government, he was able to arrange her transfer to Kigali, and the two were married two years later. They had a son, Tresor, and then three more children, Lys, Roger, and Diane. In 1992 Rusesabagina received another promotion, becoming general manager of the Diplomates Hotel, a sister property of the Mille Collines. Both hotels were owned by the Swiss-Belgian Sabena conglomerate.
The company flew Rusesabagina to Switzerland and to Brussels, Belgium, for training sessions in which he learned the fine points of European wine appreciation and hotel service. But meanwhile, in Rwanda, the Hutu-dominated government of President Juvenal Habyarimana was facing pressure from a Tutsi-led rebel force and was attempting to hold onto power by whipping up ethnic hatreds against Tutsis. The purportedly independent radio station RTLM, actually under Habyarimana's control, referred to Tutsis as cockroaches and alleged that they were planning to kill Hutus. Huge shipments of machetes flowed into the capital and were distributed to government-affiliated youth gangs called Interahamwe, meaning "those who stick together."
At a Glance …
Born 1954 in Nkomero, Rwanda; married Esther (first marriage, divorced); Tatiana (second marriage); children: four. Education: Attended Faculty of Theology, Cameroon; training in hospitality industry with Sabena Corp. Religion: Seventh-Day Adventist.
Mille Collines Hotel, Kigali, Rwanda, desk clerk, then advanced to management positions, 1979-1991; Diplomates Hotel, Kigali, general manager, 1992-1996; Belgium, taxi driver, 1996-?; trucking company, Zambia, founder; humanitarian lecturer, 2004-.
Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2005.
Publisher—Penguin Group, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.
Presidential Plane Shot Down
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile—by whom remains unclear—as it approached Kigali Airport, killing both Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira. "Do your work," RTLM announcers exhorted the Hutu populace (as Rusesabagina recalled in An Ordinary Man). "Clean your neighborhood of brush. Clear the tall trees" (Tutsis were thought to be taller than Hutus). Within hours, Rwanda erupted in genocidal violence. United Nations troops stationed in Rwanda, had they acted as the genocide began, could likely have halted the worst of the killing, but did not act; their superiors were intimidated in part by the experience of United States peacekeepers in the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia the previous year. Over the next three months, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed in Rwanda.
As he rode through Kigali's streets a few days after the assassination, Rusesabagina recalled in An Ordinary Man, "Surrounding us on every side were the bodies of people who had been freshly murdered. They had been pushed out of the roadway. A few of the lucky ones had been shot, but most had been hacked apart by machetes. Some were missing their heads. I saw the intestines of one man coming out of his belly like pink snakes." Rusesabagina's own son went next door and found that his boyhood friend had been slaughtered. He did not speak for days.
By that time, Rusesabagina's humanitarian odyssey had already begun. Although he himself was a suspect figure for the organizers of the genocide and was in danger of being killed at any time, his Tutsi neighbors sought out his protection as chaos engulfed the city—he was never sure exactly why. Indeed, as he took a group of 26 people, including his own family, to the Diplomates Hotel, an army captain gave him a Kalashnikov rifle and indicated that he should kill the whole group. Rusesabagina searched for any words that would keep the conversation going and prolong their lives for a few moments more. First he said he did not know how to use a gun. Then he told the captain that the group, which included elderly people and children, was not worthy of the captain's time. Finally, and successfully, he offered a bribe, saying that he would have to get the money from the hotel safe.
Hotel Became Refuge
Many of the next 76 days unfolded the same way. The Diplomates Hotel was seized by combatants, but Rusesabagina, frantically making phone calls and sending faxes, persuaded Sabena to appoint him manager of his old place of employment, the Mille Collines Hotel, and moved his family and friends there. Other Tutsis and moderate Hutus heard that the hotel was a place of refuge, and soon the building, designed for 300 guests, held 1,268 people. All survived the carnage outside, although militiamen were almost at the hotel's door during the entire period and several times approached with orders to enter and kill everyone inside.
Their survival was due to Rusesabagina's calm and resourcefulness under pressure. "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 told Rudebeck. "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." Many of his challenges were logistical. Electricity and water were cut off, which could have quickly created a sanitation crisis with fatal results. Rusesabagina solved that problem by rationing water from the hotel's 78,000-gallon swimming pool, where just days before Rwandan generals had hobnobbed with European guests. Food was smuggled in as Rusesabagina cut deals with merchants at a nearby market.
Phones were cut off as well, but one fax line was missed. Rusesabagina spent his evenings sending pleas for help to international governments, including that of the United States, trying to alert the world to the carnage in Rwanda. He had no success. "Maybe the world didn't think Rwanda was worth an intervention," Rusesabagina told Oprah Winfrey in an O, The Oprah Magazine interview. "Maybe that's because Africa is far away from America and Europe. Perhaps it happened because Rwanda did not have oil. Or maybe it's because people were focused on South Africa," where the decades-old apartheid system was ending.
Plied Militiamen with Liquor
On many occasions Rusesabagina had to make quick decisions to save the lives of individual guests or of the entire group. That he himself was an ethnic Hutu, and that the hotel was a European-owned luxury property, bought him very little time. Rusesabagina called in favors from every name in his address book, often inviting cold-blooded killers into his office to partake of his stock of fine cognac and scotch when they entered the hotel demanding that guests be turned over to them; he found that the longer he kept talking, the greater were his chances of success. "In Rwandan culture, we say that two men can never sit down and deal without a drink," he told Winfrey. "So I'd always bring a drink to sit and talk. And certainly, any person who came to talk with me arrived at a positive conclusion."
At one point Rusesabagina was given the chance to leave the hotel in a United Nations truck but refused to desert those he was protecting. After discussion with them, he did send his wife and family—one of the small details in which the film Hotel Rwanda differed from actual events was that in the film, he sends them away without telling them what is happening. In any event, his attempt to arrange their departure from Rwanda was unsuccessful; the truck was stopped, and his wife was beaten and nearly killed.
The genocide in Rwanda finally stopped when Tutsi rebels overran the country, but Rusesabagina's problems were not over. He heard of death threats against himself and his family, and he continues to be regarded with suspicion both by Hutus and by Tutsis who point to his close contacts with highly placed Hutu commanders during the massacres. Finally, in 1996, Rusesaba- gina and his family fled Rwanda for Belgium. At this point his story was unknown to the outside world. He found a job as a taxi driver, eventually saving enough money to buy several motor vehicles and open a small trucking company in the African nation of Zambia.
Rusesabagina's path to world renown began in 2000, when American screenwriter Keir Pearson heard his story from a friend who had lived in Tanzania; the friend in turn had heard from Rwandan refugees about the hotel manager who had single-handedly saved hundreds of lives. The result was Hotel Rwanda, which appeared in 2004 with actor Don Cheadle in the role of Rusesabagina and Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana. "I like Don …," Rusesabagina told Martyn Palmer of the London Times. "I am very happy to have such a handsome fellow play me in this film…. They have changed one or two things because it is a movie. And you know, really, it is not possible to capture the full horror of what happened. How can you do that?"
Though Rusesabagina declined the title of hero, Hotel Rwanda director Terry George was one of many who would argue that the word was appropriate. "Paul had a number of choices," George told Robert Taylor. "He could have gone with the mob. He could have fled. And probably gotten his wife and children out as well. There is a monumental amount of courage behind Paul's decision to stay." Among those who agreed was U.S. President George W. Bush, who awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Rusesabagina's autobiography, An Ordinary Man, appeared in 2006, by which time he was giving speeches around the world, attempting to use his newfound fame to raise the world's consciousness of Africa's problems—including the unfolding genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
(With Tom Zoellner) An Ordinary Man (autobiography), Penguin, 2006.
Rusesabagina, Paul, with Tom Zoellner, An Ordinary Man, Penguin, 2006.
Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA), January 10, 2005.
Houston Chronicle, December 7, 2006, p. 7.
Independent (London, England), February 21, 2005, p. 9.
Jet, November 28, 2005, p. 4.
O, The Oprah Magazine, March 2006, p. 222.
People, January 24, 2005, p. 113.
Sacramento Bee, March 7, 2007.
Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 18, 2005, p. 55.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 13, 2006, p. A19.
Times (London, England), February 19, 2005, p. 40.
—James M. Manheim
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