Rusesabagina Brings Message of Justice to Heritage Park Audience from Rwanda


Paul Rusesabagina receives a standing ovation.

By Alin K. Gregorian
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — A large and diverse audience gathered at Faneuil Hall on Thursday, October 20, to hear Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan activist whose life story was dramatized in the award-winning movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” based on his autobiography, An Ordinary Man.

The lecture was the second K. George and Carolann S. Najarian MD Lecture on Human Rights, an endowed program of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, which is the sponsor of the city’s Armenian Heritage Park, currently under construction.

Charlie Clemens, the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, praised Rusesabagina as the “hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ not a label that he has chosen for himself.” He also noted that Rusesabagina has fallen out of favor with the current regime and has incurred the president’s wrath, but is not letting either fact hinder his activism on behalf of the oppressed.

“He continues to do so at great risk to himself,” Clemens said.

Rusesabagina, when he took the stage after thunderous applause and a standing ovation, appeared comfortable and conversational. His hosts’ story was not lost on him and he started by putting the events in Rwanda in context. He said, “We are gathered here to remember a sad story about a genocide — the Armenian Genocide.” During that genocide, he noted, “the whole world was watching and [yet] the world closed its eyes.” He continued that once again, in the 1940s, it happened, this time with the Jews. “It happened again and again.”

The Rwandan Genocide, which took place in 1994, led to the deaths of approximately 800,000 people. Over the course of approximately 100 days, from the assassination of President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, in April through mid-July, more than 500,000 people were killed, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate. It was the culmination of longstanding ethnic competition and tensions between the minority Tutsi, who had controlled power for centuries, and the majority Hutu peoples, who had come to power in the rebellion of 1959-62 and overthrown the Tutsi monarchy.

The assassination of Habyarimana in April 1994 set off a violent reaction, during which Hutu groups conducted mass killings of Tutsis (and also pro-peace Hutus, who were portrayed as “traitors” and “collaborationists”).

Hutus and Tutsis were forced to use ID cards which specified an ethnic group. These cards served as symbols that the Interahamwe could check via the threat of force. In addition, the media was used to incite hatred.

The film “Hotel Rwanda” documents Rusesabagina’s acts to save the lives of his family and more than a thousand other refugees, by granting them shelter in the besieged Hôtel des Mille Collines.

Rusesabagina said that before the genocide and the start of the civil war, he could not imagine that some former friends would turn against him. From 1992 to 1993, when the campaign for the genocide was beginning, “People, instead of doing something, just closed their eyes.”

During the early 1990s, Rwanda slowly descended into a place where enmity and chaos made everyday life nearly impossible.

Rusesabagina said, “The capital was so dangerous. Armed people were coming, throwing grenades.”

At first, he and his wife and family stayed at the Sabena Belgian Airlines’ Diplomat Hotel, which he managed. He was able to travel with his family for a while in Europe and get away in the early days of unrest, but needed to go back. “We trusted the UN that it had come to Rwanda to make peace,” he said.

Once they were back in Rwanda after a few months in Europe, things were not better. At this point, he was the manager of the Hotel Des Mille Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It was by chance that his wife found out about the attack on the Rwandan president’s airplane, as she was headed in the direction of the airport. In the immediate aftermath, what little order there was completely evaporated and rampant killing became the order of the day.

“It was the most scary time of my life,” he said.

Several neighbors decided to come to the Rusesabaginas’ house for safety. In a few days, he and his group, eventually to number about 1,000, took refuge at the hotel.

To get to the hotel, the family and their neighbors had to walk over many dead bodies on the streets, he recalled. He stressed that in the immediate period before the killings began, a process was initiated to dehumanize the Tutsis.

“I have faced evil. I learned how to deal with evil,” he recalled.

He and his family and ragtag group which he was hiding were occupying rooms that were not taken by the soldiers. He recalled that he was trying to get in contact with his friends in Europe, in order to ask them for help and let them know about what was happening in their country. Thus, on April 23 he fell asleep at 4 a.m., after talking to friends in Europe, only to be awakened at 6 a.m. when he felt the barrel of a gun on his head.

“I started negotiation [but] for the first time, I lost heart,” he recalled.

He managed to find a way to send his wife and children out of the country and stayed put himself, thinking he would never see them. He stayed for another two years and finally, in 1996, went into exile.

“People who couldn’t run away were killed,” he said bluntly. In addition to using guns and machetes, the fighters used rape as a weapon. The use of sexual violence, he noted, is still happening.

“It is my obligation to start to talk about it,” Rusesabagina concluded, “to talk for the voiceless.”

James Kalustian, the president of the Armenian Heritage Foundation, closed the program by noting to the audience that the lecture is a gift to the city of Boston from the local Armenian community and thanked the city and state for their help in getting the project off the ground.

A reception followed at the Old State House.