Until they take heroic action, heroes are ordinary men. They are men like Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, which from April to July 1994, sheltered 1,200 refugees from the horrific genocide swarming literally outside the building’s gates.
Throughout the four-month-long ordeal, Rusesabagina juggled the care of his guests with appeasement of the brutal military thugs, dissuading the slaughterers until United Nations forces could lead the guests to safety.
Elsewhere in Rwanda at least 800,000 people — mostly from the Tutsi tribe — were butchered at the hands of their own countrymen, mostly Hutus.
Hotel Rwanda, the 2004 movie starring Don Cheadle, brought Rusesabagina’s story to the international stage, making him an instant everyman’s hero. The movie was nominated for three Oscars.
One of nine children born to a farming family, Rusesabagina never envisioned moving from hotel manager to professional humanitarian. His heroism has earned him multiple awards. In 2000, he received the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity. President George W. Bush honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. That same year, he was awarded the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award and the University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal.
Rusesabagina created the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to advocate for a truth and reconciliation process in Rwanda and the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
Tonight, at the Tsai Performance Center, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center will install Rusesabagina as a Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellow, and he will give the Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture. The Gotlieb Center is the repository of an 83,000-item MLK collection, which King (GRS’55, Hon.’59) donated to the University in 1964, the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The lecture series was established earlier this year to bring speakers to the BU community who are leaders in the quest for social justice and human rights.
The former hotel manager spoke recently with BU Today about what he did, what he hopes for his country, and becoming an MLK Fellow.
BU Today: As general manager of Hôtel des Milles Collines, in 1994 you had to appease Rwandan military officials to protect 1,200 guests. How did you stay strong?
Rusesabagina: I think there are some negative things that became positives for me. One of these is the fact that I alone was making decisions a lot. If I had to sit down with three to five people and think about what was going to happen, that becomes a problem. But once you’re one, you make your own decisions as fast as you can.
Secondly, I was lucky because I had a working phone, and this tool helped us to do a lot during the Rwandan genocide.
Thirdly, I had connections. Once you know a lot of people almost everywhere, even if you just want someone to talk to, you know whom to call.
And, maybe the most important thing, I think the best weapon for me during the genocide was words. I was constantly negotiating with many people. I believe that words can be the best and worst weapons that a human being can possess.
You call yourself an ordinary man, but many around the world label you a hero. Do you think that’s justified?
I think that is not right. There are many others in Rwanda who kept their humanity. If there are many Tutsis who survived, it is because of their fellow Hutus. If many Hutus in the country and even in the Democratic Republic of Congo survived, it is because of many Tutsis who helped them to survive. So I don’t take myself as a hero, and I don’t take those people as heroes. I just take them as people who kept their humanity.
Do you think the movie Hotel Rwanda is an accurate portrayal of your experience during the genocide?
That movie is actually more or less like a documentary, which was played by professionals. Otherwise that is what was happening, and sometimes what was happening could be more violent than what people see on the screen.
You do not believe the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is being effective. You and your family currently live in exile in Belgium; how would you be received in your home country?
The only way to reconcile a nation is to be fair in justice. There is no good criminal, there is no bad criminal. All criminals are criminals. All killers are killers. Why don’t we bring all of them to justice? The International Criminal Court for Rwanda has failed, and the Rwandan government has so far also failed to do justice that way. Once you raise a voice, like me, and say that this is not the right way that we should deal with such a problem, you might be one of the most unwanted people.
In 2005, you established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. What do you hope to accomplish?
We can never reconcile a nation where there is no truth, where justice is not the same for all citizens, where rights are not equal. I’ve been advocating for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Rwanda and the Greater Lakes Region of Africa that would be internationally sanctioned.
How do you feel about becoming a Martin Luther King, Jr., Fellow?
I had never thought that one day I would be raised up to that standard. This is an honor which is beyond all that I could believe in. I was delighted and surprised, but also it touched my heart.
What message do you have for BU students who want to make a difference in a world where genocide still exists?
I will remind them of what they know — that they can change the world. They can make a difference if they really want to. These are tomorrow’s leaders. Tomorrow is in their hands. They are the only ones who can shape the world.
Sponsored by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Lecture, featuring the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, and poet Sonia Sanchez, starts at 6 p.m. tonight, November 10, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. Rusesabagina will speak and be installed as an MLK Fellow; Sanchez will give a reading and be installed as a Coretta Scott King Fellow. The event includes a roundtable discussion on MLK’s lasting influence, with King’s sister, Christine King Farris, an associate professor of education at Spelman College, who gave the inaugural MLK Lecture last April; Gene Jarrett, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of English; Angela Farris Watkins, a Spelman College assistant professor of psychology; Hardin Coleman, dean of the BU School of Education; Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, a College of Communication professor of journalism; Charles Griswold, a CAS professor of philosophy; John Stone, a CAS professor of sociology; and Professor Walter Earl Fluker, executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-3696, or e-mail email@example.com.
Leslie Friday can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.