Paul Rusesabagina is a humanitarian, a businessman and a father.
But to the 1,268 refugees he harbored in his hotel during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, he is a lifesaver. For nearly three months he kept militia from attacking and killing the Tutsi and moderate Hutus within the wall of the hotel he managed, in an act that inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda.”
He comes to Village Books Saturday to discuss his autobiography, “An Ordinary Man.” In a phone interview with The Herald, Rusesabagina discusses his hopes and fears for the future.
Question: How do you feel when you look back on the months you spent in the Hotel Mille Collines?
Answer: Sometimes when I look back I’m just like someone in a dream. I never realized how fast it was outside and how we survived in that hotel.
Q: What did you learn?
A: I learned a lot of lessons. I learned how to deal with evil. I learned how a human being can be more wild than a wild animal.
Q: How did your experience and the genocide change your outlook on life, and on people?
A: Before the genocide I was very cheerful and open to everyone. After work I would stop at the bar. People could be sure I would offer a round. I would receive people in my house. I trusted people. After what we went through, I’ve changed. Since 1994, I no longer attend bars. I have learned to treat human beings like a shark at the bottom of the sea.
Q: You talk a lot about the power of words, good and bad. How did you gather the courage to talk to people you knew were likely hoping to kill you and the people in your hotel?
A: Well, actually, it was not really complicated. It was just like my normal duty as a hotel manager. I was just doing my day-to-day job. It was nothing special. I did not really have time to be afraid. You can imagine being a manager of a hotel without water, and I had to go down to the swimming pool and ration that water. It was not easy.
People ask me how I could talk to those people (militiamen). If you want to know what people think, you need them close to you. If you want to know what is next, you need to talk to those people.
Q: In the book’s conclusion, you seem fearful for Rwanda’s future. Are you still, or is there hope for growth from the tragedy?
A: Each and every day our situation worsens. I’m more fearful than ever. What we need in Rwanda in order to heal the wounds is a truth and reconciliation dialogue. We need a dialogue between Hutus and Tutsis, and this has never happened. Even today people are fleeing Rwanda. We’re waiting for them to come back fighting. As long as people don’t have equal rights for all, as long as we don’t have Rwanda for all, I will be concerned. The right solution is to get everyone at par sitting around a table talking.
Q: What things make you hopeful for Rwanda?
A: I have learned that leaders who always want to divide and conquer are the ones who divide the nation. The people themselves are not the ones who do it. Seeing young Hutu and young Tutsi intermarrying, this is a sign of hope. There is hope because many people are willing to talk.
Q: What was it like for you to be involved in the film “Hotel Rwanda”?
A: At the beginning, I never took it as seriously as it came to be. I took it as something small. When I saw myself on the big screen I realized it was something big.
Q: Do you think you would have written this book if the movie wasn’t made?
A: I had been thinking about writing a book. But in my life I don’t like talking about myself first. I wanted to write a book, and also kept a diary. I kept each day. And believe you me, each and every day had its own troubles: rationing water, cooking outside without electricity and also dealing with militiamen and soldiers. I had a very complicated life.
Q: Why did it take so long after the genocide to write your story?
A: I gave space and time to “Hotel Rwanda” to be widespread. “Hotel Rwanda” is a true story, but you could never put in what happened in three months on the big screen in two hours?
Q: How do you compare the Rwandan genocide to other modern ethnic conflicts, such as Darfur?
A: Two years ago, in January 2005, I went to Darfur. My main objective was to see what was going on there and draw parallels. They had more than 2 million people displaced, without shelter, without food, without water, sleeping under the Sahara sun. This reminded me of 1994. I was very much humiliated and ashamed. This taught me a lesson that all human beings, we listen but don’t ever learn. To me those words “never again” had turned into “again and again,” and those are the most abused words. It is our duty, it is our obligation, to keep reminding them what they know. I believe a good teacher is one who always repeats his lessons.