By Olivia Seecof
After witnessing the Rwandan genocide right in front of his eyes, Rwandan native, hotel manager and hero Paul Rusesabagina stated that the world closes their eyes to the problems of the world that surrounds them, and it is time that we chose to fight back but not with weapons, with dialogue.
On Tuesday evening, in the Weis Center of Performing Arts, Paul Rusesabagina shared his personal experience in the discussion titled “Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to be Learned.” Rusesabagina is credited with saving 1,268 refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and his personal experience was adapted into the acclaimed movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
“History keeps repeating itself, and yet, we fail to learn any lessons,” he said. He spent much of the speech talking about his personal stories and memories from the genocide.
This film, said to be “an African ‘Schindler’s List,‘” is based on Rusesabagina’s real life events. It documents his acts to save the lives of not only his family members and loved ones, but also the lives of other refugees. Rusesabagina sheltered these refugees in the Mille Collines luxury hotel in Kingali, of which he was a general manager.
“While the movie made the hotel a popular place, Hotel Rwanda started at my home,” Rusesabagina said.
He described what it was like when the attacks first started, and how he opened his home to his family and neighbors as a safe house. As the amount of people showing up at his house grew, he decided that he had no choice but to take them to the hotel.
“People kill each other because they fight for power, but dialogue is the best weapon” he said.
This statement reflects the conflicts between the three groups in Rwanda. Rusesabagina, a Hutu, married a Tutsi woman and together, they turned the hotel into an impromptu refugee camp for 12,000 terrified Tutsis and Hutus.
Life as a refugee in the hotel was extremely hard. Refugees had little clean water, and people would take a few drops of water each day from the hotel swimming pool. They had at most two meals a day, consisting of smuggled beans.
Rusesabagina told the audience about the multiple times he would drive down the streets only seeing dead bodies. “No one was alive; everything was killed,” he said.
He also spoke of the time he woke up with a gun to his head, being threatened to clear out the hotel in 30 minutes. He refused to give in because he wanted to protect his people. During the lecture he proudly yet humbly reported that none of his refugees in the hotel were killed or beaten; all 1,268 survived.
For his courageous and selfless efforts, Rusesabagina received Amnesty International’s “Enduring Spirit” award as well as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
“Nothing is as heartbreaking as seeing your loved ones and thinking, ‘This is the last time I’ll see my children. This is the last time I’ll see my life,’” Rusesabagina said.
Rusesabagina closed his lecture with remarks about what the Western world could do to help.
“You are the only ones who can change this world. You are tomorrow’s leaders. You have the world’s future in your hands, so shape it how you want,” he said.
“I really hope the student body, and everyone in attendance left with a new outlook on things and learned how to treat others,” said Hillary Mann ’13, a member of the Student Lectureship Committee.
The fact that the speaker was the real man from “Hotel Rwanda” attracted many students to the lecture, but the influence of friends also accounted for the phenomenal attendance at the lecture.
“My friends convinced me to take a break from schoolwork and attend the lecture, and I am so glad that I did,” Harrison Winters ’14 said. “Mr. Rusesabagina’s words were extremely powerful and I will keep them in mind for the rest of my life.”
The audience gave a standing ovation for Rusesabagina and his powerful speech.