Paul Rusesabagina, humble real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda and subject of the book An Ordinary Man, discusses his experience of the Rwandan genocide.
You have said that during the genocide you thought there were more people acting like you. When did you realise this wasn’t the case?
“During the period of what you call the end of the genocide, I took a car with my wife and a friend and we drove south, because me, I was born in the central south, my wife in the Deep South, and all along the way there were so many dead bodies. The whole country was smelling, and there was no human voice. There was no human being moving around except for rebels on the roadblocks. I went to my home and there was one of my brothers who was still there. I asked him, ‘What happened with our neighbours?’ He told me then that these ones had been killed by the militia. ‘And how about the others?’ They had been killed by the rebels. 'And how about so and so?' They were burning in a nearby house. It was burnt the previous night by the rebels. He looked at me and told me, ‘Listen, my dear brother, even these trees you can see have got ears, they’ve got eyes, they see. Please, do me a favour and leave this place.’ I drove south to see my mother-in-law. We were very, very sure that nobody could have killed her. She was a wonderful woman who was always helping her neighbours. She was a wonderful person. When we arrived, we saw first of all that the houses were destroyed; she was killed with her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren. I sat down in the ruins with my wife, we looked all around, the whole country was empty of people, and I said, finally, the whole of the country has become a hell.”
Some people find it impossible to speak about events like these or refuse to speak about them. Were you like that and has making this film been a positive experience?
“I think, psychologically, it is a mistake not to talk about it because talking about it is a kind of therapy. It is a cure. It helps to get that out and share it with other people. This is my belief. [Making this film is] a positive experience, although so far it seems strange to see your life on the screen. But I think this message had to get out and we had to tell the world that we have failed.”
Are you considered a hero in Rwanda?
”How can you call a hotel manager, who never changed, just remained the hotel manager, from 1980s to late 1990s, a hero? That would mean being a hero is very simple. Everybody can be a hero quite easily. [Laughs]”
What was important to you?
“What was important to me after a certain time was not getting the hotel clean! You can imagine a hotel where you don’t have running water -- it cannot be as clean as you might think. You can imagine a hotel where you don’t have electricity for months -- it can’t be that clean. You can imagine a hotel which was supposed to cater for diplomats and businessmen, now catering for the peasants, most of them. A hotel which was having a hundred guests, 120 according to its capacity, filling up to 1000, 12 times and more, it was not supposed to be that clean. My main concern was to give, for instance, food. You can imagine having a meal for more than a 1000 people, getting them food, something to eat, that was my main concern. I lowered the standards of the hotel a little bit.”
At the beginning of the film you talk about only saving your family and then you changed. What was it that made you change?
“I never realised that I changed. From the day that genocide broke out I had 26 strangers in my own house and when I left I said to myself, ‘Will I leave these people here? If they die, I will never go to my bed and sleep. I will never eat and feel satisfied. I will never have a drink and feel my thirst quenched. One day, all this will be over. I’ll have to face history and my own conscience. If it ends right now and I face my own conscience and history, what kind of man would I be?’ I had to take them, at my own risk, as you see in the movie. Thank God I succeeded and took them to the end.”
Did you have any sense of what was going to happen before the genocide started?
“Right from the beginning to the end, I said no. I wouldn’t be ashamed of saying no as long as I could justify my no. I can always tell you no, but I have to tell you why I say no. In such madness saying no, you had to go around and show that you’re saying no, without going straight in the subject.”
But did you have any suspicions about what was going to take place?
“Well, I was certain that I would be killed. At a given time I was the only person who could say no and who had many times said no; they had tried to kill the refugees many times, and every time I refused. So the only solution was to get me killed. So I was sure I was going to be killed. The only thing I was sure of was that. But how, when, where, those were the questions I was asking myself. But when was very easy – I know that each and every person dies just once. Then my days on earth will be over. Whether I am killed by the soldiers or the militia, how I will be killed, but when that day comes, I will die. But when that day comes, let me not die with hands crossed, fighting.”
Are you still in touch with the people at Sabena?
“Very much. We kept a very good friendship. Even when I left Rwanda and went to Belgium as a refugee, they offered me a job. But, you know in life, no one was willing to leave his office and give it to me. No one was willing to give me his chair. So I said: ‘If things are like that, if no one can sacrifice his chair and give it to me, let us remain good friends. Our relationships will be always friend to friend and we’ll have nice meals as we have always been doing, but let me do things my way. If I don’t succeed, I will come to you. But if I succeed, we’ll keep our friendship and keep our relations as you and I. And instead of being boss and employee, let us keep it the way it is.’”
What do you do today?
“I’m in the trucking business. I’ve got a trucking company in Africa. I stay in Belgium with my children and wife. We live in the suburbs of Brussels.”
They say in the film that Belgium created the divisions between Hutu and Tutsi. What do you say?
“That is from back in the roots of the Rwandan history. It was there. But when Germans came they made it a little bit wider. They even measured the noses of people and said who was smarter than whom. Who was more like Europeans and whites. Who was more elegant than whom. Who was more clever, more intelligent, than whom. They even said that Tutsis were made to rule and Hutus were made to respect. First of all Germans ruled with Tutsis and when Belgians came, in 1923, they maintained the same politics. They were the ones who introduced the first identification cards. That was a big mistake. In 1959, the revolution in Rwanda was not really a Rwandese revolution, it was a Hutu revolution overthrowing Europeans, the colonisers, and their partner, the Tutsis. Of course Belgians came to Belgium and Tutsis went to neighbouring countries. So it was in the history of Rwanda. When Europeans came in they maintained that politics, that supremacy of the Tutsi race over Hutus. In 1959, when the Rwandese took power, they never removed in the ID’s the words Hutu and Tutsi.”
Today there is no difference . . .
“It doesn’t change anything. Today those two words have become taboos. Do you believe making them taboos is the right way of solving problems? To me the right way is to let a Hutu know he is a Hutu, and a Tutsi should know that he is a Tutsi. And they should respect each other.”
The role of Kofi Annan is not mentioned in Hotel Rwanda and I wonder what your opinion is.
“Kofi Annan has got a lot of responsibilities in the Rwandan genocide. Sometimes I wonder does he go to bed and sleep without nightmares? Does he eat his meal cheerfully and feel a free man? He was the director of operations in the United Nations. He is the one that was corresponding with General Dallaire immediately. He is the one who withdrew the United Nations army instead of increasing the army. So Kofi Annan has a lot of responsibilities. And what took place in Rwanda, he is the one who influenced the United Nations decisions.”
Has he ever spoken openly about his role?
“I think each and every person feels so guilty that many times they don’t want to talk about Rwanda. He, of course, apologised. But was it enough? I do not know. It is for you to draw your conclusions.”
But behind his decisions might have been the Americans and the British.
“To us, he is the one who was writing, corresponding, saying yes, saying no. And yet we do not know the British and the Americans in the United Nations. We know the United Nations as an institution. Of course America has a big share of responsibility; they were the ones that helped with the withdrawal. Instead of reinforcing the mission of the United Nations in Rwanda they just decided to withdraw, because 10 Belgian soldiers had been killed. Why didn’t they say now what we’re going to do is reinforce the mission of the United Nations? You guys go in and get the guys who killed the 10 Belgian soldiers and bring them to trial. [If they had done that], I’m sure no one else would have killed anyone anymore.”
Could you live in Rwanda today?
“Well, according to all I have seen there is no lasting peace in Rwanda. There is an opposition of a winner and a loser. A winner is dictating his conditions and a loser is sometimes saying yes, because he has got to say yes. So if there was a lasting peace, I would be the first person to fly back.”
You basically say that you did what you did because as a human being you had to. Do you understand at all the people that acted in the opposite way?
“This is what I don’t understand. There are many people that I consider as gentlemen, I respect them as people who are respectable and also respect a human creature. So I was very disappointed to see the way all of those people were acting. I was very disappointed by the way many people behaved.”
Your attitude to life must have been changed by this.
“Certainly. You can imagine someone who could trust people, have friends and share life with others, disappointed like that . . . if you’re in my position, it’s obvious.”
Do you see the film making any changes?
“I think so. The main objective of the film is to convey a message about what is happening, and to inform. Hopefully this will help to change what is happening in Darfur. It might help to change what is happening in the Congo where 3.8 million [according to human rights organisations] have been killed since 1986. Even the media don’t talk about the Congo. It doesn’t come on the headlines. Nobody talks about it.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2006