Rusesabagina was the manager of Hotel Mille Collines, the featured location in the film “Hotel Rwanda,” which was nominated for three Academy Awards. He was portrayed in the movie by American actor Don Cheadle.
Rusesabagina’s mother was a Tutsi and father a Hutu, the two factions involved in almost 100 days of genocide in 1994. Between 800,000 and 1 million people were killed during this time period of terror in Rwanda.
Honored worldwide, the Rwandan now calls himself a humanitarian, although he said it is something he never wanted.
He is described as a hero for sheltering and saving the lives of 1,268 refugees from almost certain death.
During Tuesday’s talk, Rusesabagina told the audience about the history of the landlocked African country and how the Tutsi and Hutu committed genocide.
He touched on the many ethnic groups in Africa and why many hate each other.
“It’s a matter of power,” he said, adding, “And, colonization paid a toll.”
He said the Tutsi were believed to be more like the Europeans with their physical appearance and thin noses. “They even sent people to measure their noses,” he added.
“It was believed that the Tutsi were born to be leaders,” he continued. “The word Tutsi means elite.”
He said the killing began in 1993 with rebels, but the real genocide started on April 6, 1994, when the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda were assassinated when a missile struck their airplane.
“It’s like Sept. 11, 2001, to you,” Rusesabagina said. “You remember where you were and what you were doing. We do the same thing.”
Rusesabagina remembers that his family was at the home of his brother for a celebration. He said his wife heard the missile hit the plane, causing the deaths of the two presidents. “She recommended we take the children and go home,” he added.
“I told them we’d see them tomorrow,” he continued. “But, tomorrow never came. They were killed. That was the beginning of the massacre.”
He said it was fortunate his family went home that night, because it saved lives.
Burundi pulled its soldiers out of Rwanda the next day, and suddenly the Rusesabagina household climbed to 26 as others came for shelter. Then, about 30 people moved to the hotel.
He said he told his children to stay inside, but his son, Roger, went out to visit a young friend. When he arrived he found his friend, his friend’s mother and father, and seven sisters slaughtered. “He ran back to the hotel, ran to his room and didn’t speak for four days,” Rusesabagina said of the horror at the start of the killing.
He said there were 400 people at the hotel and that number increased every day. He said the soldiers tried to get him to move the people from the hotel, but he refused and began to call friends and acquaintances to ask for help.
“I had many favors from many corners, and I felt this was the time to cash them in,” he said. He was told there were no soldiers, and police were protecting people of authority.
The rebels cut all communication lines from the hotel, they thought, but there was an old line they didn’t know about. “That became our lifeline,” Rusesabagina emphasized.
He told of the time when soldiers were killing refugees at a church about 1,500 meters from the hotel. “I saw many of them being killed,” he said.
Finally, after 76 days at the hotel, the 1,268 refugees were evacuated to a destination of their choice.
“From this came ‘Hotel Rwanda,’” he said in conclusion.
Tuesday’s program was just a start to CSCC’s Multicultural Week, coordinated by Tracey Wright, director of special program and community relations, and Jana Pankey, project director of the cultural event.
Saturday will be the big day with a multicultural fair from 9:45 a.m. until 1 p.m.
Located just outside the gymnasium (inside in case of inclement weather) there will be a Parade of Nations at 9:45 a.m., followed by entertainment, ethnic food and activities for adults and children. Children will receive a storybook in English or Spanish.
Notes from Tuesday’s program:
- Rusesabagina said he has been to East Tennessee before. He’s visited Kingsport and Knoxville. He’s been in every state in the U.S., except Hawaii and the Dakotas.
- The guest speaker was introduced by CSCC President Dr. Carl Hite. In making his introduction, Hite praised a Monday editorial by Cleveland Daily Banner Editor Rick Norton.
- In a question-and-answer session after Tuesday’s talk, Rusesabagina was asked what advice his father would give.
He said his father once told him and his brothers, “If you see two brothers fighting, get in the middle and don’t look to the right and don’t look to the left because it might influence you. Stand in the middle and look up, and tell the truth.”
- Another question was, “How has your past changed your future?”
Rusesabagina said he wanted to be a solider, but was kicked out of military training because he came from “the wrong place.” He then wanted to be a minister and attended theological school, but then moved to hospitality.
Now, his hospitality career has kicked him into a humanitarian role.
- He was asked what kept him going during the genocide. “During the three months, I knew I was going to be killed at any time,” he said. “But, I knew it was too late to step back and I continued to do small things. I finally decided that the day I was going to leave this life on Earth, I was going to call it a gift from God.”
- Asked what Americans can do about the conflict in Africa, Rusesabagina said, “Raise awareness.”
- Asked about the role of the media during the Rwanda terror, Rusesabagina said a French radio program urged the rebels to kill the Tutsi. “Today they have a new newspaper called ‘The Exposer,’ he said. “History keeps repeating itself.”
- When he was asked what he would do differently, he said, “I would have a network to bring in many more people to the hotel than 1,268.”