Paul Rusesabagina and his efforts in the Rwandan Genocide (Fall 2012)

“I am nothing special. Paul was a hotel manager. He will remain a hotel manager to the end.” – Paul Rusesabagina

Genocides have occurred throughout history and in various corners of the globe. Often the victims of these genocides are innocent civilians being killed for their religious beliefs, race or ethnicity. Most often these mass killings sprout from economic instability and political unrest and Rwanda was no different. The genocide in Rwanda started in 1994 with the calculated killing of Rwandan’s who were labeled as Tutsis. A dark history of violent actions between the Tutsi and Hutu people laid a foundation for such tragic events. As one of the most horrific events in modern history the Rwandan Genocide shockingly failed to catch the attention of the world wide press until it was almost too late. One hundred days of mass killings ended the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandan and left widows and orphans to pick up the pieces. In a time when a nation needed a hero, one seemingly ordinary hotel manager stood up to protect the innocent. Paul Rusesabagina harbored over a thousand refugees from rebel forces and used his wit, deception and bribery to ensure the safety of those in his care. Paul continues to save the lives of many and inspire action from people across the globe to put an end to genocide and to educate about the Rwandan Genocide and its aftermath.

The origins that lead to the Rwandan Genocide can be traced back to the days of Belgium rule in Rwanda. The Belgian colonists settled in 1916 and issued identification cards to people of Rwanda. These identification cards labeled the Rwandans as Hutu or Tutsi. Although the two speak the same language, have similar traditions and live in the same area they were given these identities based on their appearance. Tutsi’s, who allegedly have origins in Ethiopia, tend to be more svelte and tall with long, thin noses. The Belgians thought those of the Tutsi background, who make up about 14% of the population, were superior and the Tutsis reaped the benefits of better education and jobs for 20 years. These assigned identities caused major tension between the now divided people of Rwanda and lead to a series of riots in 1959 that killed more than 20,000 Tutsis. After the Belgian colonists left in 1962, the Hutus, the majority of the population, took control. These identities that had been thrust upon the people of Rwanda stuck to the people and the culture and were passed down generation to generation. In the early 1990’s Rwanda was in a dismal social, political and economic state. Rebel groups were forming with ideas to eliminate the Tutsis from the country for good and the government did nothing to ease the tension between the ethnic groups. These political and economic forces provided a platform for hatred against the Tutsi. The pinnacle of the growing unrest between the Tutsis and Hutus emerged when President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed. The president’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994 which immediately trigged the 100 day genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis. As these times turned desperate and violent, one man, Paul Rusesabagina, found a way to save over a thousand people from these mass murders.

Paul Rusesabagina was born on June 15, 1954 to family of farmers; his father a Hutu, his mother Tutsi. Paul grew up not unlike many other Rwanda families and harbored no hatred for either ethnic group. Paul’s given surname, Rusesabagina, means “warrior that disperses the enemies” in his native language of Kinyarwanda, a name to which he would live up to. It is easy to see where Paul gets his full heart and passion for humanity; in the early riots of 1950 Paul’s family housed many refugees within their own home. Paul attended first and secondary school where he learned French and English and then went on to study at the Kenya Utalii College. Paul married in 1967 to the daughter of a minister, Esther, and they began a family and had three children. After college Paul was offered a job through a mutual friend to be the assistant manager at the Hotel des Milles Collines where he could use, “his languages skills and hard work [to become] a general manager” and soon after he “was admitted to the hospitality program in Nairobi [where] he learned the differences in fine food and wine” (Paul Rusesabagina). This lead to more education in Switzerland and Brussels where he expanded on his knowledge of fine dining and other business skills such as hiring/firing, bookkeeping and goal setting. This high paced career took a toll on Paul’s marriage to Esther and they separated in 1982 but seven years later Paul met the love his life, Tatiana, a Tutsi nurse working in Ruhengeri. Paul used his good graces with a frequent customer at the Hotel des Milles Collines to have her transferred to Kigali, where Paul lived, and shortly after the two married. In 1992 Paul was promoted to also working at the Diplomate Hotel as a manager. His job at these hotels was to work with high profile clients, networking and making beneficial contacts as well as keeping these guests happy. After the president was killed and the nation became hostile, the Belgium owners of the both Hotel des Milles Collines and the Diplomate Hotel fled the country for safety and left Paul to run the hotels.

In April 1994, after rioting began, Paul took in a group of 32 scared Tutsi refugees into his home. Paul made phone calls to any connection he had made while working to try and get his family and friends out of Rwanda safely, but sadly no one came to their rescue. Soon the Rwandan Army came to Paul’s door and the refugees loaded them on to a bus. The guards gave Paul a gun and told him to shoot the “cockroaches” (Tutsis). In an effort to save the people on the bus Paul bribed the guards; he told them he had money for them at Diplomate Hotel. Once the group had reached the hotel and the guards had been paid with money from the hotel safe, they left and Paul was in charge. Paul decided to take the bus full of people to the Hotel des Milles Collines where he could keep them safe. As the genocide continued outside the walls of the hotel, Paul tried to keep things running and normal. People would come to hotel seeking refuge and looking for family members and Paul did not turn them away. He welcomed many into the walls of the hotel and bribed army officials and other hostile parties with money, booze and other valuables to keep the people safe. When word of Paul’s “refugee camp” spread to the Hutu militia they threatened to enter the hotel. Paul spent much of his time making calls to the hotel owners in Belgium and other elite guests to help protect the people. Through the constant battle of bribing the army and reaching out for help Paul finally got the UN to send soldiers to protect them at the hotel. Although it was not much it kept the Hutu militia at bay and bought time for the refugees. Paul organized transportation for the 1,300 refugees to be taken to a real refugee camp and finally be safe from the violence. With the estimate of about 8,000 people dead per day during this genocide Paul’s efforts that kept everyone in the Hotel des Milles Collines from being hurt or killed was a huge success.

In July of 1994 the Hutu government collapsed and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, A Tutsi political force, declared a ceasefire. At the end of this genocide many Hutu fled the country and a new government was established. An originally multi-ethnic government has now turned into a Tutsi lead government and conflicts are still occurring in Rwanda. There are many Tutsi and Hutu rebel forces in and around Rwanda and although the 100 day massacre is over many are still losing their lives over this conflict. Although Paul Rusesabagina has since moved to Brussels, he still is active in raising awareness about the issues inside of Rwanda. Paul has established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation which works on preventing future genocides and raising awareness of the genocides within Africa. Paul has even written a book An Ordinary Man which details his life and the events that took place in Rwanda. Apart from all this Paul travels to talk to people all over the world to raise awareness of these events and to encourage people to take action and stop future genocides. Most recently on December 3, 2012 Paul wrote to the UN Security Council asking them to reconsider selecting Rwanda for the council because of the government’s involvement with rebel groups. It is obvious that work still needs to be done in Rwanda even though the 100 day genocide is over. Paul Rusesabagina is working towards this goal because as he said, “The world ignored Rwanda when we really needed it. Unfortunately, even now the world is still ignoring us” (Paul Rusesabagina Quotes).

Genocides have taken place all over the world and have killed countless numbers of people for various reasons. Some of these genocides, such as the Holocaust, are widely recognized and portrayed in the media; some of these genocides are not. The violence between the Hutu and Tutsi people of Rwanda has been an ongoing conflict and manifested in a terrible genocide. The Rwandan Genocide was a horrific event that killed more than 8,000 people per day. These were lives of innocent men, women and children who were unarmed and persecuted because of their ethnicity. Many lives could have been saved with the more immediate intervention of groups such as the United Nations. One of the true heroes of this genocide was Paul Rusesabagina who saved 1,300 refugees from being slaughtered. Paul was an ordinary man, he was a manager of hotel and had family but given the extraordinary circumstances Paul showed bravery and courage in the face of death. Even today, Paul has not given up on his efforts to save the innocent victims of genocides. It is important to remember this genocide and the heroic actions taken by Paul Rusesabagina to save the lives of so many innocent civilians. By remembering Paul’s heroic actions and following the example that he sets today we can prevent future genocides and honor those lost in past genocides.


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