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The man from the 'Hotel Rwanda'

The film dramatizes Paul Rusesabagina's uncommon courage in extraordinary times: the genocidal massacre of the 1990s.

December 28, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

On the night his life changed forever, Paul Rusesabagina was enjoying a drink with friends at the bar of the elegant hotel he managed in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Soft music was playing, and influential Rwandans, diplomats and expatriate entrepreneurs were laughing and flirting around him.

Then came a distant explosion: A plane had been shot out of the sky over Kigali, killing the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi.

That was on April 6, 1994. What happened next, which is told in the just released film "Hotel Rwanda," was the stuff of nightmares: Men of Rwanda's Hutu ethnic majority roamed the streets with machetes, raping and killing their ethnic scapegoats, members of Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic minority, along with moderate Hutus. Thus began 100 days of bloody carnage that would take at least 800,000 lives and shame the international community.

As the world stood by and did little, Rusesabagina -- a Hutu married to a Tutsi -- did the one thing in his power. He opened the doors of the foreign-owned luxury hotel entrusted to him by a fleeing Dutch businessman and used it as a refuge to save the lives of more than 1,200 people who somehow made it there alive.

Then he slipped back into the welcome obscurity of private life.

In the decade since, Rusesabagina has become a legend, a one-man object lesson in situational ethics, an Everyman who may not have been born to greatness but who managed to rise to the occasion.

Now, the bare-knuckled cinematic thriller starring Don Cheadle revisits the days when Rusesabagina defended the terrified "guests" who crowded into the four-star Hotel des Mille Collines, using money from a hotel safe to bribe the military, liquor from the bar to placate them and a hotel fax line to contact the White House, the United Nations, the French government -- at a time when, in Rusesabagina's words, "the whole world closed its eyes and ears."

The film -- with the warm portrayal of Rusesabagina by Cheadle, who slips his character's modestly enigmatic persona on like a second skin -- is, of course, an honor.

But it also dredges up a terrifying family ordeal, one that still overwhelms Rusesabagina in nightmares, though they now end when he awakens. Memories that his family tried to leave behind when they moved to Belgium as refugees will now be aired publicly.

That means that Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana, must now sit down for a serious talk with their two youngest daughters -- actually, they're nieces the Rusesabaginas raised as their own after the murder of the girls' parents during the Rwanda genocide. The Rusesabaginas only recently told the girls they were the daughters of Tatiana's brother, and the children were dismayed and disbelieving. Now they must make sure the movie doesn't surprise them with any new traumatic revelations.

Rusesabagina's two older biological daughters, who remember the genocide all too well, "don't even want to hear the word 'Rwanda,' " he said. "They've seen a lot."

Rusesabagina must also sift through his own memories, of former schoolmates, neighbors and friends who were murdered and raped.

"I spend sleepless nights thinking about it," he said in soft, accented English. "My mind has refused to accept what took place."

One of the most difficult things for him to forget is the sight of people he knew -- neighbors, colleagues, even friends -- joining in the carnage, some eagerly, others under pressure from the militia whom Rusesabagina and other Rwandans defied.

"In every human rights catastrophe there are people who have behaved honorably, even at the risk of their lives, from Oskar Schindler to Raoul Wallenberg, and many more who are not as well-known," said Juan Mendez, a former Argentine political prisoner who is now the top advisor on genocide to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"If it weren't rare, it would be a lot easier to put a stop to genocide," he said, adding that other Rwandans also tried to save Tutsis but were unable to succeed, at least on the same scale.

"Many people harbored Tutsis in their homes," said John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration advisor on Africa to the National Security Council. "Those people are also heroic, and their history was never recorded. Other sanctuaries were smoked out and obliterated. Many others tried to save people and were killed in the process."

"Near the end, the Hotel des Mille Collines was pretty much the only safe refuge," he said.

Rusesabagina is quick to say that what he did should not be considered remarkable, that he is an ordinary man who should not be revered for demonstrating basic human decency. And he is, at the very least, unpretentious as he greets a visitor at a Los Angeles luxury hotel with a warmth and openness that contrast with an outfit so inscrutably formal that he seems to have been born in a suit and raised in a hotel.

Mixed ethnicity

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