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Patt Morrison Asks

Paul Rusesabagina, Rwanda's hotel hero

In April 1994, as general manager of the luxury hotel where he worked, he protected more than 1,000 people who had fled the killing rampage in the country. Now he lectures about human rights.

November 13, 2013|Patt Morrison
(Los Angeles Times )

Most bio-pics are made about somebodies — warriors, kings, artists. This was a bio-pic about a nobody who became a somebody during the Rwandan genocide, a bloody crossroads for a country with deep-seated ethnic frictions. In April 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was brevetted as general manager of the luxury hotel where he worked, and where more than 1,000 people had fled from the killing rampage. For more than two months, he managed to protect them from being slaughtered. Ten years later, the world saw "Hotel Rwanda." Today, there is no love lost between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Rusesabagina, who lives in San Antonio and travels to lecture about human rights, as he did in Los Angeles not long ago.

Is there such a thing as a post-ethnic society? The government in Rwanda wants everyone to be not Hutu or Tutsi but Rwandan.

The problem with today's Rwandan government is trying to say that ethnicities do not exist. That is maybe because we fear what we did ourselves, [now] we want to say all of us are Rwandans. We have a group of [mostly Tutsi] elite who are taking power because they [proclaim that they are] Rwandans.

Whenever they talk about ethnicity, they always talk [of] Hutus who kill Tutsis — bad guys who kill good guys. They position themselves as victims and others as perpetrators. They say whatever they think will solve their problem for that minute. When they become victims, they become Tutsis. When they are not victims and they are in power, they are Rwandans.

Didn't European colonists codify these distinctions with ID cards?

Yes and no. Go to the meaning of the words. "Tutsi" means "the elite, one who is better, who has wealth." Wealth before colonization was measured in cows. "Hutu" means "follower, a servant, a slave." These words were created by us, not by colonizers.

But then isn't it a good idea to get rid of names that reinforce distinctions?

Anything can be good, but the way they are doing it is the wrong way. [For example,] in 2008 someone decided overnight that Rwanda should become an English-speaking country. Anything which is forced always becomes a bad thing.

What do you miss most about Rwanda?

I miss everything! The hill where I used to sit in the afternoon every rainy day, and when the whole sky would break clear and I would see maybe 100 miles. I miss the place where I was born and raised.

Have you been back since you left in 1996?

I went back in 2004 before the movie came out. I sensed what was going to happen: the hatred from the Rwandan president seeing a Hutu becoming a hero, where he had positioned himself with his people as heroes. So we took our three younger kids there so they would know where they came from.

What do you think of efforts to discredit you, such as protesters showing up when you speak?

I like it. This shows the weakness of [the Rwandan] government. I can never imagine a president who is supposed to be busy [with] politics running after me, a small citizen. The president is making me more important than I am supposed to be.

Do you worry that you are still a target?

If I were to worry, I wouldn't do anything. I would just lock myself in my house. So if anyone wants to kill me, I think that will be that person's problem, not mine. In 1994, this helped me to go on. I was targeted because I was protecting the most wanted people. The elite intellectuals were in my hotel. The business elite, also ordinary and common human beings were there. I said to myself, "Oh well, I will be killed; shall I give up? No. let me do one more small thing before I die." I kept on going like that. Since that time, every day, every month, every year, I call it a bonus.

What do you think of the United Nations' role in Rwanda then?

I was disappointed on many occasions. When the United Nations came to Rwanda in October 1993, we were sensing something. We were smelling death. The whole country was nervous and tense. When the United Nations sent in forces, we called them peacekeepers. Their mission was not to keep peace. Their mission was to observe. As weak as they were, when we saw the United Nations pulling out of Rwanda, abandoning our nation to thugs and gangsters and running away, all of us were caught. So I was disappointed at that time by the United Nations.

How do you regard American misperceptions of Africa?

There have been reasons why Americans do not really think about Africa. One reason is that Africa is far from America. The American continent is more or less self-sufficient. But since 9/11, Americans would like to know what is happening elsewhere. The opinion is changing, and we want to be part of the change.¿

You've been speaking at places like Harvard-Westlake School. Why those audiences?

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