In the midst of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when machete-wielding Hutu extremists murdered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days, Paul Rusesabagina turned the hotel he managed in Kigali, the country’s capital, into an oasis of safety. His actions, which saved the lives of 1,268 refugees, inspired the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, in which he was memorably portrayed by Oscar nominee Don Cheadle. But in his recently released memoir, An Ordinary Man, Rusesabagina rebuffs suggestions that he was a hero, saying he was just doing his job.
Now a critic of Rwanda’s Tutsi-led regime, which he says has turned a blind eye to revenge killings of Hutus, Rusesabagina (pronounced roo-seh-sah-bah-GHEE-nah) lives in exile in Brussels. He recently set up a foundation to help Rwandan women and orphans, and he has been speaking to audiences across the United States about his efforts to prevent future genocides. At a recent appearance in Philadelphia, where he received the first Rev. Leon H. Sullivan Humanitarian Award, the predominantly African American crowd treated him like a rock star, lining up for autographs and photographs.
Sitting down after his talk, the 51-year-old Rusesabagina was affable to a fault, displaying a beguiling mix of self-confidence and modesty, boasting of his accent-free French and still insisting he’s nothing more than a hotelier.
Mother Jones: Your book’s title is interesting, because I’ve talked to Holocaust rescuers, and this is a familiar theme: “We weren’t heroes, we were just ordinary people.”
Paul Rusesabagina: Which is true. Who is a hero, actually?
MJ: If anybody’s a hero, isn’t it somebody who stands up to overwhelming force?
PR: That was nothing special. I was a hotel manager. I just kept on being a hotel manager. If to be a hero is to remain who you are, everyone would be a hero.
MJ: You’ve often been compared to Oskar Schindler because, like him, you were able to deal with the devil. People who were responsible for genocide sat down with you, and you were able to negotiate with them.
PR: I believe in one thing: Each and every heart, even the hardest, has always got a very soft, small part of it with which you can always play around and come up with a positive conclusion.
MJ: In Hotel Rwanda, your character goes from being concerned primarily with his family to embracing all his fellow Rwandans. That’s a standard movie convention; did it reflect real growth on your part?
PR: Actually, that is what happened. Initially, I was not concerned by what was going on. There was a government, there was a war, the United Nations was there. But when I saw the government completely dismantled, I had to take responsibilities. The very first day, I had 26 neighbors in my house. When I had to leave my house, I was not going to leave those people behind. So it became a very big extended family, from 6 to 32, and then 400 and something. That is how it happened—people kept on coming to the hotel. And toward the end, I had 1,268 people. It would have been easier to care for six people—my wife and four children and myself—than caring for a thousand. But if you turn your back, leave a thousand people, that’s on your hands. That is cowardice.
MJ: Do you think that the film captured the essence of your story?
PR: Definitely. My main concern was that Paul remain the hotel manager—not be transformed and manipulated in that Hollywood way of doing things.
MJ: I would think that every hotel in the entire universe would want you as their manager now.
PR: Everybody was willing to give me a job. But I wanted to do something different. I saw myself as an independent person, self-employed. So I started driving a taxi in Brussels. After one year, I bought a second one. After three years, I opened a trucking company. And I’m a father and a husband. I’m now very busy. But I remain a hotelier. I won’t be anything else in my life.
MJ: You left Rwanda as an exile. Why?
PR: I got threats from the Rwandan government. I do not know why, but since the movie came out, the president takes me as a threat, I think.
MJ: You describe today’s Rwanda as a place of “cosmetic democracy with a shallow system of justice.” What do you mean?
PR: Rwanda has got 50,000 [accused murderers] in prison. The first priority is for justice to be done, but up to now, only a few thousand people have been convicted in Rwanda. At that speed, how many years will it take to try and convict 50,000 people? And justice is now a one-way street, only judging, trying, and convicting Hutus and ignoring that Tutsis also killed so many.
MJ: And who’s to tell the innocent from the guilty?
PR: Oh, that is the biggest problem. Almost everybody is guilty.
MJ: Except for you.
PR: Even me, I might be. [Laughs.]
MJ: In your talk, you said that history teaches us no lessons. I was surprised to hear that, because your book is very optimistic.
PR: Yeah, history never seems to teach us any lessons. But that is no reason to give up. Hotel Rwanda should be a lesson to show us what was going on in Rwanda in 1994 and remind us that it never ended. It is still happening in many different parts of Africa. Nobody talks about the Congo. And I traveled to Darfur myself, to see what was going on with my own eyes. What happened in Rwanda—it is exactly the same there.
MJ: Why did you create the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation?
PR: [Shortly after the genocide] I drove with my wife and a friend to see my wife’s sister and her husband. When we arrived, the husband had been killed, and one of their daughters was killed, along with my mother-in-law. My sister-in-law remained with eight children. One of them was a young boy. She had kept him in a bag, so she could go out and people would think that she was going to buy things. Whenever she was at home, she was hiding him under the bed because the killers were hunting for boys. I took her and her children to my house. About two weeks later, her younger sister came from the Congo with her three sons. I had to create jobs for my sisters-in-law and also pay for the education of their 11 children. Today, most of them are in university. When Hotel Rwanda came out, it was then or never to create a foundation to help educate those kids and many others. The genocide left us with half a million orphans, and on top of that, AIDS keeps adding more and more. And all those kids need education. They need medical care and psychological solace. Someone, somewhere, has got to care for them.
MJ: You seem to radiate a quality of joy. If I knew nothing about you and saw you sitting across from me, I would say, “That’s a happy man.”
PR: Well, that is true. I think I’m a happy man, and I’m a blessed man. I have been able to adjust to any situation, whatever it was, in my life.