Hotel manager-turned-hero Paul Rusesabagina

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The real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda reflects on his experience, 20 years ago, during one of the worst mass slaughters in modern history.

Paul Rusesabagina is the real-life hero portrayed by actor Don Cheadle in the Oscar-nominated film, Hotel Rwanda. As manager of a luxury hotel in 1994 in Rwanda, he risked his life to shelter more than 1,200 Hutus and Tutsis who were seeking refuge from the tragic genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in over 100 days. Building on lessons he learned, Rusesabagina subsequently established a foundation to help provide voice to victims of genocide and support peace efforts throughout the world and tours the world speaking about social justice and human rights activism. He's the recipient of numerous prestigious honors, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President George W. Bush.


Tavis: On April 6th, 20 years ago, one of the worst mass slaughters in modern history began in Rwanda as rampaging Hutu militia massacred the country’s Tutsi population.

As the world stood by and watched, it was left to individuals to save innocent lives. Paul Rusesabagina did just that, risking his own life by giving shelter to more than a thousand people in the hotel where he worked.

His heroic efforts became the basis for the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda.” Paul Rusesabagina, an honor, sir, 20 years later, to have on you this program.

Paul Rusesabagina: Thank you.

Tavis: My first time meeting you – of course we all know of your heroic exploits 20 years ago. But one of your friends has been a regular guest on this program. In fact, he was just here a few weeks ago.

But some years ago he was here because he had the opportunity to play you in the film “Hotel Rwanda.” Here’s a conversation, just a clip of a bit of my chat with our friend, Don Cheadle.

[Begin video clip of previous interview]

Tavis: Talk about the joy and the challenge of playing a real-life person while that person is obviously still alive.

Don Cheadle: Yeah. Well, I was – obviously there was a certain level of intimidation, knowing that I was going to (laughter) do this, and –

Tavis: This guy’s going to see this.

Don Cheadle: Yeah, he’s going to see it and may actually get in front of a camera and go, “No, that wasn’t.” (Laughter) So there was a level of, sure, concern with that, but I just really thought the script did a great job of personalizing a story that could be too huge to get our minds around.

The idea of a million people killed over 90, 100 days is more than we can fathom, but you can understand the love that a man has for his family, and the love that he has for his friends and wanting to protect himself and the people that he loves.

So talking to Paul I was very quickly sort of put at ease, because he’s not some heroic, 10-foot-tall man who’s got a cape on. He is a man, and he’s a very devoted family man.

I said, “Well I can play that. I’m a family man.” He was really committed to what was right and what was good, and he never looked at it as he was doing something extraordinary.

He was just doing what was in front of him day to day to day. There was no planning, there was no plot beyond let me see if I can get through this one day. I thought, that’s very playable. Day to day is very playable.

Tavis: Yeah.

[End video clip of previous interview]

Tavis: So this is Hollywood. So how truthful was the movie? Did it get the real story out?

Rusesabagina: Actually, “Hotel Rwanda” is a true story telling what was going on during the Rwandan genocide. Of course, compared to genocide, “Hotel Rwanda” is much less violent than the real life. It is a small island of peace in a kind of sea of fire.

Tavis: As far as Don playing you, did he meet your approval?

Rusesabagina: Definitely Don did a great job, and before playing me, of course, we had to stay together for about a week in Johannesburg, South Africa, him watching me.

We used to have our breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and sometimes taste a glass of wine. (Laughter) He would just look at me, the way I was doing things, that he perfectly performed as I would have done it if I was to do it myself.

Tavis: Yeah, well he did a wonderful job and was Academy Award nominated for the role. So he’s a great actor, obviously. It has been 20 years since this genocide. I don’t want to color this first question too much, but what do you make of what you and your countrymen and women had to endure two decades later?

Rusesabagina: Well two decades later, I would tell the audience that unfortunately, history repeats itself, and does never teach us any lessons. If history was to teach us any lessons, we wouldn’t have seen what the Rwandan, new Rwandan government that took over in 1994 did to the Rwandan people and even across the border.

Afterwards, that is when we started seeing people being tied from the back. They’re beaten, their chests broken. These people thrown into containers and dying there, their bodies burned and their ashes spread into the national parks.

This is when we started seeing once again yesterday’s victims now killing, a displaced camp, a camp of displaced people within the country, unarmed people who are not really threatening the government, and we saw this come, with had 1,500 people being butchered with machine guns on the ground, and also being killed with helicopter bombardments from the air.

This is when we started seeing many politicians, especially from the Hutu side, being killed, hacked to death, killed trying to get into their compound. This is when we started seeing many people disappearing and sometimes throwing their cars to the border, pretending that these people are going to exile, hopefully.

If they went to exile – this is the Rwandan’s government’s version – if they went exile, we hope that one day they’ll also show up and we’ll see them. But we know where they are. They have been killed.

So we saw the Rwandan government crossing borders, going into the Congo, raping women, raping young girls. We saw it because of what they call blood minerals.

We saw the new Rwandan army now killing approximately, according to humanitarian reports, more than 7 million Congolese in that region, that part of the world.

Yet all this has been happening on our own watch. We just stood there, but we stood by. We did not – we turned our backs, we closed our eyes and ears. We did not want to see, so that we are not involved.

Tavis: So any amount of violence in Rwanda or any other place at the hands of government is too much for my taste, but is what’s happening in Rwanda now at the level of genocide?

Again, any violence perpetrated by the state is too much, but genocide is a serious accusation. So I’m asking you if what’s happening in Rwanda is unacceptable, or is what’s happening in Rwanda genocide still.

Rusesabagina: What happened in Rwanda in 1994 during those 90 days is unacceptable. What happened before, because this is what people, the audience, does not know.

Genocide is not something that comes out of nowhere and finds itself as a certain given place and disappears at a given time. This is not what happens. The Rwandan genocide took place during our civil war when still many Hutus and Tutsis were being killed.

This is when we had more than a million people surrounding the capital city, Kigali, because they had fled from their houses, their homes, their region, where they came from.

They were just moving slowly behind the regular army, because the rebels, the Tutsi rebels were also killing them. So this was, or the genocide was a result of many mass massacres, and those people were also being killed because they were Hutus.

Tutsis were also killed, 1994, during those three months because they were Tutsis, but also what happened what happened. According to the United Nations mapping report, this was a report which was done by the humanitarian side of the United Nations, where they report 300,000 people and more.

Not only strong ones, healthy ones, but rather sick people, old people, children, women, all of those weak ones who cannot fight. This is when we saw them being killed all across the Congolese jungle.

Tavis: So you don’t believe that things in Rwanda right now are any better than they were 20 years ago?

Rusesabagina: This is a problem. This is a problem, because people who do not know Rwanda. In Rwanda, we always change dancers, but the music remains the same.

According to the U.N. mapping report I was talking about, if this was examined, studied by competent, a qualified institution, it would be also qualified, taken as a genocide.

So Rwanda is more or less like a simmering kind of dormant volcano which might erupt any time. Now you have 14 percent of the population dictating their rules, trying, convicting, killing the majority 85 percent.

How would one pretend to tell the world that there is peace? There’s no peace. We, Rwanda, is silent, and I fear my fellow Rwandans when we are silent.

Tavis: But what I’m wrestling with here, and I’m not naïve in asking this because I know you have an answer for it. What I’m wrestling with, though, are the world leaders – I’m talking about people like Elie Wiesel – world leaders who have celebrated Rwandan leadership since this atrocity 20 years ago.

But I hear you telling me that according to the evidence that you have seen, the work that the U.N. and others have done, is that it’s not much better.

Rusesabagina: Well, people like Elie Wiesel, I know Elie Wiesel – I have never sat down with Elie Wiesel and explained to him what has been going on in Rwanda, even if we met. But we didn’t have an opportunity to sit down and talk about this.

But what I have noticed is that after repeating this many times on my own behalf to many world leaders, because I have traveled the whole world trying to educate, to be the voice of the voiceless according to what we have seen, now our message about what is going on in Rwanda has been through.

Why? Because in 2012, for instance, in July, we saw the international community, starting from the United States, where we are seated today, we saw them stopping their foreign direct aid, because we do not advocate to stop humanitarian aid but rather direct aid, the direct money which is given to governments.

We saw the United States stopping their military aid to Rwanda. We saw also – immediately – we saw the Netherlands, we saw Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and many other countries stopping their direct aid to Rwanda.

Also, to make it much more clear, just recently we saw many countries also expelling their diplomats from, their Rwandan diplomats from their country. This, the United Kingdom did. We saw Sweden also doing so. Less than two weeks ago, when the Rwandan so-called “diplomats” attacked the former general chief of staff for the Rwandan army, General Kayumba Nyamwasa, we saw again South Africa taking very strong and series steps ahead.

The expelled three Rwandan diplomats just two weeks ago. So the world understands.

Tavis: So you see certain countries starting to step up, which leads me to something that I think the American public has heard him say time and time again.

Bill Clinton, our former president, has told me this in my private conversations with him as we’ve traveled to various places around the world. He’s told me this privately, he has said this publicly.

So he’s on the record saying this, that the worst mistake of his presidency was not moving quickly enough into Rwanda. I think even Madeleine Albright, his secretary of state, has at times expressed regret that they didn’t – maybe even sorrow – that they didn’t move quickly enough on Rwanda.

When you look back on this genocide 20 years ago, what do you make of the world’s leading nations, including ours, who just didn’t do anything?

Rusesabagina: In 1994, I’m one of the witnesses of the Rwandan genocide. I’m one of those people who saw the international community, the whole world, pulling out from Rwanda. I was there.

And I’m one of those ones once again who, after seeing them abandoning us to ourselves, to thugs and thieves and gangsters. I’m one of those ones who are still calling up this international community.

I was calling the White House, I was calling the United Nations, I was calling the Peace Corps, I was calling the State Department, the United Nations, but I knew what I was doing.

I knew they were not going to come, because when they left Rwanda I was seeing them. But I wanted that time to shame them. Today, we are calling up on President Clinton, we are calling up on Mr. Blair, UK prime minister, because they are the ones who have been now, because of the sense of guilt, they are the ones who have been behind today’s Rwandan government, who have been helping.

Because of that sense of guilt they have regretted what they did, but I think they are not yet through. They might regret once again, because they have been helping the Rwandan president, who is today the one who has killed as many people, the highest killer of the 20th century. Also, he is also writing his name in the 21st.

Tavis: So Bill Clinton was at least a couple of U.S. presidents ago. We’ve had George W. Bush since him, Barack Obama, who has roots on the African continent; also, of course, is now our president.

What’s our sense of how our government at the moment is behaving or misbehaving where Rwanda is concerned?

Rusesabagina: I would say that the U.S. government so far has not yet done much.

Tavis: We’ve not done much.

Rusesabagina: No, you have not done much. First of all, you have not done much, because we saw President Clinton, first of all, apologizing with his sense of guilt, excusing himself, just in a kind of weak position.

We saw President Bush – I think that President Bush actually did a lot, because he’s the one who, for the first time, listened to our messages. Of course we had an opportunity to meet with him.

Myself, I meet with him twice. That time, when we brought the whole Rwandan situation to the table, talked about it, what followed was the fact that President Kagame was no more received in the White House as he used to be received, with a red carpet.

You could see that he would go there any time he wanted. So that changed. But with Barack Obama, the situation has been kind of silent. We haven’t seen a lot of things really changing. The situation, the U.S. government has not really changed that much.

Tavis: We’ve talked so far in this conversation, Paul, about the role and the responsibility of the international community. I want to go right now straightaway inside the country of Rwanda and get your sense of what agency, what power, what opportunity the Rwandan people have to exercise their right to self-determination.

I know that the leaders of the country you’ve got major issues with, but talk to me about the people and their right to self-determination.

Rusesabagina: Rwanda has a lot of problems. One of those problems is the lack of political space. If you go online and see how our president talks about political space, he says that political space is “fully occupied.”

He occupies it with his people. That is his. I’m quoting him. So there is no political space. Human rights have been abused every now and then, every day. We have seen that there’s no freedom of speech, there is no freedom of media in that country.

In that country you have a winner. After the genocide, the Tutsi side won the war, and by winning the war they also took power in the whole of it without sharing. Then you have a loser.

The losers have lost everything. They have lost power. They are not even involved. Most of them are in exile, other ones are humiliated. Even Hutu children, according to the meeting with President Kagame himself in 2013, June 30th, all the Hutu children from generations to generations, are supposed to come and kneel down in front of Tutsi children and beg pardon.

Even if they didn’t do anything wrong, they have to beg pardon for their parents. This is a situation within Rwanda. In Rwanda, you have Tutsis who committed war crimes, who committed crimes against humanity, who are now trying Hutus who committed the genocide.

Now how can, in the name of justice, a criminal, a criminal against humanity, a war criminal, try and convict a genocider? Who is the best, is there any best, good killer?

Tavis: Yeah. Back to this movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” that Don Cheadle starred in that so many Americans had a chance to see, to better understand, at least on film, what your story and that of your countrymen and women was.

We saw and came to feel a connection to you and to your immediate family because of the film. Give me some sense of how your life, how your family’s life has changed in the last 20 years. I assume you ain’t hanging out in Rwanda these days.

Because with the way you’re talking to me, I know this would not be welcome inside of Rwanda. So obviously you’re not living there anymore, so just give me a sense of what your life has been like since this horrible genocide 20 years ago.

Rusesabagina: Well let’s say since 1994, since that time, my whole life has completely changed. The Rwandan genocide changed me completely. At the beginning, I just stayed in Rwanda for another two years and a little bit more as a general manager in a company in the hotel, but without rights, always threatened to death.

I was almost assassinated and was kept by lock. This was on September 5th, 1996. When I escaped, I just went to exile. In exile, you can imagine, I had nothing to do, because I – but since I don’t like to stand, to sit lazy without doing anything, for a few, about two, three years I was driving a cab.

Then from there I just changed, I changed my job. I opened a trucking company, and in the meantime my children, my daughters, were getting married, and I’m a father and a grandfather.

So my two daughters are in Belgium, and they and I got involved in “Hotel Rwanda,” making the movie. Then following “Hotel Rwanda,” on a day-to-day basis traveling all the world, all over the world, talking about the Rwandan genocide.

Tavis: Through your foundation.

Rusesabagina: Through my foundation especially, and also through my speaking agency. So I have been a busy person for the last couple of years. For the last 20 years, always busy.

Tavis: Do you feel hopeful about your country as we sit here tonight?

Rusesabagina: You see, this is me. I believe that we always can make it. I’d never bow and give up and say well, this is it. Let me give up. This is not me. I’d never give up. So I believe that one day, whether anyone wants it or not, I’ll be back to Rwanda.

Tavis: And you do want to go back?

Rusesabagina: You see, as you say, as the elders said, east, west, south, north, home is best.

Tavis: Yeah, I like that. (Laughter) You are right about that, Paul Rusesabagina. Paul’s book came out some years ago. It is now out in paperback. It’s from Penguin and it’s called “An Ordinary Man.”

As you heard Don Cheadle say at the top of this conversation, he is, for all his heroic efforts, just an ordinary man – who has done some extraordinary things, I might add, but an ordinary man.

The book is called “An Ordinary Man, an Autobiography,” by Paul Rusesabagina. Paul, I am – so wonderful it is for me and our staff around here to get a chance to meet you all these years later. Thank you for the book, thank you for your ongoing work, and thank you for coming on our show.

Rusesabagina: Thank you.

Tavis: It’s good to see you.

Rusesabagina: It’s my pleasure.

Tavis: Thank you, sir.

Rusesabagina: You are welcome, sir.

Tavis: That is our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 4, 2014 at 12:41 pm