As the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide draws near, one of the event’s most well-known figures, Paul Rusesabagina, the man who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda,” spoke at Rackham Auditorium to more than 700 people as part of the University’s commemoration of the ethnic cleansing.
During his address, Rusesabagina outlined the history of the Rwandan Civil War, as well as its aftermath and lasting effects on the country and surrounding region.
“I hope that the students and the whole world around the University, and all the people who will see my speech this afternoon, will be once again informed that the Rwanda Genocide was not an event that came out of nowhere and found itself in Rwanda in 1994 and disappeared in 1994,” Rusesabagina told the Daily in an interview after the event.
The killings began on April 6, 1994 following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu. The conflict that lasted 100 days was initiated by militant Hutus against ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Rusesabagina said the history of the genocide is part of the context of a civil war between the Hutu government and the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front. The civil war began in 1990 after Tutsis who had been exiled from the country since 1959 began to return to the nation.
The genocide ended in 1994 with the victory of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, leaving between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandan people dead.
During the war, Rusesabagina offered refuge to 1,268 people, both Hutu and Tutsi, in the Mille Collines, the large hotel where he had previously served as manager. As a result of paying off generals and wielding his connections, all of the hotel guests survived the genocide.
Rusesabagina’s story was later depicted in an Academy Award-nominated film starring Don Cheadle. The film was shown Monday as part of the University’s commemoration activities.
In his remarks, Rusesabagina said many of the problems in Rwanda have been caused by politicians and government-sponsored media and not the country’s average citizens. Hutu and Tutsis are still intermarrying 20 years after the genocide, a reality that demonstrates there is no hatred between the people themselves.
Because there had been years of intermarriage, Rusesabagina also said it was difficult to distinguish between the conflicting ethnic groups.
“Why do they kill themselves?” he asked. “There is one reason so far. They kill themselves because of power. Political power. It is always politicians who divide the population for themselves, to conquer.”
Rusesabagina also addressed the current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame. “President Kagame kills people, so he can never (accept) someone who speaks out,” he told the Daily.
Rusesabagina discussed the aftermath of the genocide and specifically the massacres of refugees by the new government and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many of the refugees had fled. Between 1996 and 1998, about 300,000 refugees were killed in a bloody war for minerals with proxy armies armed by the Ugandan and Rwandan governments.
“What was going on in 1994 is exactly what is going on today and worse,” he said. “What is going on today is a situation whereby, because in the name of genocide, Hutu kids are supposed to kneel down in front of Tutsi kids and beg pardon for the crimes they never did. Whether they were born or not, the government doesn’t care. The president doesn’t care.”
Rusesabagina also said other countries require collective action to intervene in international conflicts, as well as time to make decisions and then take actions. He also claimed the United Nations is ruled by six or seven powers that intervene in other countries only to protect their own interests.
Rusesabagina, who was also a 2005 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, has previous history with the University.
n 2005, he was awarded the University’s Wallenberg Medal, an honor that recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions toward furthering human rights.
Allan Stam, professor of Public Policy and Political Science and director of the International Policy Center, said he, along with Political Science Prof. Christian Davenport, first thought about organizing a commemoration of the genocide six months ago.
“The genocide was one of the perhaps most important events of the late 20th century and the 20th anniversary seems the appropriate time to refocus attention on some of the lessons learned,” Stam said.
Stam said Rusesabagina’s own observations during the event as well as 20 years of study would provide a perspective that people in the United States don’t often hear.
“That there is hope for progress in the future but that there is still a lot of people who need to be held accountable for what took place in the past,” Stam said.
Caitlin Goddard, a second year master’s student in public policy and president of the International Policy Student Association, said Rusesabagina provided a perspective she had not heard before and described his achievements as something unordinary.
She said while she spent her summer in Uganda last year and visited Rwanda, she experienced a perspective of more positive feeling toward the government during her travels.
Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium and has not been to Rwanda since 2004, said he does feel nostalgic about his home. He also established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which works to prevent future genocides and promote the healing process in Rwanda.
“My dream is that one day we see Hutus and Tutsis sitting around that table,” he said. “We’ll see all of these people talking. Bringing the whole truth to the table. Practicing equal justice towards sustainable peace, not only for us but also for our neighbors.”
Rusesabagina also spoke of the most important lesson he learned from his experiences.
“I learned that words, not guns, are the best weapons,” he said. “But words can be the best weapons depending on what we want to achieve. Do we want to achieve peace with words? Through words we can always achieve peace. And do we want to do evil? With words still, we can do it.”