TONIGHT ON THE TERRORDOME: The Real-Life Hero of Hotel Rwanda

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Thirteen years ago, reactionary forces in Rwanda executed a wide-ranging plan involving a months-long radio propaganda campaign, Western military training, blitzkrieg militia-strikes, Western diplomatic cover-fire and finally Western sanctuary. That plan and its horrifying results are known today as the Rwandan genocide.

While a final accounting of the death toll remains controversial, at minimum, the militias called the Interahamwe systematically slaughtered three-quarters of a million people in a matter of weeks. Most of the victims belonged to the Tutsi nationality, groomed by decades of Belgian occupation and divide-and-rule tactics to be the privileged and dominant group in Rwandan society. The militias belonged primarily to the Hutu nationality, those destined by Belgian dictatorship to be the doormats of occupation and post-colonial rule.

Such Belgian interference was mild compared to Belgium’s role in Congo, which around 1900 was the mass-murder of 8-10 million people. By the 1994 genocide, though, it may have been France and not Belgium intervening for mass-destruction: “Rwandan government officials claim that new proof of France’s role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide has emerged during the UN’s Rwanda court hearings. Not only was France training the genocidal militias prior to the genocide, the French government was even today providing perpetrators of the genocide a refuge.”

The United States played a different role, preventing the United Nations Security Council from employing the word “genocide” which would have mandated military intervention. As evidence gathers of French foreknowledge of the then-impending genocide, some analysts argue that had there been sufficient diplomatic pressure, combined with an earlier cut-off of French military and political support, the genocide might have been averted entirely.

But even today justice is being thwarted: “Aloys Mutabingwa, the Rwandan government’s envoy to the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)... said the French government had part of the responsibility for the 1994 genocide and for not letting the ICTR doing its job properly. [He said] that the ICTR’s ten-year investigations had produced ‘sufficient and credible evidence’ to try French government officials [for French] training [of] the Interahamwe militia.... [and it] was only because the ICTR wanted to avoid ‘a diplomatic incident’ that French officials had not been charged. [He also charged that] France keeps interfering with justice by providing a shelter for suspected genocide perpetrators.... These allegations against France are not new. In June last year, the European Court of Human Rights slammed the French judiciary for [taking an unreasonably] long time in proceeding against a Rwandan clergyman, who had been charged with genocide compliancy nine years before. The European court found that the French judiciary was not satisfying the ‘reasonable time’ requirement in the European Convention on Human Rights. [And] international human rights groups have criticised France for its seeming unwillingness to contribute to justice for Rwanda’s genocide victims. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) claims that cases related to the Rwandan genocide had in general been met by ‘a certain coolness by French judiciary authorities.’”

Whatever France’s role in the genocide, and the UN’s in failing to prevent it, the horrors of Rwanda were directly committed by Rwandans against other Rwandans. And just as the worst villains were Rwandans, so were its greatest heroes. One such hero calls himself “an ordinary man.” That man is Paul Rusesabagina, depicted by Afrikan-American actor Don Cheadle in the recent feature film Hotel Rwanda.

Born in 1954, Paul Rusesabagina went on to study theology in Cameroon before studying hotel management in Europe. As a hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda, during 100 days of genocide, he gave shelter to 1,268 people in the Mille Collines Hotel. He’s been compared to Oscar Schindler for his heroism under such great risk. Unlike some prominent people who survived the massacres with their sanity barely intact, Rusesabagina went on to become a businessman and he currently owns a transport company.

Now his broader mission is to prevent genocide in his homeland and anywhere else in the world. He also served as special consultant to Academy Award-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, and in 2005 established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which provides financial assistance to children and women affected by the genocides in Rwanda and across the continent. He’s published an autobiography from Penguin entitled An Ordinary Man.

Rusesabagina spoke before the California Commonwealth Club on March 14, 2007. The event was moderated by Sandeep Roy, editor of New American Media and host of Upfront on KALW FM.


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