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20 Years After the Start of the Rwandan Genocide, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Hero Points to the Power of Words
Posted on Apr 10, 2014
“You will find nobody living in Rwanda today who does not remember what they were doing in the early evening hours of April 6, 1994, when the private jet of President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down with a portable missile as it approached for landing at Kigali Airport.”
—Paul Rusesabagina, “An Ordinary Man”
The 1994 Rwandan genocide was stunning for its ferocity and speed. Eight hundred thousand people were killed in the span of just 100 days. The slayings were organized and relentless. Racial distinctions that were barely tangible suddenly divided neighbors and even family members from one another, with government-backed paramilitary killers egged on by political and media elites to orchestrate large-scale slaughter.
Many Rwandans are of mixed heritage but traditionally have taken on their fathers’ identities. Those with Tutsi fathers, resented for their over-representation in colonial-era power structures, were massacred alongside moderate Hutus who dared to not join the carnage. One man named Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager born to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, survived and helped keep more than 1,200 others alive in a miraculous effort that turned his hotel into a refuge. That story inspired the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” starring Don Cheadle in an Oscar-nominated performance. Had his parents’ lineage been reversed, Rusesabagina would almost certainly have been killed.
But even as a Hutu he faced many instances during the genocide when he thought he was breathing his last breaths, as he recounted in his 2007 book, “An Ordinary Man.” In a tale that is equal parts horrifying and inspiring, Rusesabagina wove a story of extraordinary courage and resilience, maintaining humbly, “I am not a politician or a poet ... I am nothing more or less than a hotel manager, trained to negotiate contracts and charged to give shelter to those who need it.”
Rusesabagina’s story is intensely gripping. I could not put the book down even though I desperately wanted to stop imagining women, children and men being hacked from limb to limb by machetes, and bodies piled up on street curbs. The book filled me with a combination of rage and grief and every other page provoked tears. But it also illustrated the incredible power wielded by a simple refusal to go along with the mob. Rusesabagina wrote, “[T]he only thing that saved those 1,268 people in my hotel was words. Not the liquor [which I used to ply officials], not money, not the UN. Just ordinary words directed against the darkness.”
In an interview with me on Uprising, Rusesabagina used his words eloquently to help make sense of the genocide. He told me, counter to the reductive explanation of ancient ethnic hatred fueling the killings, “Hutus and Tutsis do not hate each other as many people claim.”
He shared several reasons for why the genocide occurred. First, Rwandan politicians “used ethnicity in order to divide and rule.” Second, a sense of impunity spurred the killings because “people were not punished.” Third, “Rwanda has a problem of land. It is one of the most overpopulated countries in the world. Young people having no land, nothing to do, who are also hungry, is a problem.”
With conditions ripe for a conflict, all that remained was a media entity to goad the killers and a crisis to rally around. In the months and weeks before the genocide began, a private radio station called RTLM began relentlessly influencing national discourse on Hutu-Tutsi relations by dehumanizing Tutsis through constant references to them as “cockroaches” and warnings of an internal menace in the country. On April 6, 1994, the downing of Habyarimana’s plane provided the spark and RTLM fanned the flames to provoke a killing spree that lasted 100 days.
As is a constant theme in Rusesabagina’s book, words were of paramount importance in provoking the killings. He told me, “The media were urging people to go into neighbors’ rooms, look for ‘so-and-so’ and kill them.” The radio station dehumanized Tutsis, and according to Rusesabagina, “they were using words to smear their neighbors, calling them cockroaches so that it was not about killing human beings, but removing an infestation.”
The international shame around the Rwandan genocide was centered on Western inaction. Discouraged by the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, the U.S. was loath to intervene once more in another African country’s affairs. The United Nations, even though present in Rwanda, evacuated its own troops after a Belgian contingent was killed, leaving behind a skeleton crew with orders not to intervene. Again, the power of words played a role.
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