Paul Rusesabagina explains Hotel Rwanda

Like a little teapot, Paul Rusesabagina is short and stout. When he walked onto the Soldiers and Sailors stage last Wednesday, an outsider might have thought the audience was applauding a Hall of Fame ex-quarterback and not the man best described as a modern-day Oskar Schindler.

Rusesabagina was brought to the University of Pittsburgh campus by groups united in combating global inequality: the Hillel Jewish University Center, the Black Action Society, Amnesty International, the African Student Organization, and the Ford Institute for Human Protection.

Rusesabagina (pronounced roo-sess-ah-bog-ee-nah) has gained notoriety for escaping a situation that, when it was occurring, hardly received any attention at all. In the spring of 1994, nearly one million Rwandans were slaughtered in what later became a premier example of the world’s turning away from a country during its gravest hour.

Rusesabagina lived a peaceful life with his wife and three children amid the political turmoil that was ravaging their homeland. When the Hutu ethnic group began ruthlessly killing Tutsi residents, Rwanda had pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, and Rusesabagina began saving lives with the help of champagne and enough wads of cash to rival any mafia don.

As manager of the classy Milles Collines Hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Rusesabagina explained on Wednesday night that he was given plenty of opportunities to wine and dine with the most influential of Rwanda’s visitors and tourists. In the hotel were vaults stocked like the refrigerators on MTV’s Cribs, replete with bottled whiskey and Cuban cigars. But from April 12 to June 18, 1994, Rusesabagina was not regaling the latest diplomat with these supplies; he was using them to bribe the soldiers sent to kill his guests.

Rusesabagina’s hotel had become a haven for over a thousand Tutsi refugees, many of them children. Following leads on their location, Hutu soldiers repeatedly came to the hotel, machetes in hand, ready to exterminate the next generation of Tutsi Rwandans. Rusesabagina forged documents, called foreign leaders, and braved looking down a rifle’s barrel daily to keep his tenants safe.

“Imagine hearing your own prime minister’s detailing of her bodyguards’ death shortly before being killed herself,” Rusesabagina told the audience.

United Nations peacekeepers were on hand, but Rusesa-
bagina is dismissive: “They were disturbing witnesses” to the carnage which they did nothing to stop.

Opening the event, Master of Ceremonies Eric Hartman relayed his hopes to the audience. Future generations cannot reflect on passivity — “we must deny children the excuse,” he said. Rusesabagina offered a chance to act now and do just that.

One of Rwanda’s neighboring countries, Congo, is providing material chilling enough to warrant a sequel to Hotel Rwanda, the film based on Rusesabagina’s story. He ended his lecture with the expected Hallmark-esque message of hope, but he grew most passionate when referring to the massacres currently ravaging the continent. In the last eight years, “about 3.5 million people have been killed,” Rusesa
bagina explained.

The conversation stayed political during Rusesabagina’s question-and-answer session. His comment, “If Rwanda had oil, the international community would have stepped in,” garnered support from the audience.

Though his story was harrowing and his actions laudable, Rusesabagina’s rendition failed to capture the audience the way his Oscar-nominated movie did. Although the 2000-seat auditorium was packed to standing room only, the audience could have used more standing ovations just to stay awake.

Rusesabagina may look like the second-place finisher in a Danny Glover look-alike contest, but that wasn’t enough to shake off the guess-you-sort-of-had-to-be-there stories and predictable pauses that pleaded for applause.

Everyone acknowledges the gift Rusesabagina has given to humanity. But while living through a tragedy is a one-way ticket to a CBS miniseries, it shouldn’t be one onto the lecture circuit.