An ordinary man who became an extraordinary hero

Paul Rusesabagina (right), the real-life hero of the movie Hotel Rwanda, who saved the lives of his family and over 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, will visit York University on Tuesday, Jan. 10. Rusesabagina will give a special lecture titled, “Speak Out Against Genocide”. The event will take place at 3pm in the Founders Assembly Hall, Founders College, on the Keele campus.

Rusesabagina was an ordinary person became a hero during the Rwandan bloodletting. On April 6, 1994, tensions between two populations in Rwanda exploded when the country’s president was assassinated. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered by rival Hutu militias over the course of the genocide. The conflict was the result of centuries of simmering tensions between the two groups and the suddenness and savagery of the attacks caught the world off-guard. UN forces withdrew, and it was weeks before the world body finally intervened. By the time UN forces returned in strength to Kigali, it was too late.

Left and below: Images of slaughter from the Rwandan genocide

For two months, Rusesabagina held insanity at bay as he watched his country fall into the grips of genocide. A Hutu manager of a luxury hotel in Rwanda, he sheltered over 1,200 people, including his own Tutsi wife and children, saving their lives at a time when extremists massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days.

Considered the “Rwandan Schindler”, his wrenching story and that of the genocide is chronicled in the critically acclaimed 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, in which he was played by Hollywood actor Don Cheedle. While militants threatened and surrounded the well-groomed grounds of the hotel, Rusesabagina spent hours on the phone, pleading with influential leaders – his international connections his only defence against attack. He bartered luxury items such as money, gold, cigars and aged bottles of wine he hoarded in his hotel, for the lives of strangers seeking refuge in the chaos. Miraculously, no one housed at his hotel died.

In a 2004 interview with US television personality Katie Couric, Rusesabagina said, “I really don’t know whether I had a special courage. I just take myself as someone who did what he was supposed to do. Who did his job… I knew I was the first to be hunted, because I was protecting people, refugees.”

After the genocide, Rusesabagina went to Belgium as a refugee. Since then, he has worked as a businessman and owns a transport company. He is also still involved in charitable organizations aiding survivors of the Rwandan tragedy and has set up the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to help the relief effort.

Rusesabagina is the recipient of many honours for his bravery including the 2005 National Civil Rights Museum’s International Freedom Award, the 2005 Golda Meir Award from Metropolitan State College in Denver, and the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President George W. Bush.

Initiated by Hillel at York, the event is jointly sponsored by a number of student groups at York University including Leadership, Culture and Christianity. For more information, contact Shiao Chong by e-mail to