Rwanda hero urges students to raise awareness of Darfur genocide

An ordinary man heard voices calling for help. He listened and became a hero for it. That, in short, is the legend and the reality of Paul Rusesabagina.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, more than 300 York students listened in some awe as Rusesabagina recounted his harrowing experiences at the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His heroic actions and clever negotiations saved the lives of 1,200 Rwandan refugees. In telling his story, Rusesabagina asked the students to consider the question “what have we learned from history?” and urged students to raise awareness about other international tragedies, such as the genocide currently unfolding in Darfur, Sudan.

Right: Paul Rusesabinga                               

The Rwandan genocide began on April 6, 1994, when the assassination of the country’s president caused tensions between two populations in Rwanda to explode. Nearly 800,000 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.

At the time of the massacre, Rusesabagina was manager of the Mille Collines Hotel. When the chaos erupted, Rusesabagina took in 1,200 refugees and kept them safe from the genocide for 76 days. Even when he was given the chance to escape, he choose to stay, telling his wife, “If I happen to leave today and these people are killed, I’ll always feel guilty. I’ll be a prisoner of my own conscience.” With a big heart, his hotel’s resources and a telephone, Rusesabagina negotiated with Hutu militia leaders to spare the lives of Hutu and Tutsi citizens who had taken refuge in the hotel.

“The telephone was our main tool,” he said, explaining how he used his connections with business leaders around the world to protect his hotel and the lives inside from the militia. He also gave the militia money, goods and food in exchange for the lives of the refugees. When a militia leader presented Rusesabagina with a gun and told him to kill, he negotiated, offering the soldier cash and shelter. “You are hungry and thirsty. You are just stressed by this world…I do understand your problem. But this problem, we can deal with it,” he told the soldier.

Following the genocide, Rusesabagina lived in Kigali for two years, but was exiled from Rwanda in 1996. He moved to Belgium, where he still lives today with his wife and four children. In 2000, he was awarded the Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity for his heroism during the 1994 genocide. In 2005, he received a 2005 Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2005, he received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, which has also been awarded to Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama.

His story is also chronicled in his new book, An Ordinary Man. Twenty per cent of the proceeds from its sale go to the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF), a charity that assists victims of genocide.

“There are so many voices calling for help. They are calling you. Please, try. Do listen to them and do something,” urged the ordinary hero to the students who came to hear his story.

This story was written by Bethany Hansraj, a student assistant in the Publications unit of York’s Marketing & Communications Division.