Paul Rusesabagina is credited with housing and protecting twelve-hundred, sixty-eight refugees (both Hutu and Tutsi) during the Rwandan genocide, but he did not begin as an ordinary man. He was merely a hotel manager who saw something going terribly wrong and decided to do everything in his power to protect anyone he could. We know that all those refugees were saved solely by Paul Rusesabagina during the peak of the massacre in Rwanda, but how many lives did he save indirectly by his actions?
Was the conflict in Rwanda (and the peace that followed) directly affected by the actions that Paul Rusesabagina took to ensure the safety of his family, friends, and the people in general? What role did Paul Rusesabagina play in the conflict and subsequent settlement of the Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Rwanda? I believe that he played three very separate and yet equally important roles: that if the peacekeeper, the shepherd, and the saviour.
Paul Rusesabagina has titled his autobiography “An Ordinary Man,” but he was truly anything but. He was born to a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother on July 15, 1954, and was a middle child in the midst of eight other children. Not only was he a well-educated boy, but he also was fluently bilingual in English and French by the age of 13. He adopted the role of a protector early in life when his family sheltered refugees during the initial stages of the conflict in the late 1950s and 1960s.
He originally married a woman named Esther whom he fathered three children, and he aspired to become a minister of the Seventh Day Adventist church, but his seminary plans fell through in favour of entering the hospitality business and his marriage shortly followed. Six years after Paul’s divorce from Esther, he met Tatiana and although she was Tutsi he was no stranger to mixed-race marriage having been raised in one himself. In 1992 Paul Rusesabagina was given the title of assistant general manager at the Diplomats Hotel owned by the Belgian Sabena conglomerate (Rusesabagina).
In order to understand what role Paul Rusesabagina truly plays in the Rwandan conflict, we first need to get a better understanding of the conflict itself. Rwanda was acquired by the Belgium after World War I and due mainly to the already skewed balance of power and other aesthetic considerations (Tutsi people had lighter skin, slimmer noses, and generally more Caucasian features which were desirable by the Belgians) the Tutsis were able to maintain the upper hand in the balance of power. The Tutsi ruled while the Hutu were considered the peasant or working-class.
In 1959 the Hutu revolution overthrew the Tutsi rule and in the early 1960s the Tutsi fled Rwanda for outlying areas. Many Tutsi fled to Uganda where in 1985 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (a Tutsi rights movement) was formed. All throughout the 80s and 90s, massacres continued with little press in the western world due mostly to the false opinion that the Tutsi/Hutu conflict was essentially a “cold” war with few or no casualties. In 1993 the Arusha Accords were signed between the RPF and the Rwandan authorities, bringing a promise of peace between the few tribes as UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was formed.
However, shortly after came the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, the first Hutu president elected in Burundi, which led the Hutus to believe that the Tutsis were trying to regain control of the region. The Hutus lashed out with more violence against the Tutsis. Rwandan Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in retaliation on April 6, 1994 with several other Hutu government officials on board. Several other government figures were systematically assassinated that day marking the official beginning of this era’s Rwandan genocide.
(Fujii) So where did Paul Rusesabagina, his family, and his hotel fit in to all this senseless violence? When the body count began to rise, Paul hid his family and neighbors inside the Hotel des Mille Collines and disguised them as quests and staff. He began his journey from ordinary to extraordinary as a shepherd; leading his flock to safety (the Tutsi/Hutu refugees staying in the hotel) and protecting them from the wolves that were waiting outside with rifles and machetes. Every civil rights movement is started by a “shepherd.
” Moses parted the sea for the Jews when his people were being oppressed, Martin Luther King Jr. led the African-Americans to freedom from racial discrimination. Millicent Fawcett marched women everywhere towards the right vote. Paul Rusesabagina makes a phone call to Sabena and secures a letter appointing him acting general manager of Hotel des Mille Collines making it possible for him to use his position to shelter more refugees, and also to use the hotel’s local resources to bribe Rwandan soldiers with money and alcohol in exchange for the lives of the refugees.
Paul Rusesabagina guided all the refugees he could into the hotel so they could feel hope and find strength in each other. But guiding the flock to safety was a challenge. At several junctures during the movie where he (being Hutu himself) must face the choice whether or not speak out against an injustice, or to carefully go along with the wishes of his oppressors for the greater, later good of his cause. At this point he is starting to take on the role of a peacekeeper. The blue berets sent by the UN to war-torn parts of the world are unfortunately ineffective at subduing many civil conflicts because of the nature of politics.
When the United Nations’ peacekeepers failed, Rusesabagina took matters into his own hands and not only bargained for the lives of his people, but inspired in his people a will to live. He encourages his guests to phone anyone they know “of influence” that they can tell of the horrors they are enduring…that those horrors are real, and that no one is intervening. He asks his people to send out the word that becomes their SOS signal and starts to allow for the return of the peacekeeping forces and the (unfortunately slow) evacuation of refugees from the affected area.
Ronald Reagan is quoted as saying, “peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means” and this ability to handle conflict without majour aggravation or injury is exactly the skill that Rusesabagina possesses and utilizes well throughout the entire movie. Without his ability to diffuse stressful situations, the death toll of the Rwanda genocides would more than certainly be higher. In several points during Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina takes on the role of the Saviour, by not only housing the Hutu/Tutsi refugees, but also by inspiring them to fight for their lives by any peaceful means necessary.
He puts himself aside, overwhelmed by emotion and empathy, to save several other people from death. Paul Rusesabagina spared the lives of nearly thirteen-hundred people from the reality of an unspeakable massacre that no one would pay attention to. He consistently puts his peers before himself and sees them as just that: people. Scared people who need someone to help them, to show them courage, and motivate them towards hope for a better tomorrow.
Paul Rusesabagina did not draw a line between his Tutsi refugees and his Hutu refugees, he only asked that they do their part, respect him and each other, and not compromise the security of others in the hotel (George). Because Paul Rusesabagina helped his people by doing everything he could, including risking his own life, he can be seen as a saviour. As a final thought, I would like you, the reader, to sit in silence for a moment and think of the millions of bodies that were scattered across the roads and riverbanks in Africa on that day not even two decades ago.
Think about all those corpses and realize that those charred and bloodied bodies might have family somewhere still wondering if their loved one might have escaped the carnage. There are still families out there missing their sons and daughters, their aunts and uncles, their mothers and fathers. The family members of those bland statistics you cannot bear to read for the dryness could be a thousand miles away, or they could be the new Canadian standing beside you in the grocery store. Sit and think about how much love you were given, be thankful for the things and the people that you have around you.
Be thankful that you live in a peaceful country where your life is not endangered by simply stepping out the door to make a grocery run. Show to the world that you are grateful for what you have, but stand up and be willing to lose it all in the interest of doing the right thing. Be ready at any moment to protect your rights and those around you who cannot protect themselves. Sometimes all it takes is one person. For the Hutu/Tutsi refugees in Rwanda on those days, they had Paul Rusesabagina there being the peacemaker, the shepherd, and the saviour.