'Hotel Rwanda' Manager: We've Failed To Learn From History

Apr 5, 2014
Originally published on April 5, 2014 8:38 am

Paul Rusesabagina is a figure from history — a terrible history.

He was the manager of the Diplomat Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, 20 years ago, when the genocide of Rwanda's Tutsi people began. More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus would be killed in just three months.

While most of the world took no action to stop the killing, Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,000 people inside his hotel. He gave them water from the pool so they wouldn't die from dehydration, smuggled in food so they wouldn't starve, and held off the militia who came to the hotel by bribing them with alcohol and cigars.

His story was turned into an award-winning movie in 2004, Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina.

Today, Rusesabagina lives in San Antonio, Texas. He's the founder of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which advocates for human rights internationally.

Rusesabagina tells NPR's Scott Simon that he no longer lives in Rwanda because after speaking out against people doing evil, he became a target of that evil. "Having no other choice, I just fled the country," he says.


Interview Highlights

On what drives people to commit genocide

There are many reasons why people kill each other. One of those reasons is, of course, bad leadership. When leaders teach the people they lead to kill others, then people go ahead and do what their leaders tell them. A second reason is because people are poor and are not educated well enough. They always, as I said, tend to trust their leaders.

The worst reason, this is impunity. In Rwanda, for instance ... since I was a young kid, late '50s, early '60s, we saw people killing their neighbors and getting their cars, getting their properties — houses, plantations and so on. Until just recently, in the late '90s, immediately after the genocide, those people were still living in houses they never built, they were still living in plantations which were never theirs, with the cattle which never belonged to them.

On his anger at the Western world for not doing more to stop the genocide

History always keeps repeating itself. We saw this happening with the Armenians, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust. I remember in 1994, I was very angry with ... everybody in the international community, because when people were being butchered, they were there, and they never did anything.

On recent violence in Syria, Darfur and the Central African Republic

This recalls exactly what we were going through in 1994. This recalls what also has been going on in the Congo, on our own watch. That recalls me that history repeats itself, and does not teach human beings any lessons.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Paul Rusesabagina is a figure from history - terrible history. He was the manager of the Diplomat Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, 20 years ago, when the genocide of Rwanda's Tutsi people. More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus would be killed in just three months while most of the world turned away. But Paul Rusesabagina sheltered more than a thousand people inside of his hotel.

He gave them water from the pool so they wouldn't die from dehydration. He smuggled in food so they wouldn't starve. He held off the militia who came to the hotel by bribing them with alcohol and cigars. Today, he lives in San Antonio. He is the founder of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which advocates for human rights across the world. Paul Rusesabagina joins us now from Brussels. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL RUSESABAGINA: Thank you, Simon.

SIMON: You've been thinking about these issues and working on them for 20 years. What do you think drove people to commit genocide?

RUSESABAGINA: There are many reasons why people kill each other. One of those reasons is, of course, bad leadership. When leaders teach the people they lead to kill others, then people go ahead in what their leaders tell them. A second reason is because people are poor and are not educated well enough. They always, as I said, tend to trust their leaders, and, also, the worst reason this is the impunity. In Rwanda, for instance, we have been losing people since I was a young kid, late '50s, early '60s.

We saw people killing their neighbors and getting their cars, getting their properties, houses, plantations and so on. And until just recently, in the late '90s immediately after the genocide, those people were still living in houses they never built. They're still living in plantations, which were never theirs with the kettles, which never belonged to them.

SIMON: Twenty years after the genocide, are you angry at the Western world, the United Nations, the U.S., the European Union for not doing more?

RUSESABAGINA: Definitely, unfortunately, history keeps always repeating itself. We saw this happening with the Armenians - the Armenian genocide, the holocausts. And I remember in 1994, I was very angry against each and everybody in the international community because when people were being butchered, they were there. And they never did anything.

SIMON: You know, you're probably the best-known Rwandan in the world. Why aren't you living there?

RUSESABAGINA: When I was living in Rwanda after the genocide, I started seeing people being killed, and I spoke out. Then once you dare and speak out your mind to people who are doing evil, you become a target. And having no other choice, I just fled the country.

SIMON: What do you think today when you look at events in Syria or Darfur or the Central African Republic?

RUSESABAGINA: This recalls exactly what we were going through in 1994. This recalls what also has been going on in the Congo on our own watch. That recalls me that history repeats itself and does not teach human beings any lessons.

SIMON: Paul Rusesabagina who was a hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda 20 years ago. And he helped save the lives of more than a thousand people during the 1994 genocide. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUSESABAGINA: Well, thank you, Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.