Rwanda’s Far From Reconciled

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At first glance, Paul Rusesabagina (pronounced Ru-se-sa-ba-gi-na) is dignified, unassuming, and mild mannered. Having inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda� starring American actor Don Cheadle, he recently appeared at the Mayflower Hotel in Northwest Washington, D.C., en route to launching his new book, “An Ordinary Man� at a Baltimore literary festival. Ask anyone who is familiar with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and they’ll tell you he’s anything but ordinary.

In the midst of his hectic book tour, Rusesabagina made time for an exclusive interview with The Informer in which he speaks candidly about how the genocide was a culmination of an imbalance in power between Hutus and Tutsis, the two major ethnic groups in the country. When the Belgian colonial regime entered Rwanda in 1916, they manipulated ethnic affiliations by awarding the Tutsi minority political and economic leverage over the majority Hutus. After the Belgians exited Rwanda in the 1960’s, Hutus seized power and Tutsis responded with a rebel movement in retaliation.

On April 6, 1994 , a plane crashed carrying Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, further erupting deep seated colonial divisions that led to a 100-day massacre of almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The media was filled with gory details about the genocide as the international community stood idly watching. Responding to international inaction, Rusesabagina took matters into his own hands.

He and his family fled to Hotel des Milles Collines where he had been appointed as the first Rwandan general manager. As marauding assassins executed innocent civilians just outside the hotel gates, Rusesabagina used diplomacy and quick-witted charm to shield more than 1,000 people from the death squads.

He is modest despite his international acclaim. Although his last name means “one who dispenses of his enemies,� Rusesabagina believes the moniker is too big a name to carry. Nonetheless, his steadfast courage in the midst of chaos exposed the world to a story of tragedy, yes, but also to an incredible lesson about the redeeming tenets of humanity.

RP: What was the impetus for writing your new book, “An Ordinary Man?�
PR: Well, you see, I was very bitter when the genocide was taking place. I wanted the international community to intervene, but nobody was willing to do that. Until the time when the movie came out in 2004, I wanted to convey that message, to talk about it in my own words. The movie is a movie, but there is also a true story behind the movie. So I wanted to show the other side the movie never showed to viewers and listeners.

RP: Do you think you’ve been able to do that?
PR: Well, I believe that. My book is my messenger. That message is a kind of wake up call to the international community to have a look at the African continent. Because what we see in the movie, what you read in that book, is our day to day lives in the whole of Africa .

RP: What did the movie “Hotel Rwanda� convey to the average person about those 100 days?
PR: First of all, “Hotel Rwanda� has woken up the international community, has raised awareness. Not all Rwandans took machetes to kill others, as many people were putting it. There were many people who stood up in that country and said “NO,� many. Many of them were even killed for that.

RP: There’s a Norwegian sociologist by the name of Johan Galtung who suggests that conflicts are not instigated by ethnicity or tribalism, but rather by political and economic structures that favor one group over another. What would you say to people who still believe African conflicts [and the Rwandan genocide] are “tribal� in nature?
PR: The Rwandan problem, I think, is rooted in our history. Before colonization, a Hutu in Rwanda was a slave to a Tutsi. That was before colonization. When the colonizers came in, they again took Tutsis to be the elite, the most intelligent, more close to them. They then ruled the country with the Tutsis. So there was already a gap between Hutus and Tutsis, and the colonizers made the gap wider. When they made our first IDs, they separated us. They went as far as writing our ethnicity in the cards. The 1959 social revolution in Rwanda was the majority Hutus getting rid of the colonizers and the Tutsis. Then, the Hutus took over. When the colonizers left, many of the Tutsis left the country. So ours is rooted in our history.

RP: I think you’ve often been quoted as saying that the UN definitely failed Rwanda . Do you think the UN has failed all of Africa in terms of its peace keeping missions?
PR: Actually, to the best of my knowledge, I have never heard where the United Nations has succeeded in their peace keeping missions.

RP: Is the UN lacking political will?
PR: The whole structure of the United Nations, in order to succeed, should be completely reformed. What they call the peacekeeping mission is just to send soldiers to go and stand and watch people killing each other, and say at the end, “Oh, we have seen them killing each other.� They’re neutral observers who come to stand there and to watch.

RP: So what would be the alternative? What would be the ideal structure for the UN in its peace keeping efforts?
PR: The first thing to be done is to give them a stronger mission to defend civilians. That is the minimum, and they’re not allowed to even do that. That was the case in Rwanda . The peacekeeping mission has got no sense today, it is meaningless.

RP: April 6th marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. What are you doing to commemorate this milestone?
PR: I have made it very clear in my interviews that we need to take strong steps ahead to have justice, first of all, in Rwanda . Justice means bringing Hutus and Tutsis together. During the 100 days in 1994, the Hutus took machetes, cloves, spears and guns to kill Tutsis. Today because a Tutsi is a winner, he is writing history. He is not facing justice.

RP: The UN Tribunal for Rwanda based in Tanzania is still in session, and I had an opportunity to listen to the grueling legal proceedings while on a trip to Arusha. Do you believe the Tribunal’s mandate for prosecuting those who bear the greatest responsibility is limited in scope?
PR: The tribunal in Tanzania is just trying Hutus. Up to last year in June, the prosecutor had tried and convicted 25 Hutus. If you want a lasting solution, each and every criminal, each and every killer, should face justice. Tutsis should also be brought to justice.

RP: You wrote a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal about the massacres in Darfur, Sudan. What has the phrase “never again� – used since the Holocaust by the international community decrying genocide - come to mean to you in response to genocides throughout history?
PR: According to what is going on, never again actually has come to mean “again and again.� What we say is never reflected in our actions.

RP: What needs to be done in Darfur ?
PR: What needs to be done in Darfur is to send a strong message to the Khartoum government, first of all, to let them know that since they are fighting for oil, they are not untouchable.
RP: You’ve launched the book now and will be touring until the end of May. What’s after that?
PR: After that, I will be running my Foundation. I have a trucking company. I’ll be dealing with those companies. But I believe that I need a sabbatical year to just rest. Throughout my life, I have worked more than a donkey.

RP: Do you have plans of ever returning back to settle in Rwanda ?
PR: Oh definitely. That is my wish. You know I can never be anyone else but a Rwandan. I was born in that country, I grew up in that country, I started my career in that country. I went to school outside, but I remained attached to Rwanda. 
This article is republished with permission from The Washington Informer.

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