The man from the ‘Hotel Rwanda’

Times Staff Writer

On the night his life changed forever, Paul Rusesabagina was enjoying a drink with friends at the bar of the elegant hotel he managed in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Soft music was playing, and influential Rwandans, diplomats and expatriate entrepreneurs were laughing and flirting around him.

Then came a distant explosion: A plane had been shot out of the sky over Kigali, killing the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi.

That was on April 6, 1994. What happened next, which is told in the just released film “Hotel Rwanda,” was the stuff of nightmares: Men of Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority roamed the streets with machetes, raping and killing their ethnic scapegoats, members of Rwanda’s Tutsi ethnic minority, along with moderate Hutus. Thus began 100 days of bloody carnage that would take at least 800,000 lives and shame the international community.


As the world stood by and did little, Rusesabagina -- a Hutu married to a Tutsi -- did the one thing in his power. He opened the doors of the foreign-owned luxury hotel entrusted to him by a fleeing Dutch businessman and used it as a refuge to save the lives of more than 1,200 people who somehow made it there alive.

Then he slipped back into the welcome obscurity of private life.

In the decade since, Rusesabagina has become a legend, a one-man object lesson in situational ethics, an Everyman who may not have been born to greatness but who managed to rise to the occasion.

Now, the bare-knuckled cinematic thriller starring Don Cheadle revisits the days when Rusesabagina defended the terrified “guests” who crowded into the four-star Hotel des Mille Collines, using money from a hotel safe to bribe the military, liquor from the bar to placate them and a hotel fax line to contact the White House, the United Nations, the French government -- at a time when, in Rusesabagina’s words, “the whole world closed its eyes and ears.”

The film -- with the warm portrayal of Rusesabagina by Cheadle, who slips his character’s modestly enigmatic persona on like a second skin -- is, of course, an honor.

But it also dredges up a terrifying family ordeal, one that still overwhelms Rusesabagina in nightmares, though they now end when he awakens. Memories that his family tried to leave behind when they moved to Belgium as refugees will now be aired publicly.

That means that Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana, must now sit down for a serious talk with their two youngest daughters -- actually, they’re nieces the Rusesabaginas raised as their own after the murder of the girls’ parents during the Rwanda genocide. The Rusesabaginas only recently told the girls they were the daughters of Tatiana’s brother, and the children were dismayed and disbelieving. Now they must make sure the movie doesn’t surprise them with any new traumatic revelations.

Rusesabagina’s two older biological daughters, who remember the genocide all too well, “don’t even want to hear the word ‘Rwanda,’ ” he said. “They’ve seen a lot.”

Rusesabagina must also sift through his own memories, of former schoolmates, neighbors and friends who were murdered and raped.

“I spend sleepless nights thinking about it,” he said in soft, accented English. “My mind has refused to accept what took place.”

One of the most difficult things for him to forget is the sight of people he knew -- neighbors, colleagues, even friends -- joining in the carnage, some eagerly, others under pressure from the militia whom Rusesabagina and other Rwandans defied.

“In every human rights catastrophe there are people who have behaved honorably, even at the risk of their lives, from Oskar Schindler to Raoul Wallenberg, and many more who are not as well-known,” said Juan Mendez, a former Argentine political prisoner who is now the top advisor on genocide to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“If it weren’t rare, it would be a lot easier to put a stop to genocide,” he said, adding that other Rwandans also tried to save Tutsis but were unable to succeed, at least on the same scale.

“Many people harbored Tutsis in their homes,” said John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration advisor on Africa to the National Security Council. “Those people are also heroic, and their history was never recorded. Other sanctuaries were smoked out and obliterated. Many others tried to save people and were killed in the process.”

“Near the end, the Hotel des Mille Collines was pretty much the only safe refuge,” he said.

Rusesabagina is quick to say that what he did should not be considered remarkable, that he is an ordinary man who should not be revered for demonstrating basic human decency. And he is, at the very least, unpretentious as he greets a visitor at a Los Angeles luxury hotel with a warmth and openness that contrast with an outfit so inscrutably formal that he seems to have been born in a suit and raised in a hotel.

Mixed ethnicity

Actually, Rusesabagina was raised in provincial Rwanda, the son of a man from the country’s Hutu ethnic majority and a woman from the Tutsi minority -- the two ethnicities whose latent tensions were exploited by the leaders of the 1994 genocide.

Like many ethnic conflicts, there was potent historical baggage and a strong element of fiction.

Some Belgian colonialists who were enamored of theories of racial superiority had classified the Tutsi ethnicity as the racial betters of the Hutus and favored the Tutsis for years in everything from schooling to employment. After Rwanda became an independent nation in 1962, the Hutus retaliated, discriminating against the Tutsis and killing them in sporadic violence that contributed to the formation of a Tutsi-led rebel movement.

But the Belgians had sometimes classified Rwandans arbitrarily, designating men who owned 10 or more cattle as Tutsis. Ethnic intermarriage further blurred ethnic boundaries. Rusesabagina had a Tutsi mother, grandmother and wife. But under the patrilineal system, his identity card classified him as Hutu, like his father, and his children as Hutu.

The ethnic politicization invited ethnic opportunism. One Tutsi whom Rusesabagina had grown up with managed to get himself reclassified as a Hutu, became a prominent militia leader and named the “Hutu Power” movement. Rusesabagina was disturbed to hear this familiar figure from childhood spewing vitriol on his “Hutu Power” radio show, dehumanizing the Tutsis as “cockroaches.”

Like many people, Rusesabagina didn’t foresee the power of this hate radio to stir up mayhem until the plane was shot down, killing two presidents who had signed an inter-ethnic peace pact. When “Hutu Power” broadcasts exhorted the Hutu militia to take the streets and begin killing, it became clear the genocide was premeditated.

“Some of my best friends joined the killers,” Rusesabagina said. “Some joined right away. Others resisted at first and ended up giving in later. Some saved their lives and their families by joining.”

When the killing began, Rusesabagina’s terrified Tutsi neighbors crowded into his house. The killers broke down the door of a beloved local grandmother, but she died of a heart attack before they got to her, he said.

Rusesabagina told the gunmen the crowd in his house were all his relatives. He persuaded the gunmen to come with him to the Hotel Diplomats, where he was a manager, promising to hand out money from the hotel safe, and insisted on bringing his entire “family” in the hotel van. Then, after paying off the gunmen, Rusesabagina quietly steered the van to the Hotel des Mille Collines, a posh European chain hotel whose foreign manager had left him the key when he fled the country.

Its reputation as a refuge spread quickly. Relief agencies brought frightened orphans. People crowded into the rooms, slept in the corridors and bunked in the snack bar.

“People came to the hotel raped, injured, bleeding,” he said. “The Rwandan women knew they had probably gotten AIDS. Psychologically, people had been affected.”

The military cut off the hotel switchboard phone lines. But there was one phone line the military was unaware of. That line became his lifeline to the world; he called the French government, the White House and others to plead for protection.

“I was calling all around the world, waking people up, because I myself was not sleeping,” he said. “I was calling everybody just like a madman.”

Some of the Hutu military officers leading the genocide dropped off their Tutsi wives at the Mille Collines. One local priest, Father Wenceslas, brought his Tutsi mother to the hotel, saying, “I am bringing you my cockroach,” Rusesabagina said. “His own mother. It was unbelievable.”

‘Worst moment’

Later, from the roof of the hotel, Rusesabagina listened to the screams of children as killers attacked people hiding vainly in Father Wenceslas’ church, a short distance away.

“It was the worst moment of my life,” he said. “You could hear everything. See the people with their red machetes.”

Exactly why the people in the hotel with Rusesabagina were spared is the question the film seeks to answer. Most attribute it to his combination of diplomacy, cajolery, street smarts and resourcefulness.

Rusesabagina made a personal pact with his wife: that she would jump off the roof rather than being hacked to death by the militia. Instead, when the militia invaded the hotel, she hid with the children in the bathtub until Rusesabagina managed to get the militia ordered out.By then Rusesabagina had run out of alcohol and money. The hotel’s water had been cut off, forcing refugees to drink from the swimming pool. He only had one threat left.

“I told them, ‘One day this will all be over,’ ” he said, somehow convincing the militia he would find a way to bear witness either for them or against them. “What will you tell history? Aren’t you afraid of what will happen to you someday?”

Finally, when the imminent approach of Tutsi-led guerrillas caused the Hutu genocidaires to retreat, hotel “guests” were escorted to a refugee camp near the Tanzanian border.

The cross-country drive was chilling.

“There were no human beings; just dogs eating dead bodies,” Rusesabagina recalled. “The whole country reeked. I never realized that all these people had been butchered. I felt like someone in a dream.”

At the refugee camp, the Rusesabaginas found their two little nieces.

Most of his Tutsi wife’s family was dead. Her mother had been killed with her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren and then dumped into a big hole, Rusesabagina said. His brother and other Hutu relatives were slaughtered during the genocide.

“I never imagined so many people would join the killing mobs,” he said. “That’s why I don’t trust people anymore. I know there are good people. But I’m always suspicious. I have completely changed.”

After the genocide, Rusesabagina returned to Kigali and his job managing a hotel. But Hutu survivors were viewed suspiciously by the new Tutsi authorities. A U.N.-sponsored effort to officially recognize Rusesabagina and others for their heroism fizzled out. Eventually, the Rusesabaginas moved to Belgium.

“The genocide completely changed me,” he said. “I used to leave my office and go buy a drink for everyone at the bar,” he said. “They called me ‘the Thirst-Quencher.’ Now I go straight home. I do not trust people.

“The outside of people is what you can see. People can smile and show you their best side. But inside, many of them are wild animals. I have seen that with my own eyes.”

Rusesabagina retreated to a quiet life, dividing his time between Belgium, where his family lives, and Zambia, where he now runs a trucking business.

But the memory of his valor lived on, surfacing in such places as “A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali,” a novel by Gil Courtemanche, published in 2000, that is also in development as a feature film. “He laughed about each of the problems he’s overcome and made fun of his fears,” one character in the novel says of the hotel manager based on Rusesabagina. “He protested vigorously when [someone] praised his courage. He’s only done what any man with a little money would have done in his place.”

A new documentary about the genocide is based on the 2003 book “Shake Hands With the Devil” by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian head of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Dallaire asked for more troops when violence broke out. Instead, after Hutu militiamen hacked to death 10 Belgian peacekeepers, the U.N. Security Council cut Rwanda U.N. forces from 2,500 troops to 450 poorly prepared men. (U.N. chief Annan, head of U.N. peacekeeping missions at the time, has since apologized for not doing more.)

“The international community didn’t give one damn for Rwandans because Rwanda was a country of no strategic importance,” Dallaire said in April at a 10-year commemoration of the violence in Kigali. “They are criminally responsible for the genocide. The genocide was brutal, criminal and disgusting, and continued for 100 days under the eyes of the international community.”

In “Hotel Rwanda,” Nick Nolte plays a sympathetic U.N. officer -- filmmakers say it is a composite character who is not based on Dallaire -- who pleads in vain for support.

In real life, Dallaire, haunted by post-traumatic stress and flashbacks, retired from the military. He has told interviewers he had attempted suicide, and he was found inebriated, curled up under an Ottawa park bench in 2000. He is now a Carr Center fellow at Harvard University.

Rusesabagina’s Everyman status was part of what appealed to Terry George, the director and co-writer of “Hotel Rwanda.” He has worked on several previous films -- “Some Mother’s Son,” which he directed, and “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer,” which he co-wrote -- about how ordinary families were swept into Northern Ireland’s political strife. To research the film, George traveled to Rwanda with Rusesabagina to walk the director through his ordeal.

“I’ve always tried to find an ordinary man who finds greatness in confronting evil,” George said. “We can identify with ordinary people. That’s who the audience are, for the most part. They see themselves in the characters. The audience can empathize and become Paul, and walk with him through these unbelievable events.”

Actor meets the man

Cheadle met Rusesabagina in South Africa two weeks before filming began.

“When I met him I was struck that he wasn’t 10 feet tall, he didn’t swagger. He didn’t cut an amazing path when he walked,” Cheadle said. “He was just a man who did an extraordinary thing in an extraordinary circumstance, which is a lot easier to play than some John Wayne-esque figure.

“The script really did a great job of not making him this huge heroic figure, but making him this common man who applied everything he knew as a hotel manager to survive,” Cheadle said. “He had to know how to talk to people, how to persuade, how to cajole, when to be forceful and when to back off. He applied that to save those lives, thinking every day was going to be his last day on Earth.”

Cheadle said he was also impressed by Rusesabagina’s love of life. The two spent evenings drinking, dancing and talking, and later, during the filming of “Ocean’s Twelve,” Cheadle visited the Rusesabaginas in Belgium.

Cheadle said the experience left him with many questions over how great collective crimes like Rwanda, or the Holocaust, occur, “how normal people get swept up and do things that you would swear last week that you would never do.... [“Hotel Rwanda”] humanizes something that is so unfathomable.”

When the creation of the film seemed imminent, Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana, consulted with a psychologist, and Tatiana sat down and told their adopted daughters, Carine, 11, and Anaise, 12, that they were not born to them but actually were their nieces. “We did not want our children to learn their history from other people,” Rusesabagina said.

Once, when his wife showed the girls pictures of her dead brother and sister-in-law -- their biological parents -- the children cried and said, “No, no. Our dad is at work. This man is not our dad,” Rusesabagina recalled.

“But they have a family. They belong to us,” he said. “There are many orphans in Rwanda who have no one. No school. No life.”

He and his wife still haven’t shown the family -- they have four other children, Lys, 27, and Diane, 23, Roger, 25, and Treasure, 12 -- the film. “I always say, ‘I’ll show it to them today. But then I sit down and think about it,” he said. “But now I have to. They have to know. It is their right.”

The first time his wife saw the film, she cried.

“It is very emotional for me,” she said in French, translated by her husband. “Every time I see it, it reminds me of everything that happened in Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina is not the world’s slickest self-promoter. At Hollywood screenings he’s so unassuming that handlers openly prompt him to recount self-aggrandizing tales. He modestly thanked one Beverly Hills audience “for taking your time, to hear the story of what happened to me in the Rwanda genocide.”

He accepted an honor from Amnesty International -- which is helping promote the film and using it to raise awareness of human rights abuses -- as if it were his first human rights award, not his umpteenth. Hollywood publicists treat him more like a marketing tool than a celebrity.

Now, Rusesabagina would like to have another kind of screening in Rwanda, for the hotel workers at the Mille Collines who lived through the genocide. The hotel was put up for sale after the Belgian airline group that owned it went bankrupt in 2002, but the hotel concierge, Zozo -- who lost his two children in the genocide, and a wife who was eight months pregnant when she was shot at a roadblock -- is still its concierge.

Rusesabagina also hopes the film is seen by people with the power to stop such bloodshed.

“What I have seen is that whoever sees our movie is moved. Whoever sees it is touched,” he said. “What happened in Rwanda keeps happening, in the Congo, in Burundi, in Darfur. Let’s hope our movie is a wake-up call to the international community.”

Times staff researcher Robin Mayper assisted with this report.