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Real-life ‘Hotel Rwanda’ survivor keeps speaking the unspeakable

Sounds of Blackness
Sounds of Blackness will perform during “Celebrate the Dream,” a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Paul Rusesabagina is determined to never stop talking about a time in his life that defies words.

In April of 1994, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were killed over the course of 100 days as the country fell under the grip of genocide. Rusesabagina (pronounced Ra-ses-a-bah-gee-nah) was a manager at a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali at the time, and he is credited with holding the machete-wielding killers at bay and saving the lives of more than 1,200 people who’d sought shelter in his hotel.

“During the genocide I was disturbing the whole world, phoning the White House, Paris, Brussels, the State Department in the United States, the Peace Corps, the United Nations. I was talking to everyone seeking for help and no one showed up. No one intervened until the end. I felt very bitter and very angry against everyone, so I kept quiet,” he said.

That is until the film and documentary makers came calling. It was then that Rusesabagina felt it was time to speak about the unspeakable horrors he had witnessed.

In 2004, 10 years after the massacre, Hollywood put a PG-13 version of Rusesabagina’s story on the big screen. “Hotel Rwanda” garnered three Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor nod for Don Cheadle who portrayed Rusesabagina. The movie also landed on the American Film Institute’s top 100 list of the most inspirational movies of all time.

Rusesabagina, 54, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush. And in 2006 he penned “An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography,” in which he recounts his experience in detail. You can read an excerpt here.

Words as weapons
Paul Rusesabagina will be the keynote speaker Thursday night at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College’s 19th annual “Celebrate the Dream” tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Disclosure: I am emceeing the event.)

Paul Rusesabagina

I reached Rusesabagina by phone at his home in Brussels, where he is now living in exile with his wife. Speaking in a friendly, relaxed and richly accented tone, he told me that even though it has been nearly 15 years since the horrors in Rwanda unfolded, the memories of what equate to hell on earth have yet to fade.

“I believe that this will be the case for the whole life because bad experiences do not get away as easily as we might think,” he said. “By talking about what I went through myself, telling again and again and again, this helps me. I’ve noticed that the best therapy in life is to speak out. Once you speak out you share with others, but once you keep everything within yourself you remain traumatized.”

Yet even in the aftermath of the genocide, his quest for lasting peace remains elusive.

He fled Rwanda in 1996 and moved to Brussels after receiving death threats.

“I was almost killed. I happened to escape by luck,” he said.

And he says even to this day, while living in Brussels and running a trucking business in Zambia, he is still concerned for his safety.

“I’m being followed wherever I go,” he says.

He tells me all it would take for it all to go away would be for him to be silent once again.

Something he says he’ll never do.

“I believe that words that are the best weapons and the worst at the same time,” says Rusesabagina. “And I believe that the only way to solve my problems is through my words. So I will never stop using my words.”

Lessons yet learned

Rusesabagina says he’s coming to Minneapolis on Thursday not only to share his story, but to compare his experience to similar atrocities that continue to happen all over the world.

“I will be talking about Darfur because I have been to Darfur to see with my own eyes and assess the situation and I will draw parallels with what happened in1994, and what has been happening in the Congo since 1996. More than 5 million people have been killed yet we, the whole world, are always saying ‘never again, never again.’

He believes the entire world has a role to play.

“I have learned not to believe in the African governments because most of these guys are dictators,” he says. “And I have never imagined or thought about a dictator fighting another dictator in the name of democracy or human rights. These African nations are members of the U.N., so the United Nations should be involved in whatever is happening. The superpowers should be involved in what is going in Africa as they have been involved in what has been going on in European countries. Africa seems like a forgotten continent.”

Lessons in democracy
Once here in the United States, Rusesabagina and his wife plan to stay for two months.

Their visit will included spending spring break with two of their four children – their two adult sons, who are studying out east – as well as two teenaged nieces who have been under their care since both of their parents fell victim to the genocide.

His U.S. travel itinerary will also take him to Texas and Wisconsin, but he has no plans to travel to Washington.

“No I don’t think I’m going to Washington D.C.,” he says with a light chuckle. “Because there’ll be more than 3 million people, according to what they say. So what will I see?”

President-elect Barack Obama, maybe?

“I have met him many times when he was campaigning,” he tells me. “He is a very bright guy, very intelligent and a very good listener. Listening is one of the best qualities of a good leader.

“I think that the whole world should learn one of the most important lessons in history – democracy – from America. I say thank you to America and Americans for teaching us such good lesson.”

What: “Celebrate the Dream” tribute to The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Who: Paul Rusesabagina, keynote speaker; Sounds of Blackness musical performance
When: Jan. 15, 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Basilica of St. Mary
Details: Minneapolis Community and Technical College. The event is free and open to the public.

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