Friday, November 23, 2007

Hotel Rwanda

Started: 6 November 2007
Finished: 12 November 2007

What were you doing between April and July 1994? Do you remember that almost one million Rwandans were murdered in just about 100 days during that time period in history?

I'm ashamed to say that when I started to read Hotel Rwanda I had only the vaguest memories of this African tragedy. I knew it occurred when my children were small and my political attentions at an all-time low, but still . . . Then I thought back and recalled that 1993-1994 was also the year we lived in a rented house while we were building our so-called 'dream' house. And in June of '94, the house was finished and we moved in. Yes, the world situation was the last thing on my mind at that time.

Not that I could have done much about the tragedy unfolding in Rwanda had I been paying attention. But I can't help wondering, what was Bill Clinton's excuse? He certainly knew what was going on and he was in a position to have mitigated the worst impact of the genocide.

However, Hotel Rwanda isn't about all the people and countries who did not respond to the plight of the Tutsis, but about one man who did--the 'Oscar Schindler of Africa' some people have called him. That man was Paul Rusesabagina and this is his story.

In 1994, Paul was the hotel manager of the Belgian-owned luxury hotel, the Mille Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Through his courage and cunning he was able to save 1,268 people from almost certain death.

This book is not a narrative of the tragedy--there are a number listed in an appendix--nor a biography about Paul, but the official companion book to the movie made and directed by Terry George. It includes essays on the history of the genocide, the complete screenplay and many photographs from the movie of the same name.

In 1994, Rwanda was the most densely populated African country on the continent--and 51% of the population had the HIV virus; life expectancy was only 39 years. But to really understand what happened during those three and a half terrible months of 1994, we have to go farther back in Rwanda's complex and largely unrecorded history.

Prior to the late 1800s Rwanda didn't even exist as a political entity per se, but was just the land inhabited by two different ethnic groups: the wealthy land and livestock owning Tutsis and the more numerous, Hutus.

With the German defeat in World War I, the Belgians took over Rwanda and began to use the existing Tutsi monarchy to control the population and exploit the institutional differences between the two native groups--granting favored status to the Tutsis and relegating the Hutus to a subservient place within society.

When this situation led to huge tensions and inefficiency, the Belgians tried to rectify the problem with reforms but the Tutsis resisted. So the Belgians turned on their former allies and encouraged a Hutu rebellion which succeeded in 1959. The Belgians themselves were ousted when the Hutu majority declared independence in 1962.

But getting rid of the Belgians didn't resolve conflicts between the two groups of Rwandans; over the ensuing years, rampant corruption, a military coup in '73 and the dictatorship of Major General Habyarimana only further inflamed existing animosities.

On the way home from peace talks which marked the end of a four year civil war and solidified the Arusha Accords promising democratic reforms, General Habyarimana and the President of Burundi were assassinated in a plane crash by members of their own parties. Their deaths were subsequently blamed on the Tutsis and that same night a pre-planned systematic execution of all high-ranking Tutsis and moderate Hutus began.

From there the insanity spread like wildfire, primarily led by roaming groups of highly organized military Hutus known as the Interahamwe. As I mentioned initially, almost a million people were killed in a little over three months and most were killed with machete. Three million fled the country causing the world's greatest refugee crisis and leading to wars in neighboring countries, further bloodshed and the eventual re-migration of most of the original emigres.

And what did the United Nations do during those critical three months? Reduce its peace-keeping presence from 2,500 to 270. Wait a minute. Did I read that right? Was that a reduction in peace-keeping troops? Huh?!

While Tutsi men, women and children begged to be shot rather than left to the not-so-tender mercies of their Hutu, machete-wielding, fellow countrymen, the UN soldiers and remaining Westerners boarded all available aircraft and 'got out of Dodge', so to speak. In all fairness, there were many individual acts of protest, tears, and disbelief on the part of the departing Europeans and other UN representatives who were not all eager and willing to just abandon the poor victims to their fate. However, with the exception of Paul and the mini-fortress he created at Mille Collines, few acts of heroism had any substantive effect in terms of actual lives saved.

So what made Paul Rusesabagina so special? Nothing outwardly, that is for sure. He knew the value of fine wines, good cigars and even better connections. He was a hard worker. He was a husband and a father. Perhaps therein was the secret. His wife was Tutsi; he was Hutu--by Rwandan standards, a mixed marriage.

But whatever motivated Paul, he was willing to trade every favor, commodity and scrap of money he could lay his hands on for a human life. And he did. By the end of the three months, his hotel residents were reduced to drinking swimming pool water--but they were alive.

I have requested the OKC Metropolitan Library System purchase this film. Although I was mistaken on an earlier post as to the availabilty of an item, this time I am quite sure that we do not have this movie on hand, either in DVD or VHS format. Given the magnitude of the travesty, the failure of nations to respond and the heroism demonstrated by one courageous soul, this is a story which needs to be told . . . and seen . . . and spread . . . and shared . . . as often and as widely as possible.

One doesn't encounter men of character like Paul Ruseabagina very often. May God bless him for his fortitude, his persistence in the face of great adversity and most of all for his love. I take my hat off to him.

No comments:

Post a Comment