PAUL RUSESABAGINA Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
November 11, 2004
Based on true events that occurred in the political hotzone of 1994's Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda chronicles the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a real life hero who used his resourcefulness and connections as an upscale hotel manager to save the lives of over 1,000 refugees. Tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, two Rwandan social factions, had set the stage for a bloody genocide, and nearly 1,000,000 people were killed in the span of 100 days while most of the world stood by and did little to intervene.
Hotel Rwanda is directed and co-written by Terry George (In the Name of the Father) and stars Don Cheadle in a dramatized portrayal of Paul Rusesabagina. In this exclusive interview, we had the rare and exciting opportunity to talk to the remarkable person whose story served as the inspiration for the film. Armed with a first hand account of history as it unfolded, Paul took the time to speak with us about the events depicted in the movie, the international response to Rwanda, and his role in this chaotic time, about which he is extraordinarily humble.
Paul currently lives in Belgium with his wife, Tatiana, and their family.
RadioFree.com: Considering the gravity of the material, are you happy with how the movie turned out?
PAUL: Very happy.
And do you think it successfully conveys the message you wanted to get out?
I'm sure that it is going to get a message through, because there is a will. This message, I've been trying to convey it since 1994 during the genocide. To me, the film is a success. It is done, and I wish that many people could see.
Director and co-writer Terry George said he didn't want to shoot this as a documentary. Do you think that decision is in the best interest of the story, and that it widens the potential audience?
Well, I think it's right. And one of the reasons I didn't agree with many of the film and documentary makers is because they wanted, first of all, to make it a cable movie. A television film. Secondly, some others wanted to make a documentary. And I was not really interested in a documentary. I wanted something that would last and something that would reach as many people as possible. Something that could be used as a teaching tool to many people and bring the leaders back to their duties and responsibilities. And when I met Terry, I saw that he was the right person to do it, according to what he had done with Some Mother's Son, In the Name of the Father, and so on.
While these events were occurring back in 1994, what were you and your friends and family thinking about "the western world"? Did you feel that the international community had turned its back on your situation, even though you were faxing them letters about what was going on?
Well, it was actually true. The world had turned its back. We have been left down. Abandoned. On our own. But sending them faxes was just trying to disturb them so that even if they don't do anything, they remember that one day they had been told.
Do you remember being upset with the United Nations, or the United States in particular, for not doing more at the time?
Well, I was always upset. I was always a little bit tense within myself. I was always worried about working fast. I did not have time to think about many things, because each and every day, each hour, each second represented its own danger. And my main objective was to act as fast as possible to avoid disaster and catastrophe.
Do you think countries like the United States have a responsibility to intervene when they see things like this going on, even if it means getting involved in the civil war of a sovereign entity?
Even if it is a civil war, I believe...why did they intervene in Afghanistan? Why are they in Iraq? Why can't they? I don't ask the United States to intervene, but why don't the United Nations have their own army which could intervene in case innocent civilians are being butchered? Such is the case in Sudan. It is the case in Congo for the last many years. It is the case in Burundi for many years. And the United States have got a role to play in that. A predominant role, actually.
Do you consider yourself the hero that many people see you as?
[laughs] No! I don't consider myself a hero. I consider myself as a normal person who did what he had to do, who has done his job. And this is it.
You don't feel as though you did something extraordinary?
No. What I did just came like that. And I never thought that I was doing something. I only went on doing my job. Doing my work, my responsibility, my day to day duty.
Were there many people who tried to help others, as you did?
Some people did it. And some even were killed. But unfortunately, no one recognizes them. Even Kigali does not. And those who were killed, they're the heroes.
At one point, you had the opportunity to leave with your family, but you chose to stay behind with the refugees at the Hotel Mille Collines. It was obviously a difficult decision--did you think that perhaps it would be best for your family if you had left with them?
No, I didn't think about leaving, because all of the people who were in the Mille Collines, they only had hope in me. And leaving them down, it would have been a disaster. And as I told you, sometimes we have to face history. And once you face history, you go back in time, remember what took place, and you see that you didn't do what you're supposed to do, and you regret. And I don't like to regret.
Did you discuss this decision at length with your wife?
Yeah, we discussed it with my wife and the children.
And what were her feelings on your decision?
First of all, she didn't accept it as easily as that. But we had to talk it over and over again, and we came to a conclusion. Then she accepted and left with the children, and I remained behind.
You estimated earlier that about 90% of this film is a literal depiction of the events, while about 10% may be a bit of embellishment. Was that conversation with your wife a part of the story that was changed for dramatic effect? In the movie, it's shown as a last minute decision on your part.
Yeah. In the movie, it was the last minute, which actually is not me. Because the last minute, I don't do things like that. [laughs] But we talked it over, and I remained behind.
Which countries had a military presence in Rwanda in an effort to maintain peace and order?
Actually there were many countries which were in Rwanda during the genocide before they pulled out. There were Canadians, there were Belgians, there were Bangladeshis, there were Ghanaians, the Congolese. Those five countries were there.
And did the United States have any troops stationed there?
No. I think that the United States didn't do it only because of the Somalia experience.
Do you feel that current history books do justice in their portrayal of the Rwandan genocide?
Well, you can never do justice after all that has happened. There is no book so far which does justice. All I can tell you, there is a winner and a loser. Now, all the books are talking about the loser. But time will come when also the winner will be talked of.