Honoree: 'I urge you ... to be a Wallenberg'
Having inspired a feature film that brought the harrowing story of the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s to the world's attention, Paul Rusesabagina urged students to stand up, raise awareness and make a difference as he delivered the 15th annual Raoul Wallenberg Lecture Oct. 11 at the Power Center for the Performing Arts.
Prior to the lecture, Rusesabagina, the real-life hero behind the movie "Hotel Rwanda," received the University's Wallenberg Medalan award honoring some of the world's outstanding humanitariansfrom Interim Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Edward Gramlich.
"Among youall of you, might be a Wallenberg and yet you do not know it. Many of you have a mission, yet you do not know it," Rusesabagina said. "Tonight, I urge you, each and every one of you, to be a Wallenberg."
Wallenberg, a 1935 graduate of the University, was a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of 100,000 Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II. The Wallenberg Committee has awarded the Wallenberg Medal annually since 1990 to honor those whose actions exemplify the story of Wallenberg and his heroic spirit.
Rusesabagina delivered to a crowd of more than 2,000 people what he called the real life behind the movie. He began with a brief history of Rwanda and the series of events that led to the genocide in 1994 that claimed nearly 1 million lives.
On Oct. 1, 1990, Hutu rebels began slaughtering ethnic Tutsis, leaving behind trails of dismembered bodies, which littered the streets. "There were men who were called upon to attend meetings," Rusesabagina recalled. "Those men went to the meetings, and never came back."
A manager of the Belgium-owned Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, Rusesabagina sheltered 1,268 people from the machetes of Hutu rebels by utilizing his personal charm, personal connections and hotel to shelter Rwandans in danger. His bravery and responsibility to his fellow man also served as a reminder to the world of what happens when the international community shut their eyes and ears and ran away, he said.
"Have we listened and learned? I doubt it very much," he says. "Never again are two of the most abused words in the world."
Scrounging for food from the hotel and rationing drinking water from the hotel's swimming pool, Rusesabagina battled to save the lives of his fellow Rwandans. "All the people who were there, they had only hope in meletting them down would have been a disaster," he said.
In one incident portrayed in the film, Rusesabagina, sheltering 32 people in his home, including six family members, shuttles a van full of people to the hotel. On the way, rebels command him to kill all of the "cockroaches"a term used to describe ethnic Tutsis during the genocideinside his van. Rusesabagina negotiated with soldiers through bribes and coaxing.
"I asked them: are you sure this enemy is this old man? Are you sure it is this baby? The actual negotiation took two hours, not like the few minutes you saw on the screen," he said.
When Rusesabagina returned to his hotel, he began making phone calls to high-ranking soldiers and world leaders in influential positions, pleading for them to listen. "The whole world stood by and watched," he said.
Refugees, limited to corn and dry beans, survived on what they could. "Everyday almost became like a year; without water, electricity or food."
When the convoy came to evacuate his family, Rusesabagina decided to stay behind to help the rest of the refugees in the hotel. "If I evacuated and these people were killed, I will never be a free man," Rusesabagina recalled. "I will be a prisoner of my own consciousness and I will never eat and be satisfied." He helped his family climb into the evacuation truck, choosing to stay behind. "I could not leave these people because I felt responsible," he said.
One of the few times that Rusesabagina left the hotel was when he drove through the streets of Kigali to retrieve food stock for the refugees. "On our way, our whole country was smelling death. There was no living human being. Dogs were barking, fighting for human bodies," he said. "From the hotel roof, you could see the militia men killing people.
"The so-called international community never said anything."
Rusesabagina, who is touring the United States, is devoting his time to informing the international community of the injustices that have happened and are still happening in Africa.
He reminded the audience that the movie simply was one story, and in telling it he hopes that the situation never will be forgotten. ""Hotel Rwanda' is not the first and hopefully not the last movie about the genocide," he said. "It is just a small chapter in a book called the Rwandan Genocide."