Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Rusesabagina extols “power of words” in face of evil

Paul Rusesabagina said he lived through the Rwandan genocide "so that one day I could tell what I went through."

They came because they knew a piece of his story. They recalled the dramatic news accounts. Some read his book. Others saw the critically acclaimed movie. And when Paul Rusesabagina took the stage at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall, members of the Lehigh and local communities finally saw a man who by his own account should not be alive today.

Rusesabagina was manager of Rwanda’s Hotel des Mille Collines in 1994 when hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide. Thanks to his extraordinary bravery and delicate diplomacy, he is credited with saving not only his family, but the lives of more than 1,200 refugees by sheltering them at the hotel from the murderous Hutu militia.

Rusesabagina’s story has been chronicled in his autobiography An Ordinary Man and inspired the Academy Award nominated film Hotel Rwanda, but he came to Lehigh Tuesday to divulge his personal account of the horrific ordeal in a talk entitled “Hotel Rwanda: A Story Yet to Be Told.”

“I lived so that one day I could tell what I went through,” he told a hushed crowd, adding that April 6, 1994 became his September 11, 2001. “When I think of the genocide, it is always fresh in my mind, like it happened yesterday or the day before.”

Learning to deal with evil

Rusesabagina signed copies of his books at the Lehigh Bookstore in the afternoon before his public talk.

In the 100 days of genocide, historians estimate that between 800,000 to 1 million people were killed, often hacked to death by homicidal mobs wielding machetes. Rusesabagina, who recounted the events leading up to the genocide, reinforced that the torture and brutality was even worse than has been portrayed.

“I have never been so scared in my whole life, but I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. I faced evil and learned how to deal with evil,” he said.

For two months, as the country crumbled around him, his hotel became a safe harbor with Rusesabagina at the helm. The people whom he sheltered survived amid deplorable conditions at the luxury hotel, which lost both electricity and running water.

“We stayed at the hotel 70 long days, and every day felt like a long year,” he said, noting how every drop of the hotel pool became increasingly valuable. Returning to the hotel after the 1994 genocide, he recalled sitting at the pool bar and “watching that water of life that became a village well.”

Despite the constant threat of militants, he relied on his keen business skills as a manager to protect the lives of his family and his hotel “guests.” He negotiated many times with militants who threatened him at gunpoint and he placed countless calls to plead with influential world leaders who turned their backs to the brutal genocide.

“I believe in the power of words. They can be weapons in our arsenal as human beings,” he advised his audience. “Find a way to open up that window of dialogue. I have decided never to fight with guns when I have my words.”

One person can make a difference

A large crowd turned out to hear Rusesabagina.

Holly Kent, a doctoral candidate in the history department, said her initial reaction to Rusesabagina’s talk was one of awed silence.

“His story makes it clear just how much of an impact one person's actions can have in shaping the future of a community or a country,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Rusesabagina signed nearly 150 books at the Lehigh bookstore before meeting with a group of more than 40 students in the University Center to answer questions about his personal ordeal, his sense of despair after he felt the world abandoned him and the people of Rwanda, and his ongoing humanitarian efforts.

He recounted dramatic confrontations that illustrated his belief that language is a powerful weapon in the human arsenal, and spoke movingly of the scars of aggression left on members of his own family.

“My conviction is that as long as people don’t talk, they will never reconcile and they will never heal,” he said. “People need to sit, look at each other and talk and say, ‘Why is this happening?’ They must think about their history, their shared past and then go forward and plan a better future.”

From his home in Belgium, Rusesabagina now devotes his time to his foundation, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which provides financial assistance to children and women affected by the genocides in Rwanda and other African nations. He is critical of the inaction by the international community and the United Nations during the Rwandan genocide and pleads that the world no longer close its eyes and ears to suffering in places such as Darfur and the Congo.

"Mr. Rusesabagina shared a terribly tragic story, but he gave us a message of hope,” said Taylor Calderone, a graduate student in English who organized Rusesabagina’s visit to Lehigh. “I think the most important thing to remember about this message, however, is that it can only be fully realized through our own actions. His story is far from over, and I think that our job is to help him create the next part. While his memory will always be tragic, his future, and the future of all those suffering from the effects of genocide, contains the possibility of peace if we do not consider our job done."

At the conclusion of his lecture, Rusesabagina implored the students in Baker Hall to heed his parting words. “My message is this: Tomorrow is yours. The future is yours. You are the only ones that can change the world. Stand up for the truth. Stand up for the world. Your task is heavy, but I am convinced that you are up for it.”

--Tricia Long

Linda Harbrecht also contributed to this report.

Photos by Joe Craig

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2009

share this story: