Photo: Misha Gravenor
His country had gone totally, blood-in-the-streets mad. Neighbors attacking each other with machetes. A million slaughtered. So how did this soft-spoken, unarmed man manage to rescue so many of his countrymen from a rageful death? Now, 12 years later, with his memoir about to be published, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda tells Oprah about the art of talking yourself (and 1,268 others) out of danger (a bottle of wine helps), why the world turned away, and what it's like to start all over again in exile. Oprah can't get over his spirit…
In 1994 in the African country of Rwanda, nearly one million people were slaughtered in exactly 100 days. Our world—with its 24-hour news stations—chose to turn its head. This is the story of one man who couldn't.
Paul Rusesabagina, whose courage inspired the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, grew up with the tensions that exploded in 1994, but the hatred had been simmering for nearly a century. In 1916 Belgian colonists deemed the Tutsi ethnic group superior to the Hutus, giving them better education and jobs while the Hutus were relegated to dirty work. But when Rwanda became independent in 1962, the Hutus took power, and that, in turn, led to a Tutsi rebel movement. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down, killing him along with the president of neighboring Burundi. Although no one could prove who ordered the attack, retaliation was immediate: Opposition leaders were murdered, and suddenly civilians were slaughtering every Tutsi and moderate Hutu they could find.
Paul, who is of both Hutu and Tutsi descent, and his wife, Tatiana, a Tutsi, fled with their four children to the Hotel Mille Collines, where he was the manager. There, with no water or electricity and despite constant threats on his life, he sheltered 1,268 people, saving them from the massacre.
Paul's memoir, An Ordinary Man, hit bookstores in April 2006. Just before Christmas 2005, he and I talked about what it feels like to watch your neighbors turn into killers and to survive a horror that I pray our world will never forget.
Oprah: In your book, you write that you walked out of your house the first morning of the killings and saw your neighbors armed with machetes.
Paul: That was a terrible day. Men I'd known for years were carrying machetes, grenades, guns, spears—any weapon you can think of. Neighbors I'd seen as gentlemen had suddenly become killers in military uniforms.
Oprah: How do the people you've shared barbecues with become the personification of evil?
Paul: I've never understood. Some of our neighbors were murdered that morning. My son found a mother, her six daughters, and her son slaughtered. Some of them weren't completely dead yet. They were still moving slightly. After my son came running home, he didn't talk for four days. We couldn't understand how our country could just go mad.
Oprah: Would the violence have erupted if that plane hadn't been shot down?
Paul: That added oil to a burning fire. Since the sixties, Hutus and Tutsis have been in heavy tension.
Oprah: Here's why I found your book so fascinating: It shows what role radio played in inciting the masses.
Paul: In 1993 a station called the "radio-television of the thousands of hills" was started. It was funded by Rwanda's then president, Habyarimana, and his akazu—his closest friends, including leaders and businessmen. When the president was threatened by armed rebels, he decided to fight and keep power by all means.
Oprah: So media was his tool.
Paul: To do evil.
Oprah: It's interesting how quickly propaganda can change the commonsense thinking of everyday people.
Paul: In Rwanda people don't buy newspapers or magazines. They prefer radio. Every peasant on the plantation, everyone on buses, in cars, listens. It was a planned strategic manipulation to use radio for evil. [Once the violence started] people were hiding in the bushes. On the radio, leaders encouraged people to clear the bushes and kill their neighbors.
We Hear You!