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.
Paul: You would have been strong enough to do the same thing.
Oprah: Weren't you afraid for your life, or were you secure because you're mostly Hutu?
Paul: Here's what we have to make clear: The million people who were killed included both Hutus and Tutsis. Because the president was a Hutu from the north, all Hutus elsewhere in the country were considered opposition.
Oprah: After you looked out to see your neighbors' machetes dripping with blood, you decided to hide people.
Paul: That was on April 7, 1994. By the end of the day, I had 26 people in my house.
Oprah: Why did they come to you?
Paul: I have always wondered—and I have never found an answer. Maybe they trusted me. When I got a chance to evacuate, I took them with me as my own family.
Oprah: The day you took everyone to the Hotel Mille Collines, where you'd once been the manager, someone put a gun to your face…
Paul: He was a Tutsi army captain sent by the new government that was put up on April 9. They decided to take over the hotel. The manager who'd been working there had already fled.
Oprah: Why did the army captain come after you?
Paul: Because I'd gotten hold of the keys to the hotel cellar and all the unoccupied rooms. The government wanted those rooms and supplies.
Oprah: But the captain also ordered you to shoot your family!
Paul: Yes. And this guy wasn't joking. All along the road there were dead bodies; some missing their heads, others with their bellies open. I was speechless. He handed me a gun, and I told him I didn't know how to use it.
Oprah: I'm surprised he bought that.
Paul: He didn't. But I also told him that I understood him. "You're tired," I said. "You're thirsty. You're stressed by the war. I don't blame you for this. But we can find other solutions. Your enemy isn't the old man driving my car or this baby over here."
Oprah: But Paul, I'm surprised he'd even listen to you after slaughtering so many!
Paul: I've noticed that any person who can open his or her mouth and talk to you can also listen to you. This man did. When I saw that the appeal to morality wasn't working, I offered him cash. Then I told him I needed to go to the hotel safe to get it.
Oprah: You kept 1,268 people alive in that hotel.
Paul: For 78 days. In a hotel designed to hold 200 people.
Oprah: You've said the only thing that saved those people was words—not money, not liquor, not the UN. Just ordinary words directed against the darkness. How did you bargain for those people's lives?
Paul: In Rwandan culture, we say that two men can never sit down and deal without a drink. So I'd always bring a drink to sit and talk. And certainly, any person who came to talk with me arrived at a positive conclusion.
Paul: It was complicated. If you want to control someone, you've got to keep him close, talk to him. That's what I did [with the armed men constantly threatening to take over the hotel]. The people inside were frightened. There was no water, no electricity, and we were cooking any corn and dried beans we could find with firewood. But it's surprising how quickly people adapt to a situation, however dangerous. Women were giving birth, young couples were getting married by a bishop from St. Michel Cathedral next door.
Oprah: In the middle of a genocide?
Paul: Yes. The hotel became a home, a lifestyle. People got used to sleeping in conference rooms and corridors.
Oprah: Was there fighting?
Paul: No. Everyone was so respectful.
Oprah: Were they aware of the slaughtering?
Paul: Oh, yes—but they weren't always aware of the assaults on our hotel. I didn't make them aware. But on April 23, when I awakened to find soldiers with guns at my head, everyone was informed. Three days later, I got a call saying that we were going to be attacked again. That's when Thomas Kamilindi, a Rwandan journalist staying there, managed to ring Radio France International. He described how the rebels were advancing and asked for help. I saw a colonel come up to the hotel just as the journalist ended his plea. From the main entrance, the colonel shouted that he'd come to pick up that "dog"—meaning Thomas. I took the colonel to my office, offered him a drink, and convinced him that it wasn't the job of a colonel to run after a dog. "Small boys are supposed to run after dogs," I said, appealing to his ego. "Leave that dirty dog to others." I talked with him for hours. He finally left without the journalist—but he promised that others would return to kill the man. Thankfully, that never happened. Thomas is now at the University of Michigan.
Oprah: He owes his life to you, as do 1,267 other people.
Paul: They owe their lives to their God.
Oprah: Where was God in all of this?
Paul: That's a big question mark for Rwandans. In our tradition, we say that God wanders around the world before returning to sleep in Rwanda in the evenings.
Oprah: Because the sunsets are so beautiful?
Paul: Everything was so beautiful. But since 1994, we ask ourselves, "Where is God?"
Oprah: God was in all the so-called serendipitous occurrences. I don't believe in happenstance. In your story, I feel the power of something bigger than you or me.
Paul: That's how I see it. But after Rwandans watched a million of their people killed in 100 days, they asked, "Did God do that—or did people? And why us? Are we the most criminal in this world? Why did God let people suffer this way?"
Oprah: I understand the questions, and there are others: Like where was the rest of the world?
Paul: The world simply decided to close its ears and eyes, stand back, run away. Maybe the world didn't think Rwanda was worth an intervention. Maybe that's because Africa is far away from America and Europe. Perhaps it happened because Rwanda did not have oil. Or maybe it's because people were focused on South Africa. [At the time, Nelson Mandela was being elected president in South Africa's first democratic elections.]
Paul: The day before, some of my people had come to me and said, "Listen, Paul, we've heard you're leaving us. If it's true, tell us so we can go to the roof and jump. We don't want to be killed with machetes." Later that day, I made a decision. I had to tell my wife and children that I would send them to a safe place—but without me.
Oprah: In the movie, you didn't tell them. So it happened differently in real life?
Paul: That's right. Tatiana and the children were angry that I wasn't going with them. I told them I was the only person who could negotiate for the people in the hotel. If I left, they would be killed, and I would never be a free man. I'd be a prisoner of myself, never able to eat and feel satisfied or go to bed and rest. I'd be a traitor. But imagine me escorting my wife and children to the evacuation trucks! There's real footage of that—we found it while we were filming Hotel Rwanda. It was heartbreaking. I wasn't sure I'd ever see my family again.
Oprah: Then their truck was intercepted.
Paul: They were ambushed and beaten. When Tatiana came back to me, she was lying in blood in the back of the truck. My son was beaten by his former classmate, a young boy who screamed, "You cockroach! Remove your shoes and give them to me."
Oprah: After you finally escaped from the hotel and were taken to the Tutsi rebel camp, was life ever normal again?
Paul: Life wasn't normal until September 1996, when I sought asylum in Belgium. I narrowly escaped with my life. I fled my own country as a refugee.
Oprah: Yet you saved 1,268 people—which you say in your book was the number being killed every three hours.
Paul: So small a number to save!
Oprah: It really wasn't, Paul.
Paul: To me, it was.
Oprah: What happened to those people?
Paul: They're living all around the world—in America, Europe, Rwanda. Some became prominent leaders in our country.
Oprah: You must get lots of Christmas cards.
Paul: [Laughs.] You can't imagine how many thousands of e-mails I get every day.
Oprah: Your book is called An Ordinary Man, yet you took on an extraordinary feat with courage, determination, and diplomacy. You talked your butt off, Paul!
Paul: An ordinary man is one who does his job. That's what I did. As a hotel manager, I simply catered to a different clientele.
Paul: That's difficult to do after you've been terrorized. In Rwanda we were like a bird's nest near a passageway. Each time someone passed the nest, we wondered whether we'd survive. Every moment was a threat.
When I arrived in Belgium, my friends at Sabena Hotels offered me a job, but not as a general manager. They offered me a lesser job. I've never liked to beg. So I instead chose to raise enough money to buy a taxicab in Brussels. A year later, I bought a second car. Three years after that, I opened a trucking company, which is based in Zambia. I love it. And since 1999, I've had a Belgian passport.
Oprah: Do you miss Rwanda?
Paul: Every day.
Oprah: Will you ever be able to go back?
Paul: I believe.
Oprah: Couldn't you go back with protection?
Paul: With some GI's around me! [Laughs.]
Oprah: How is your life now?
Paul: It's completely different from what it once was. Now I deliver speeches all over the world. In Boston I've started a foundation to care for orphans of the genocide, as well as AIDS orphans. Did you know that the genocide and its aftermath left Rwanda with half a million orphans? AIDS added to that figure. All these people need medical care, psychological follow-up, tuition for the kids.
Oprah: In the movie, you reunited with your orphaned nieces in a refugee camp.
Paul: Right—and my wife and I waited until they were 7 and 8 to tell them that their parents had been murdered. They didn't believe it. They'd been only 2 years old and 9 months old when they lost their mother and father. We told them before the movie came out. They cried and said, "No, no, no. We do not have any other parents." The first time my wife saw the movie, she couldn't finish it—nor could she finish it the second or third time. Always in tears. She finally finished it the fourth time.
Oprah: How did you react the first time you saw it?
Paul: I was able to finish it because I'd been involved in the filming in Johannesburg. I met the actor who played my role.
Oprah: Don Cheadle.
Paul: He didn't really understand me until we met, sat down, shared wine, and spent almost a week together. He'd expected me to be a shell-shocked man who hid in alcohol after all I went through. But when he met me, a real person, he noticed that I was different from his preconception.
Paul: Our days are so few, our existences so complicated. As long as we're breathing, we shouldn't further complicate our lives. If we want to change things, we must first change ourselves. If we want to play—if we want to change the world—we must first show up on the field to score.
Oprah: Have your children recovered from the trauma?
Paul: At one point, I noticed that my children were becoming aggressive. Our solution was to get them talking around a table. The best therapy is talking.
Oprah: Was it difficult at first for them to speak about it?
Paul: Yes. The children said, "You love your country, but we don't need it." Until I convinced them to talk about Rwanda, they were hardly even willing to mention it. We'll never forget what we went through—the torture, the frustration. But we're recovering well. It's much better now than it was in 1995, 1996.
Oprah: Have your children gone to college?
Paul: Yes. My eldest daughter is an accountant and married with two daughters. My eldest son studied management and is now looking toward a master's. My second daughter is married and working on a BS in accounting. My younger son is in boarding school near Boston. My two nieces are attending primary and secondary school.
Oprah: After living through such a horror, does it take a lot to upset you?
Paul: Yes. Whatever I see in life, I take it to be so small and simple compared with what I've witnessed.
Oprah: What was the worst thing you saw?
Paul: Many days I went to the roof of the hotel and saw people being killed in the streets. The killers would pile up their bodies to form roadblocks. They'd then sit on the bodies as they drank beers.
Oprah: That's what happened during the Holocaust. In the concentration camps, Jewish bodies were thrown into a hole as the guards sat nearby, smoking cigarettes. Did you have nightmares?
Paul: I did, and so did my children. But since I started speaking about the genocide almost every day and since I began calling my children around the table to talk, our healing has come through our sharing.
Oprah: During your three months in that hotel, did you wake up every morning thinking you would die?
Paul: I was sure I'd be killed. I just didn't know how, when, or by whom. For years after the genocide, I was still afraid I'd be found and murdered. That was almost the case in September 1996, when I finally escaped from Rwanda. Since that day, I've referred to every hour of my life as a bonus.
Oprah: Why do you think you survived?
Paul: My day, my hour, my minute had not yet come. I believe I lived so that I could tell the world this story. That is my mission.