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Rwandan hero delivers call to action

By : Nicole Borawski

Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the Rwandan genocide immortalized by Don Cheadle in the film Hotel Rwanda, speaks Oct. 12 at the Events Center.
It was an evening of powerful emotions and inspiration when Paul Rusesabagina addressed an estimated 3,000 people Oct. 12 at Binghamton University’s Events Center.

Rusesabagina came to Binghamton to encourage change and put an end to genocide. He shared his story in a speech titled “Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to Be Learned” in hopes of educating the world about what took place in Rwanda and what’s happening now in Darfur, Sudan.

In 1994, the genocide of the Tutsi population in Rwanda occurred through violent acts of the Hutu tribe. One million civilians were killed in less than 100 days, equaling 15 percent of the Tutsi population.

Rusesabagina was the hotel manager of the Milles Collines at the time. The hotel became a refugee camp for 1,268 helpless Tutsis. Without food, running water or electricity, Rusesabagina saved the refugees’ lives, including those of his wife, four children, niece and nephew.

Out of the atrocities emerged a hero whose story went on to be told in the 2004 Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina. “The movie portrays the events accurately, but it is not possible to see everything that happened in those 100 days in only two hours,” Rusesabagina said. “Many of the scenes are less violent.”

During the genocide, Rusesabagina and those he sheltered faced tough decisions. Refugees took limited sips of pool water and smuggled firewood for heat. Rusesabagina, who is half Hutu and half Tutsi, used his street smarts to keep everyone alive.

“We made a decision to die a ‘better death’ rather than be killed by the hands of the Hutus,” Rusesabagina said.

All 1,268 refugees in the Milles Collines survived the genocide, which Rusesabagina called a miracle. He also learned an important lesson from the atrocities: how to deal with evil.

Rusesabagina described himself as a cheerful and well-known man in his neighborhood who always bought rounds of drinks for his friends after work. Since the 1994 killings, he is a changed man.

“I have become more suspicious because I cannot believe how wild and scary humans can actually be,” Rusesabagina said. “During the genocide, I phoned government officials to send soldiers to protect the hotel. I asked everyone I knew for help. On the first day, the whole world pulled out when things became tough and the killings worsened.”

As an international speaker and humanitarian, Rusesabagina hopes to inspire people to act against violence and not be apathetic about catastrophes such as Rwanda’s. He wants people to become messengers, rather than bystanders. Too often, he said, people have the attitude of “this is not happening to me.”

“The youth are our leaders of tomorrow, and we can make this world a paradise or hell,” Rusesabagina said. “We have not yet learned our lesson from Rwanda because the same things are taking place in Darfur refugee camps. Africa is a disaster.”

The Western world holds the key and needs to take action in Africa, he said. “We need help from the West to change the dictator regime and bring peace.”

Julia Hui ’06 of Queens, who was in town for Homecoming, found Rusesabagina inspiring. “He definitely grasped the audience’s attention and opened our eyes to something that young people probably don’t realize is taking place,” she said.

The crowd was quiet and respectful throughout the speech, which was organized by Hillel at Binghamton.

Kunal Bhatt, a senior at Binghamton, also found the speech informative and captivating. “His enthusiasm to bring about change is something I think was reflected onto the audience,” Bhatt said. “He was very moving.”

Rusesabagina’s one hope is that he motivates others to take action with him to achieve peace.

“I believe in the power of words; words can save and kill,” Rusesabagina said. “The best advice I can give is to fight for your rights and fight for other people’s rights.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08