The Man With the Silver Tongue

People did not take machetes and start cutting other people into pieces overnight. There's a kind of hatred between Hutus and Tutsis that has been developed through our history. The international community does not want to see it that way, even now.

Feature by Andrea Grant | 14 Aug 2006

A few minutes after beginning my conversation with Paul Rusesabagina, the best interview strategy becomes clear: don't worry about asking questions; shut up and listen. Rusesabagina has a knack for speaking, a skill he put to considerable use during the 1994 Rwandan genocide when he secured the safety of 1,268 refugees at the Hotel Mille Collines through cajolement and flattery of noted Hutu extremists. Since 2004, he has employed his speaking talent as a much sought-after lecturer, touring the globe to raise awareness about the genocide. In the past two years, he has given over 200 speeches, a number, he jokes, that translates into one lecture every three days, "weekends included."

Clearly, the man has a way with words, and although he was "very satisfied" with 'Hotel Rwanda', the successful Hollywood film inspired by his life, it wasn't exactly his version. "I wanted to tell my story in my own words," he says of his decision to write his memoir, entitled 'An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind 'Hotel Rwanda'.

"The movie is almost accurate. Of course a few things have been modified here and there, just slightly for a movie to be a movieā€¦ But I wanted to tell the story in my own language." The book, he points out, is "more or less written in Kinyarwanda, my native language." In 'An Ordinary Man', he takes pains to explain Rwanda's complex past. He says that the West has "never understood our history." Referring to the Western media's simplistic and often racist construction of the genocide as a "tribal war," he announces, "People did not take machetes and start cutting other people into pieces overnight. There's a kind of hatred between Hutus and Tutsis that has been developed through our history. The international community does not want to see it that way, even now."

This history of hatred continues to challenge the country's quest for justice as it attempts to prosecute those responsible for over 800,000 murders. "In Rwanda," Rusesabagina explains, "we have about 100,000 prisoners. Since 1994, the Rwandan tribunals have tried and convicted no more than 10,000 prisoners." This slow judicial process is nothing less than a "failure."

"Fifty percent of the prisoners have no charges, nothing in their files," he exclaims. "Justice is a one-way justice. It's now supposed to be a Hutu justice, not a national justice. We are not reconciling Hutus and Tutsis. The Hutus who have killed Tutsis are in prison, but Tutsis who killed are just free. How can we reconcile such a nation?"

He cites in particular the pre-1994 massacres of hundreds of thousands of Hutus in the country's Eastern province. Eighty percent of the population is composed of widows as their husbands, invited to attend meetings with the RPF, never returned. "Ironically sometimes we say that all those who went for meetings are still attending meetings. All those who joined the army are still fighting. One day the Tutsi army will bring them back."

But Rusesabagina is tired of waiting. He believes that everyone, Hutu and Tutsi alike, who killed before, during, or after the genocide should be brought to justice. In particular, he believes that the mystery of President Habyarimana's assassination on April 6th 1994 needs to be solved. That person or group of people, "put oil on a burning fire." Although many Rwandan historians blame the Presidential Guard or Habyarimana's own wife, Rusesabagina believes the missiles used to shoot down the plane were sold by the Russians to the Ugandan army, who in turn gave them to the RPF. It is undoubtedly opinions like these that have recently led Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, to accuse Rusesabagina of rewriting the country's history and undeservedly positioning himself as a hero. For his part, Rusesabagina is unmoved by such criticisms, stating that his story illustrates the side of the genocide that the government does not want to hear: mainly, that everyone did not "go mad" and that some people did in fact "say 'no' to the genocidaires and the genocide." The current government, he alleges, "are basing everything on the genocide. They have taken 85% of the population as killers, but we are not all of us killers or criminals. There is no idea of sharing in Rwanda today."

Despite these experiences, Rusesabagina remains optimistic about the future. "The world has started to understand," he says. "When I started in 2004, everyone had in mind that in Rwanda we are two kinds of people: the good guys and the bad guys. But today that idea has changed. There are no more good guys and bad guys." Only through talking about the genocide and struggling to make it understood, he believes, will Rwanda be able to move on. As he puts it: "If you want to play soccer, you have to go out on the field and play."

An Ordinary Man' is Out Now.
Paul Rusesabagina appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, RBS Main Theatre, August 24, 13:30