Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hotel Rwanda hero inspires students, teacher

From the Parkville Luminary

CHICAGO--Today, my students and I met a real superstar, and I don’t mean some plastic “American Idol” or steroid-pumped athlete. Paul Rusesabagina doesn’t sing or dance or shoot hoops, but he is the biggest hero I’ve ever met, or likely will ever meet.

Don’t recognize the name? Rusesabagina’s story is the inspiration for the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. His character was played (in Oscar-nominated fashion) by Kansas City actor Don Cheadle. In the movie, and real life, Rusesabagina shielded 1,268 people from certain death during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. He bravely risked his own life to do this, but insists that anyone else put in his position would have done the same thing. In fact, his gripping autobiography is titled “An Ordinary Man”. However, after hearing Rusesabagina speak, it’s impossible to conclude that he is anything but extraordinary.

Rusesabagina recently addressed delegates at the American Model United Nations conference in Chicago, including 16 Park University Model United Nations students.

Rusesabagina said it is ironic that he was speaking to a United Nations conference, since it was the UN that failed him and his countrymen in 1994 during the “madness” that took 1-million lives in a country of just 7 million people. That’s the equivalent, in terms of population percentage, of an American genocide taking 45 million lives. He said that the UN “abandoned the country to gangsters and thugs.” Rusesabagina said that a “lack of political will” from the UN and the rest of the world doomed his small country in 1994. “Silence is agreement,” he noted, implying the complicity of the world in the slaughter in Rwanda.

Sadly, Rusesabagina believes that little has changed since 1994. “So far, we have not learned the lessons from the Rwandan genocide,” he noted, citing ongoing strife in Congo and Darfur examples of the continuing struggles in Africa’s great lakes region. The UN has certainly not learned much, he said, observing that it has been as ineffective in protecting innocents in Darfur as it was in Rwanda.

The media also continue to operate much as they did before 1994. “The media can help us save lives, but their silence is a complicity,” Rusesabagina said. While the western media are silent, the African media continue to inflame conflicts rather than advocate for peace. This fact that became abundantly clear as I taught peace journalism in Uganda last summer. The media, particularly radio, helped to fuel the Rwandan genocide. Yet, 14 years later, the same type of radio-fueled violence left 800 dead in Kenya in 2008, and threatens to do the same in Uganda as presidential elections approach.

One solution, one way of helping to institutionalize a memory of those tragic lessons, is to convene truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions in the great lakes region (including Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda) to facilitate the healing process. Rusesabagina said the goal of such commissions would be to put people around a table who would say, “I hate you and you hate me. But, what can we do so that one day our children can live together?” To help spur the establishment of these commissions, Rusesabagina launched the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation in 2005. ( The foundation is committed to securing lasting peace and international human rights, facilitating justice, and serving the victims of genocide. The HRRF always welcomes donations and volunteers.

Rusesabagina discussed several ways that the student could address peace and justice issues and “stand up and make a difference”. First, he recommended that students raise awareness of African issues since the western media won’t. (He said there’s not enough money to be made covering human rights issues). Secondly, he urged the students to write their congressmen, and let them know that the status quo in Congo and elsewhere in Africa is unacceptable. He also encouraged them to volunteer or donate to his foundation. Rusesabagina concluded his remarks with a powerful quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

That’s certainly not a fate that Paul Rusesabagina need concern himself about.

--As always, check out my Peace Journalism website at:

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