Learning from History

The release of Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda last spring came as a shock to many across the nation. The film, made ten years after the bloody massacre of the Tutsi people by Hutu extremists in Rwanda, was released on the genocide’s eleventh anniversary. The film tells the story of Hutu hotel manager Rusesabagina’s efforts during the horrifying three months of fighting, to harbor and ultimately save the lives of over 1,200 Tutsis, including his wife and children. Yesterday, the Peace and Conflict Studies Department, along with many other departments, sponsored “Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to Be Learned,” a lecture by Rusesabagina.

Rusesabagina came to speak to students and faculty during the last week of March to commemorate the 12-year anniversary of the genocide. The genocide was triggered by the shooting down of Hutu Rwandan president Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994, an incident that led to chaos throughout the country. Rusesabagina came to Colgate at a pivotal moment in current affairs in Africa, with the mass killing of the Darfurians in western Sudan by a government-backed Janjaweed militia.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow in Peace Studies Sasha Milicevic, who spearheaded the effort to invite Rusesabagina to campus after hearing him speak last spring at Cornell University, stressed the importance of making the connection between Rwanda and Darfur.

“People ask, ‘can I make a difference?'” explained Milicevic. “Realizing that one person can, to me, is the most important thing. One person courageous and determined enough to risk their own life can make a difference. This is the main message.”

Seeing the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda on the stage of the Memorial Chapel clearly had an emotional impact on students. There was only standing room left ten minutes before the lecture commenced.

Rusesabagina began with a brief historical overview of the civil strife within Rwanda in the 1950s, which began when the Belgium colonizers favored the Tutsi people. This ultimately caused rifts between the Hutus and the Tutsis, who had previously coexisted peacefully and shared their culture, language and customs.

Besides the role of the colonizers, Rusesabagina cited corruption, the media and poverty as other factors that eventually led to animosity between the two groups. He told of the impending doom of the Rwandan people as the international community withdrew in the face of looming disaster, evacuating foreigners with their pets before any of the native Africans.

“The world closed their eyes and ears and ran away,” Rusesabagina said.

He explained to a captivated audience his powers of negotiation with a gun to his head once the Hutu extremists came to evacuate him and his family. He was eventually escorted along with his family and neighbors to the Hotel Mille-Collines of which he was the manager. He spoke of one horror after the next: discovering that his son’s friends had been slaughtered next door, watching his son shake in fear as armed Hutu rebels climbed their fence, and passing by mutilated bodies on the side of the road.

“Our problem was not about dying, but about how we were going to die,” he said. “Torture was our only threat. No one thought we would survive to leave the hotel.”

All 1,268 of the hotel refugees were mobilized from the hotel to refugee camps, after communication and negotiation efforts on the part of Rusesabagina.

“I will never fight with a gun,” Rusesabagina said. “I will fight with my words.” He emphasized the importance of individual action. It is unacceptable that the global community turned its back on Rwanda, he said.

“What I saw in Rwanda is exactly what is going on in Darfur,” he said. “Sometimes people forget history for their own convenience. It is our mission to stand up and say no to human rights abuse.”

Rusesabagina’s final comments were met with a standing ovation.

The lecture was the highlight of Genocide Awareness Week. Students of the newly formed Progressive Student Network have worked incessantly to organize letter- and postcard-writing campaigns, call-ins to government representatives, as well as penny wars, poker games and benefit dinners and dates to raise money for the Genocide Intervention Network (genocideinterventionnetwork.net).

“We’ve raised $2,500,” sophomore Lauren Robinson, an active member of PSN, said. “We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to bring in money.”

Fellow classmate and treasurer of PSN, Kelly Gartside was pleased with the amount raised so far.

“I’ve been really surprised,” she said. “I think it’s a great response.”

Robinson and Gartside have hopes that these programs will continue next year.

“It’s been difficult because we’ve had such a small number of active members trying to pull off so many programs for this week,” Gartside said. “We just hope that people will hear about the genocide in Rwanda, realize that it was a terrible tragedy, and then realize that there is a genocide going on in Darfur and that we can do something about it, rather than just standing by.”