Rusesabagina was the assistant manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kilgali, Rwanda, and had also worked as the manager of the Hôtel des Diplomates before the 1994 genocide erupted between Hutus and Tutsis. Using his life story as an example of the complex racial history of Rwanda, Rusesabagina told the audience in Boe that, tonight you will travel into the heart of land-locked Africa, for a journey.
Rusesabagina was born in rural Rwanda as the racially mixed son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. He explained how the racial history of Rwanda was influenced by the Hutu and Tutsi tribes living in neighboring countries, including Burundi. Throughout his speech, Rusesabagina reminded the audience how constructed race was in Rwanda. The Tutsi people, who are stereotypically taller and have lighter skin than the Hutus, were favored by colonizers, and thus resented by the Hutus. All Rwandans were forced to carry racial identification papers. Still, intermarriage and the mixing of the Hutus and Tutsis was not an uncommon phenomenon.
When violence exploded in the capital city of Kilgali on April 6, 1994, Rusesabagina recalled being at dinner with family members whom he would never see again. Moderate Hutus and Tutsis were slaughtered in the streets with machetes as radical Hutu militias such as the Interahamwe ravaged the country. After 100 days of violence, as many as one million Rwandans were dead.
As a trusted neighbor and business -man, Rusesabagina explained how family members turned to him in the first days of the genocide, congregating in his home and asking for help. Rusesabagina led them to the Hôtel des Mille Collines, where he protected Tutsis and Hutus by talking to militia through negotiation. I never picked up a gun, Rusesabagina said.
For over 70 days, sometimes without electricity or water, Rusesabagina tried to keep people in the hotel safe. Rusesabagina said that someone else made the decision to help for him, something was working through him. At night, he would, stay up until 4 a.m. calling and faxing New York, Paris and London. I called everyone I knew, faxed everyone in the world to try to tell them we were being killed.
Throughout his speech and during the question and answer session that followed, Rusesabagina spoke harshly about the lack of international attention paid to Rwanda during the genocide. Show me one place where U.N. peacekeeping forces kept the peace. One place in the world, Rusesabagina said to the audience. We do not need observers in uniforms, we do not need unruly and untrained international armies that will not prevent killings.
Rusesabagina noted that behind every major conflict in the world lies the potential of the superpowers, namely America and Europe, to intervene and to provide help. Former colonizers, too, are to blame for this problem, but so are the dictators of African nations.
Rusesabagina also emphasized the current genocide in Darfur, Sudan; he visited the region with Hotel Rwanda star Don Cheadle. I was humiliated by what I saw, what was going on in Darfur, Rusesabagina said.
International observers want to close their eyes and ears, as if they do not want to see or hear what is really going on, Rusesabagina said.
Rusesabagina ended his speech by imploring students, the leaders of the future, to face history today and take note of genocide throughout the world. The whole of Africa is burning, it is a killing field. There is no reconciliation or dialogue. We must fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, Rusesabagina said.
In a press conference before his speech, Rusesabagina spoke of how his life has changed since the genocide and Hotel Rwanda. In 1996, Rusesabagina was almost killed in Kilgali, so he moved his family to Belgium, where he drove a taxi. Within three years he owned a trucking company. Though he had been approached by filmmakers and writers since 1994 to tell his story about the Hôtel des Mille Collines, he refused until filmmaker Terry George agreed to tell his story his way.
Since the release of the film, Rusesabagina has written an autobiography, called An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography. Now he tours the world lecturing and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Though Rusesabagina currently lives in Belgium with his family, he still considers Rwanda his home. That is my dream, he said. To one day return to the place I call home. He appreciates the attention Hotel Rwanda has brought to the Rwandan genocide but acknowledged that it came too late.