Monday, April 24, 2006

Imagining the Real—Paul Rusesabagina: An Ordinary Man, A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books Reading

Last Friday, April 21, 2006, Paul Rusesabagina was in San Francisco for the day, delivering a luncheon lecture at the Marines Memorial Theater for the World Affairs Council and then later that evening promoting his recently-published book, An Ordinary Man, to a capacity crowd at A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books. I frequently attend readings at this bookstore but have never seen such a crowd! People were stacked on top of each other and lingering in crowds outside the doors. Anticipating same, I had arrived an hour and a half early and had a front row seat. Prefaced by an embarrassingly hagiographic introduction, Rusesabagina humbly took stage. Here is my transcription of his talk:

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After such a speech, many times I am myself speechless. But tonight of course I cannot tell you all it is about. An Ordinary Man will explain everything in details and maybe in a better way than what I can do tonight. But I would like to share with you a few questions that many people many times do ask me.

Many times people do look at me and tell me, ask me that, "Paul, have you ever been scared in your life?" Yes. And very much. That was on April the 9th, 1994, when after the government that has been beheaded on April the 6th, a new government was put up and they sent me some soldiers to come and evacuate me from my house and take me to the hotel because they had taken over the hotel where I was the general manager and all the hotel keys for the many rooms which were not occupied the previous night when I left on the 6th I had kept them in my office. …So when they took over the hotel they had no other alternative than sending soldiers to come pick me up and bring me to the hotel.

Everything went very well until the time when we took off from my house and a mile away—not on the hotel compound as you have seen on the screen in Hotel Rwanda—just a mile away I saw those guys 20 soldiers in two jeeps, pulling to the side of the road, and all of them they had been very kind with me all over, and that time I saw everyone jumping out of the jeeps and everyone pointing his gun on my head. I knew that those guys were not joking because all along the street there were so many dead bodies. Some of them, their heads cut off. Others, bellies opened, mutilated, and yet all of those people were very well known to us. We had been staying in that neighborhood for seven years. We knew each and every one and each and every one knew us.

The very same captain who was the leader of that team just came to me and told me, "Listen you, traitor, we are not killing you today but have this gun and kill all of your cockroaches in these cars."

I looked at him and just like a few minutes ago I stayed speechless for five minutes. After five minutes of looking at him, watching him, I told him that, "Listen my friend, myself I do not know how to use guns, but, even if I knew, I do not see any reason why I could kill this old man." There was an old man, Michel, who was my neighbor. From day one of the genocide I already had 26 neighbors who came to stay in my house and when I was evacuated that day I was with them. So I pointed out that old man and told him that, "Listen my friend, I don't see any good reason I can kill this old man. Are you sure that this old man is the right person we are fighting today?" There was another young lady, also a neighbor, holding her baby, her second daughter who was three months old. I pointed out that baby again and told that young captain that, "Listen my friend, I do not think that the enemy we are fighting today is this baby who does not know anything about what is going on."

Sometimes you have to trick people accordingly, call their ego, catch that sensitive point of life. I told them that, "Listen you guys, I do understand you. You guys are hungry, thirsty, tired, stressed by this war, but such problems, we can solve them otherwise, we can find other solutions." Then we started finding other solutions and after two long hours they drove us up to that diplomat hotel and I went to my office, I went to the safe, just took some money, and paid what I promised. That day I was scared and very much.

Many times people look at me and tell me that, "Listen, you have made so many decisions. What toughest decision have you ever made in your life?" On May 2, 1994, in the afternoon the United Nation executives who had remained behind because all the UN soldiers had been evacuated and they all left town with the 2060 soldiers during the genocide. They pulled out and took more than 2000 soldiers, left us with 200. So a few executives, who were working with those soldiers, the rebels army and the regular army, the Rwandan army, had been sitting together, trying to find a way to exchange refugees, the Milles Colline refugees, with the refugees who were in the National City Stadium. The National City Stadium being controlled by the rebels and the Milles Colline by the army.

That day, that May 2, lists came out in the afternoon and all my family members' names came almost first on the list. Then that day—when my names, my family members, all of them came on that list, including myself—most of the Milles Colline refugees came to me and told me that, "Listen, please, tell us, are you really going to leave this place tomorrow?" I said, "No." "If you are going to leave this place, tell us so that we can go to the roof of the hotel and jump." Our problem was no more to die, but how to die. Were we going to afford to be tortured? Killers were coming and cutting a hand, going and coming after many hours, cutting the other one. Cutting again after some other hours, cutting a leg, torturing their victims. So they told me, "If you are leaving, there is no way we can afford to be tortured like that. Please tell us so that we can go to the roof of the hotel and jump." I told them that, "Listen, my friends, I am not leaving." No one could believe me. No one.

That night I went to sleep at a very late hour but I was a very disturbed person because I had made a decision I won't wish to make any more in my life. I had decided to send [away] my wife, my children. Where? With what hope to survive? None. Remain behind. Doing what? Nothing. Without any hopes to see them anymore. I went to sleep at 1:00 a.m. the following morning. When I went to sleep at 1:00 it was due to . . . phoning the international community, sending faxes all over the world, disturbing each and every one because in any case I had nothing to lose.

So when I arrived in the room my wife and my children were playing, not sleeping at all, but they noticed that I had changed. That change they saw it in my face. Each and every one was just looking at me but they couldn't understand. I said, "It's okay, I'm tired." Then I tried to find courage to tell my wife and children that I am not being evacuated with them. But I couldn't. Until a time when I decided to pretend that my children were not there and I told my wife that, "Listen, tomorrow you are going to be evacuated." When I said that word that you are going to be evacuated, each and every one looked at me. And in a drained voice almost they told me that, "Listen, you are saying us. How about you? Aren't you coming with us?" I said, "No. Today my advisor, my own conscience, has told me not to leave these people because if I happen to leave today and these people are killed, I will never be a free man. I would be a prisoner of my own conscience. Please, do accept. Leave and go to a separate place without any hope of meeting anymore."

The following day in the afternoon around five, I escorted my wife and my children. I just helped them to climb into the UN trucks. I saw them off. That experience itself was heartbreaking. I have never never suffered that much in my life. To see them off. I watched them leaving, the first truck, the second one, the third, the fourth. As the last truck was just crossing the hotel main gate the radio, the media, the radio was reading the names of all the people fleeing and being evacuated from the Milles Colline hotel, urging militia men to set up roadblocks, stop all those Milles Colline cockroaches and kill them. Because, the radio was saying, if you don't kill them, if you don't forgive them, they will never forgive you.

Well, those people couldn't make it for more than two miles. They were stopped, beaten to death, until a time when they started killing them and the first bullet from a militia man killed a soldier. Then soldiers and the militia men started fighting each other. Soldiers saying that, "Militia men are killing us!" That was the moment when the few UN soldiers who were driving them, who had surrendered actually and were hands up for many hours, they brought down their hands, started pulling the victims from the tarmack, throwing them in the backs of the trucks.

When they came back, my wife was not as you have seen on the screen, shouting, "Give me back my wedding ring!" She was lying flat in the back of a truck, unable even to talk and even to turn herself. I took her up to the room where she stayed for many weeks even unable to move.

Many are the times when people have asked me, "Paul, have you ever been sad in your life?" Yes. On July the 12th, 1994, just almost a week after the 100 days, the three months of the genocide, my wife, a friend, and myself decided to drive south and go to where we belonged to, our homeland. That was our first real trip outside Kigali, the capital, to see how the country looked like. All along the way, the whole country was nearing death. All along the way, there was no human being alive. All along the way, we could see only all over a lot of flies. There was no animal alive. We could hear dogs barking from the background, very far. We drove up to my homeland. When we arrived I was lucky enough—even now I call it to be lucky—because my older brother was there. I went to his house. I started asking him, "Where are our neighbors? Where is so and so?" He started telling me that, "Listen, so and so have been killed by militia men. Others have been killed by the army. Others are being killed by the rebels who had already taken over the country. Others are being burned in those houses you see burning there."

At that time my eldest sister, my younger brother, had just been killed by the rebels. My brother at a given time looked at me and told me that, "Paul, please do me a favor. Leave this place. Because if you don't, even these walls you can see have eyes and ears, they do listen to what you are saying, they are looking at you. Please, leave this place." I recall his message.

We drove down south to see my mother-in-law. When we arrived, before we arrived even, her two houses had just been destroyed. She had been killed with her daughter-in-law, six grandchildren, all of them thrown in a pit where we used to mature bananas in order to make banana juices and banana beer. That day we sat down in the wind and like young babies, we cried. We cried and we drove after a few hours we drove back to Kigali where we stayed until a time when I was almost assassinated, almost killed in September, 1996, and fled the country, went to Belgium, where I live until today. That day I was very sad.

Have we learned a lesson? To you: have we learned a lesson? All of that was taking place in Rwanda. Last year I went to Darfur myself to see what was going on in Darfur. Exactly what I was seeing in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 is what is going on in the Sudan. Rwanda, by 1994, the day before the genocide, we had more than a million people surrounding Kigali who had fled the rebels because the rebels were inviting men for meetings, killing them; inviting their sons to join their army, killing them. So the people had been fleeing the zones they occupied. And by 1994, early before the genocide, we had more than a million surrounding Kigali, without shelter, without food, without water, without education for the future generations, for four years those people had been frustrated just like that, and when the genocide broke out they were the first ones to take machetes, go down to the streets and chop each and every one into pieces.

Today in Darfur we have more than two million people in that same situation. In Darfur there are government helicopters just destroying villages completely and a few individuals who have been just to flee the burning villages are being killed by the Jajaweed militia men on horses, again armed by a government, just like the Rwandan militia, who were just hunting us, killing many people by 1993. And the whole world is standing by, watching, and doesn't do anything. When their children saw us when we there, they just gathered and demonstrated. When they were demonstrating, they had a blackboard on which they had written, "Welcome to our guests but we need education." Is that not a shame to mankind? Have we learned a lesson?

I'll end up, wind up my speech tonight and An Ordinary Man will take over, will start far ahead of me and go farther than I. . . . Thank you.

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