There are times when the subject matter at hand is somber enough that rational human beings will accept that, for a moment at least, something may not be about them. Unfortunately, there was no such tact on display when Paul Rusesabagina–the hero who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda–came to Bedford, New Hampshire, last weekend to share a firsthand account of the barbarity he witnessed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
First, one of the event organizers took to the microphone to welcome Rusesabagina, but quickly launched into platitudes about the inclusiveness of African society–an odd welcome for a speaker about to address the genocidal rampage of one half of a culturally and ethnically identical group against another within a single African country. Even more so when one opens a newspaper and sees what is happening in Sudan, Burundi, and the Congo.
Next up, Democratic mayor of Manchester Bob Baines congratulated Rusesabagina on his visit, before quickly moving on to boilerplate diversity rhetoric and bragging of the more than 90 languages spoken in his city, including 50 languages in the halls of Central High School alone. How a myriad of languages in a single school is a sign of some unmitigated positive development is hazy at best, but even less clear is why it was appropriate in advance of Rusesabagina’s talk.
Finally, Congressman Jeb Bradley (R., N.H.) made a few brief remarks, reminding Rusesabagina that he was in the “Live Free or Die” state before excusing himself. “I regret that I will not be able to stay to hear your fine speech,” Bradley explained, “but mother is calling me home for dinner with the rest of the family and every once in awhile I have to do what my mother asks me to do.” Perhaps Bradley has not seen Hotel Rwanda, but his choice of words shared an unfortunate resemblance to a bit of dialogue from the film, when Rusesabagina asks a video journalist what he thinks will happen when footage of the genocide reaches the West. “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my god, that’s horrible’ and go back to enjoying their dinners.”
When Rusesabagina took the stage, though, his poise and intensity silenced the room. Terrors from the film were laid out in the plain language of an eyewitness, something that no dramatization can ever fully mimic. The constant threat of murder at the hands of machete-wielding militia (as many members of his extended family were) was terrible, Rusesabagina said, but still not as bad as the alternative of using his international connections to flee.
“If I had left these people, and they had been killed, I never would have been a free man in my life,” he explained. “I would have been a prisoner of my conscience forever.”
Still, like many others, Rusesabagina takes a conveniently conspiratorial view of the causes of the Rwandan genocide, beginning with colonization and inevitably ending with America’s pulling the strings. He went so far as to declare that “America is behind many African dictatorships” and “could change a lot of things.”
“The children call it Scooby Doo,” he explained, receiving more than a few “Amens” from the crowd. “Scooby Doo is not the one doing things. There is someone behind him, always maneuvering.”
(It was not clear whether America was Scooby Doo in this scenario. Interestingly enough, however, Rusesabagina didn’t address serious accusations that the French supplied Hutus with equipment, intelligence, and training used in the genocide. To the film’s credit, France’s cozy relationship with the Hutu is referenced.)
Chris Roach of the America’s Future Foundation addressed this simplistic-yet-widely-held viewpoint well in a review of Hotel Rwanda earlier this year: “Africans kill one another en masse in the course of a few weeks in an orgy of violence that culminates in several hundred thousand deaths, and, instead of asking who did this and why and how should they punished, we focus rather on how the West did not intervene,” Roach wrote. “Setting aside whether such an intervention would have been possible, no ordinary moral reasoning would rank omissions by unrelated and disinterested foreigners as more grave and serious than actual acts of violence by the neighbors and friends of Rwanda’s Tutsi victims.”
Rusesabagina nonetheless saved much of his harshest criticism for a certain New York-based international body. “We had placed our hope in the United Nations,” Rusesabagina said. “We had placed our hope in the international community. But we were left completely on our own. I saw with my own eyes those who also had confidence in the United Nations, gathered in schools; gathered in churches. I saw them begging U.N. soldiers as they were leaving, ‘Please, take us with you. Because if you don’t, we are going to be murdered.’ “
But the call was unheeded and the savage butchery continued, day and night while Rusesabagina struggled to understand the point of the United Nations’ doing nothing, save observing wholesale slaughter for potential action at a later date.
“What we need is not neutral observers,” he told the Bedford crowd. “Civilians can be neutral observers. What we need are peacemakers. We need soldiers who can come in and defend civilians.”
And while Rusesabagina, a refugee himself who lives in Belgium, applauded the efforts of the New Hampshire African Community Center in helping resettle refugees, he hastened to add something not heard very often in such circles: It is better to never be a refugee at all.
“If we do not change dictatorships people will keep leaving their home countries,” he answered when asked about immigration policy for a third time. “What I believe people need is not to have to come and live in America, but for America to help us settle in our own countries with our own lives and land.”
Whether it is fair to put that all on America is doubtful. But the sentiment, the desire to see a stabilized, self-sufficient African continent with civilized governments that can take advantage of the bounty of natural resources and finally create some prosperity, is a noble one. All serious efforts towards that end should be supported.
–Shawn Macomber is a Boston-based writer. He runs www.returnoftheprimitive.com.