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Vienna | 25.11.2008 | 12:21 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

"I Believe In The Power of Words"
  Paul Rusesabagina is the real life hero on whom the film Hotel Rwanda was based.

The film shows his exploits during the Rwandan genocide 1994 when murderous mobs of Hutu extremists were hacking hundreds of thousands of Rwandan men, women and children to death - just because they were ethnic Tutsis or moderate Hutus.

Rusesabagina used his position as manager of an international hotel in the Rwandan capital Kigali to shelter over a thousand civilians from the massacres. He kept the death squads out with nothing more than old mattresses to block up the windows, some quick thinking and a total disregard for his own safety. For his selflessness he has been awarded the US's highest civilian award - the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I met Rusesabagina this week in Vienna where he was promoting the Human Aid 4 Life film festival, 4 days of thought provoking films based on global human rights issues.

The hero of 1994 has now become an outspoken critic of the current Rwandan government which he says is preventing the country from facing up to its past, reconciling and moving on. He says the victims have simply become the perpetrators, guilty of atrocities in the Congo. He says the cycle of ethnic violence is likely to continue.
  C.: Many Rwandans complain that ethnicity still dominates Rwandan life. Though several important ministries are run by Hutus, they have, you say, little real power and the government is dominated by the Tutsi tribe of the President Paul Kagame. Is that dangerous?

R.: For sure this is dangerous. It is very dangerous for the future. In Rwanda we say that we changed dancers but the music stayed the same. It used to be a Hutu government and when the Tutsis took over they made exactly the same mistake. There is no compromise. And as long as we Rwandans don't reach a compromise, there will never be reconciliation.

C.: Do you think that the West was for a long time loathe to criticize the Tutsi dominated Rwandan government due to a sense of guilt over its inaction when the Tutsis were being massacred during the 1994 genocide?

R.: That is the truth. The western countries felt guilty because the genocide took place on their own watch. They went as far as allowing a lot of revenge killings and massacres as the new Rwandan government followed the Hutu refugees into the Congo. Women, old people and children were killed indiscriminately. They made no distinction between criminals and innocent people. And there were UN soldiers standing there watching. They allowed anything to take place in the name of the genocide.
  C.: So the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame has allowed Rwandan troops to go over the border and hunt down the Hutu militia. To what extend can that policy be blamed for some of the violence in the DR Congo right now?

R: Well actually what most people don't know is that Kagame didn't really go after the people responsible for the genocide. He is looking for what I qualify as a blood diamond. Rwanda is exporting coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones, and cobald as well as gold and diamonds. We don't produce these minerals so how are we exporting them?

C.: So the accusation that you seem to me making is that Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, is trading on the genocide of 1994. You say he's using it as a pretext to enrich the government?

R.: Exactly. And he goes as far as exploiting Rwandan prisoners. You know that Rwanda has the highest number of prisoners per capita in the world - maybe more than 100.000 prisoners, many of them without charge. They are being sent to work in mines in the Congo for the benefit of the Rwandan government.
C.: You see in that story just what a long shadow the genocide of 1994 has cast. We are talking of that terrible episode now in the West, because at the time the western countries were criticized for ignoring Rwanda - abandoning it to its fate - are we at risk of committing the same error with Congo? What lessons should we have learned that we could use now?

R.: The lessons of Rwanda have not yet been learned. When I was in Darfur, Sudan, I saw with my own eyes how militias were killing innocent civilians. And these militias were being armed by a government. I saw government helicopters destroying villages in Darfur. I visited camps and saw people dying.

On my way back from Darfur, this was 2005, I saw world super power leaders commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. All those present were repeating the two words that I qualify as the most abused in the world. Those words were "never" and "again". And where I had come from, Darfur, it was all happening again and again and again and again.
  C.: I was at Auschwitz in 2005 and I saw the film based on your exploits in 1994 - "Hotel Rwanda" - with tears streaming down my face, swearing this should never be allowed the happen again. But quite practically I appreciate that it must be very difficult to stop the violence in the Congo. How can an international military force prevent militias from slashing villagers in the bush?

R.: The most important thing is for the United Nations to redefine their mission. Their mission is not to protect civilians it is not to make peace, but to stand there and observe. We have 17,000 UN soldiers in the Congo and yet the Rwandan army crosses the border, comes into the camps and kills civilians. This is unacceptable but it happens because the UN is there only to observe. You or I could observe!
  C.: The tension between the Tutsis and the Hutus is very old. It was perpetuated by the colonial policy of having Rwandan ethnicity printed on people's identification cards. They gave Tutsis administrative jobs and left the menial work to the Hutus. The tension is still very evident today. But if I was in Rwanda, would I notice a difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi?

R.: In many cases you can never tell the difference. We were born into a society that has been mixing long before the colonials turned up. But before the colonial period the Hutus were slaves to the Tutsis. These people have never sat down at a table together and talked.

I believe in the power of words. For me words are the best and worst weapons ever invented. They can be tools of death or they can be tools of life. I used my words in 1994 and more than 12,000 lives were saved. Let's put the guns away and give words a chance.

(Rwanda officially withdrew its forces from DR Congo in late 2002 after signing a peace deal with Kinshasa. The government denies any involvement in the current violence in the DR Congo as well as the other charges leveled by Paul Rusesabagina. One of Kagame's favourite slogans is "One people, one future")
fm4 links
  Rwanda's Shadow (NY Times Article)
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