Here I am at the Hotel des Mille Collines, sipping a cup of tea and pondering the tragic events that unfolded here only 15 years ago. Amidst chirping birds, laughing people, quality food and the luxurious atmosphere of this place, it is hard to imagine that hundreds of Rwandans once hid here to escape the genocide of 1994 that claimed more than one million lives in one hundred days.
As depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina became the provisional hotel manager of the Mille Collines at when those above him evacuated the country at the onset of the crisis. Opening the hotel doors to refugees fleeing for their lives, Paul managed to hold off the militias seeking to kill them by paying them with the money and alcohol that he had left at his disposal. Paul saved lives through his heroic efforts and finally he and his family were evacuated in time to spare their own lives as well.
Just prior to coming here I visited the Kigali Memorial Center. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw there. I’ve read about the genocide before but to see the story unfold in such a detailed and graphical way is heartbreaking. I don’t see how one could pass through this memorial without weeping. The tragic loss of lives and the barbaric efforts of those who so brutally took them are unimaginable. Pictures of children who were later hacked to death, the stories of survivors who lost their entire extended families, and quotes from the perpetrators and the rest of the world that stood by, all need to sink in. We desperately need to realize the gravity of the plight of suffering people around the world. One of the things that pained me the most was learning that there were at least eight different massacres of Tutsis in the three years leading up to the genocide. Continuous appeals for help from people within Rwanda who saw the trouble at hand were ignored by the world until it was too late.
To keep this tragedy from causing despair there are heroic stories to consider as well. Besides Paul here at the Mille Collines, there were other Rwandans who risked their lives to save others. Frodouald Karuhije initially dug a trench on his property to hide himself. When he discovered though that it was his Tutsi neighbors who were in imminent danger, he decided to use the trench to hide them instead. “He put planks on top, then green banana leaves, and on top of the leaves he piled earth, and then planted sweet potatoes all along the top of the trench” (Thomas Ngirabakunzi). He saved the lives of 14 Tutsis while they were in his care for over a month. His sister cooked for them and his 12 year old daughter took food to the refugees by hiding it in a dustbin.
Damas Gisimba received around 400 orphans, refugees, and employees into his orphanage at Nyamirambo. Also rescuing the living who were thrown in mass graves, this Rwandan hero managed with help to evacuate the vast majority of these people to a safe place. In appreciation for his kindness a Rwandan said, “I can’t find the exact words to express how I feel about Gisimba’s actions. He protected more than 400 human lives. A love sacrifices itself in that way is beyond my comprehension… I don’t know if you’d call it an act of heroism or an act of love.”
In the face of such tragedy I am grieved, in the light of such heroism, I am inspired. It is time to awaken from apathy, to respond to the great needs in front of us that left to themselves will only grow worse. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. The world is flat and smaller than it has ever been, meaning that modern communications and the internet in particular, have made it possible to know what is happening around the world in real time. May we learn from Hotel Rwanda not to run from or ignore impending disaster, but step instead in front of its path and protect those who cannot protect themselves.