Real life star of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ speaks at UM

Courtesy Kitty Kurth

By Nina Ruggiero // Assistant News Editor

Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda” in which Don Cheadle played his role, received a standing ovation Friday night at the Gusman Concert Hall. Rusesabagina, a hotel manager at the time, saved over 1,000 refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

He is also the founder of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which works to spread awareness about the current conflicts affecting Rwanda and other African nations and to prevent future genocides.

The event was hosted by the School of Law’s Student Organization for Human Rights and was organized by Tom Ogelsby, a second year law student at the University of Miami.

“In the minds of Americans, Rwanda came about when the genocide started, and it ceased to exist once the genocide ended,” Loyola University professor Brian Endless said. He introduced the night’s three main speakers, who stressed that the small African nation is still in dire need of help today, more than a decade after the genocide was declared over.

Rusesabagina was preceded by speakers Allan Stam and Kathleen Kirwin. Stam, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who has done field research for an article titled “What Really Happened in Rwanda?,”gave a brief 10 year history of Rwanda before and after the Civil War that began in 1990 and led to the genocide of 1994. He spoke about the difficulty of finding accurate data about the genocide death toll, described Rwanda’s political parties and listed some of the brutal ways people were identified and killed.

“Democracy simply doesn’t exist in a meaningful form,” Stam said of the nation today.

Kirwin, a criminal and death penalty defense lawyer in Sarasota, Fla., delivered a lecture on the legal systems, issues, and the realities affecting Rwandans in the past 16 years since the Genocide. She was a member of the research team for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Kirwin tackled the ambiguous question of what can ever truly bring justice to surviving Rwandans who lost the ones they loved.

“Knowing that your brother was killed, where does that feeling go?” she asked. “When is enough revenge? When would you be satisfied that justice has been served?”

These are feelings that Rusesabagina, who lost his relatives in the genocide, has been living with since the horrific event.

“No one has ever told me ‘I’m sorry’,” he said. “I believe in forgiveness but I have never forgiven those people.”

Adding to the conflict is the fact that no particular side can clearly be labeled good or bad, the speakers said. Although the genocide was known as the slaughtering of the Tutsis by the Hutus, killing occurred heavily on both sides, and more Hutus actually died during the Civil War than Tutsis.

“My mother-in-law and her six grandchildren were killed by Hutu militias,” Rusesabagina said, “and my younger brother was killed by Tutsi rebels. Who was the good guy and who was the bad guy?”

Rusesabagina defied the government by hiding fellow citizens ranging from elite businessmen to orphans in his hotel. Every person he hid survived.

“The best advisor is your own conscience,” he said. “Mine said ‘If you leave these people here and they are killed I will never set you free.’”

Rusesabagina has continued to speak out against the human rights abuses in his homeland in spite of the consequences, including having his home broken into as an attempt to silence him.

“I will never keep quiet,” he said. “I fight with words. With words you can save lives.”

Before signing copies of his book “An Ordinary Man,” Rusesabagina urged all of the “ordinary people” in the audience to do the extraordinary.

“You young people are the only ones who can change the world,” he said. “Are you ready to shape the world in a better way?”

A fundraiser was also held on Saturday at Gaetano’s Ristorante in the Hotel St. Michel in Coral Gables.

Nina Ruggiero may be contacted at

View a slideshow of images from Rusesabagina’s visit.

Photos by Julia Ardila and Natalie Edgar // The Miami Hurricane

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