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Hotel Rwanda Hero Continues His Campaign for Africa

  • Joshua Levs

Last year's critically acclaimed movie, Hotel Rwanda, told the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who saved more than 1,200 people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The drama gave him a global platform, which he is using to call for international intervention in Africa.

Last week he took his campaign to Atlanta, Georgia, where he spoke to a private group of about a dozen business leaders. He shared his experiences during the tribal genocide depicted in the film, describing how, as a hotel manager from the Hutu tribe who was married to a woman from the rival Tutsi tribe, he ended up saving Tutsi refugees from being killed by rampaging Hutu militias.

But he quickly turned to current events plaguing the African continent, including deadly violence in Burundi and in Sudan's Darfur region, which he recently visited. "What is going on in Darfur is exactly what had been going on in Rwanda," he told his audience. "The government is killing its own citizens." He accused the Sudanese government of being aligned with the Arab Janjaweed militias -- a charge the Sudanese government has denied, although an international commission found the government linked to the militias.

Mr. Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium, also talked to the business group about continuing struggles in Rwanda, saying money given to the nation for reconciliation has disappeared and many people have been incarcerated for no clear reason. "We need the international community to intervene and help us [to do] justice, and then after doing justice, dialogue."

While encouraging investment and volunteering in Africa, he said the continent's political system needed reforming first. "What Africans need as a whole is not only someone who will come and pay their education," he said, "but it is also to change the systems in Africa. To help us to change, to find lasting solutions. Africa is ruled by dictators. And those dictators should know that one day they also can be brought to justice."

The small gathering took place at the Carter Center, a human rights institution founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The event was run by a group called BuildingBlocks International, which brings together leaders of corporations to share information about global philanthropy efforts. The group's chief executive, Jennifer Anastasoff, says Mr. Rusesabagina's story highlights the potential for international businesses to help save lives. "The connections that he made in terms of business connections outside of the country were vital to saving the lives of people in that hotel. And he really brings this perspective of a businessman who was changed by the extraordinary circumstances that he was in."

The horror of a world not taking action to avert a looming humanitarian disaster is another experience Paul Rusesabagina sought to convey to the business group. "When the most serious things started," he told them, "we saw [the world] turning backs, closing ears and eyes, and running away.

Hotel Rwanda is still showing in theaters in parts of the world, and has been released on DVD. But it's unclear whether the film and the publicity it received have helped trigger new aid efforts for Rwanda or for Africa in general. However, one attendee at the conference said she has seen a change. Lisa Foster is assistant director for the international philanthropy program at the drug companyPfizer. The drug company has a number of programs and initiatives to provide free medicine and assistance for people suffering from illnesses such as AIDS and malaria. "A number of employees who were particularly touched have taken a renewed interest in the programs that Pfizer has internationally," she says, "particularly in Africa - and they are asking us what can they do to help."

As for Paul Rusesabagina: he plans to keep traveling and pushing for international intervention in Africa. He's working on a book, and is expected to make a worldwide promotional tour next year.

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