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Hero of 'Hotel Rwanda' Tells Own Story in New Memoir

The former hotel manager who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda has published a new memoir. In An Ordinary Man, Paul Rusesabagina offers an expanded account of his efforts to provide shelter for more than a thousand people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed between April and July of that year after extremists in the majority Hutu population turned on the Tutsi minority. The film version of Mr. Rusesabagina's story focused on the 76 days that saw Kigali's Hotel des Mille Collines transformed from a luxury hotel for the elite into a safe haven for the hunted.

In his book, Mr. Rusesabagina looks back at the forces that shaped his life and his country's recent history. The impact of words is a central theme in his account-how they can save lives, or destroy them.

"I was using my phone, describing the situation, calling for help," Mr. Rusesabagina explains. "All those generals who helped us, I was convincing them. I was sitting with them around a drink, talking to them. That is the power of words. On the other hand, you have the radio, the media, conveying messages that if you kill your neighbor, you'll have his car. If you kill your neighbor, you'll have his house. So words became more powerful than any other weapons in the human arsenal."

Born in rural Rwanda to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother, Paul Rusesabagina learned early lessons about compassion and justice from his father, a respected voice in village disputes. The author polished his own persuasive skills studying for the ministry, but his desire to see more of the world eventually took him to Kigali and a successful career in a Belgian-owned hotel chain.

Mr. Rusesabinga's comfortable life was shattered with the 1994 assassination of Rwanda's Hutu President, Juvenal Habyarimana. Many of his friends and neighbors were brutally killed in the violence that followed. Others turned overnight into cold-blooded killers. "On day one of that genocide," the author recalls, "I saw many of my neighbors in militia uniforms with guns, with spears, with machetes, neighbors killing neighbors. People tend to follow the mob. All those people we used to think of as wise men, leaders, heroes for young people, I saw them completely changed."

Paul Rusesabagina took a different path and reached out to both Tutsis and moderate Hutus with an offer of shelter. "I did what I believed was the right thing to be done," he says, "to stand up for people and say 'no' to killers. People were told by their neighbors, or they heard through rumors, that Mille Collines is the only place where no one is being killed. I was trying very hard to get in touch with militiamen, in touch with the army, negotiating with them. And fortunately, from the beginning to the end, I had 1,268 people, and none of them was killed. None of them was even beaten."

Mr. Rusesabagina remembers that time as a desperate struggle to survive. For the first week, the refugees lived on food stored in the hotel. "When our reserves were finished, we had to eat corn and beans," he says. "Our water was cut off completely. I started to ration the swimming pool water. Electricity was no longer working. We stayed in the darkness and started smuggling firewood. You have upstairs scared refugees and in the hotel lobby, the hotel bar, the militia men, their hunters, are coming to have a drink."

To add to his desperation, Paul Rusesabagina writes in his book that the United Nations mandate changed from halting the killings to evacuating non-Rwandans. "I was trying to contact the international community for help, calling the United Nations, the U.S. administration, Paris, Brussels. And nobody until the end wanted to give me a 'yes' answer. The international community turned backs, closed eyes and ears and ran away."

But Mr. Rusesabagina refused to run away, despite several narrow escapes from death. At one point he was given the chance to leave Rwanda with his family. "The Mille Collines refugees came to me and told me, 'Paul, we know you are going to be leaving this place tomorrow. But please, if you are really leaving, tell us, because we will go to the roof of the hotel and jump. A better death was to jump and die immediately than being tortured, cut into pieces slowly. By that afternoon I had made the toughest decision of my life. I said to myself, 'Listen, Paul, if you leave, and those people are killed, you will never be a free man. You will be a prisoner of your own conscience.' I then decided to remain behind."

Mr. Rusesabagina did try to send his family to safety, but they were attacked by militiamen and returned to the hotel. When the Mille Collines refugees were finally evacuated, the author and his family went to a refugee camp. They later settled in Brussels, where he started a foundation for Rwanda's orphaned and homeless children.

A 1999 interview with a filmmaker led to the making of Hotel Rwanda, focusing new attention on the tragedy of genocide. Mr. Rusesabagina calls it the most pressing human rights question of the twenty first century. "What was going on in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994 is exactly what has been going on in Darfur, in the Sudan since 2003. In Rwanda, we had approximately a million people displaced within the country, going to sleep in the open air, without food, without shelter. When I went to Darfur last year, this is exactly what I saw. This is a shame to mankind."

While Paul Rusesabagina's defiant stand against that kind of shame has won him worldwide acclaim, he says he was not a hero---just a hotel manager doing his job.

An Ordinary Man was published by Viking.