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12. April 2005

Paul Rusesabagina © Xenia Hausner

Paul Rusesabagina in his house in Brussels.

The hotel director in Brussels © Xenia Hausner

The director of the "Mille Collines" hotel in Kigali

Paul Rusesabagina and Edit Schlaffer © Xenia Hausner

interviewed by Edit Schlaffer

Rwanda - "I had to do it"

Paul Rusesabagina ("Hotel Rwanda") talking with Edit Schlaffer. He saved the lives of more than 1000 people.Photos: Xenia Hausner

Paul Rusesabagina was the manager of the luxury hotel "Mille Collines" in Kigali in 1994. On the 7th of April, when radical Hutu militias started the systematical mass murder on the Tutsi minority he entrenched with more than 1000 refugees in the hotel. After the governmental change of power he went into exile to Belgium. There he is in charge of a transport company and a foundation for genocide orphans. Paul Rusesabagina is married to a Tutsi and father of four children. For the movie "Hotel Rwanda" he went back to Rwanda for the first time.

Paul Rusesabagina: When ever I go to Mille Collines, I sit at the pool and look at the water. Water was like valuable gold or diamonds during the genocide, because of the water in the pool a lot of people managed to survive.

Edit Schlaffer: Today you are a hero, but this wasn’t so at the beginning. How did it all start? You were a pragmatist, a brilliant manager who was in control, and an organisational talent.

PR: There was a point of no return for me. As I saw the international community, who had given us hope of salvation, but then deserted us; as I watched the thousands of hopeless, innocent people, who fled to churches and schools being deserted – I knew someone had to take responsibility. I knew there was no one other than me who could take on that responsibility for the hotel. I was the only African Manager still there.

ES: The beginning of the organised killings has a date; the 7th April 1994. Within a few weeks 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by their radical countrymen.

PR: The 7th April is a date preserved in my brain. As the airplane carrying our president, who had been returning from Peace Negotiations in Arusha, was shot down over Kigali, I saw a lot of neighbours in soldier's uniforms suddenly. They were all carrying weapons. They began to systematically murder all the Tutsi’s in our neighbourhood. They simply killed their own neighbours. The people, who could save themselves, came to us, climbed over the fence into my house.

ES: You must have been overwhelmed. What was your plan?

PR: That same night I was forced to leave my home. I only knew one thing for sure: I could not leave them behind to certain death; I had to take them with me. As I walked to the hotel that night, I kept tripping up over bodies in the street, the corpses were everywhere, everywhere. I was stopped by the militia. They said to me, “you traitor, we will let you go but you have to kill all the cockroaches in your house, your Tutsi wife, your children and all the other roaches who are hiding in your home. That was the first time that I was brought face to face with the killers. That was a very awful moment, but it actually got worse.

ES: What were you thinking? Could you see a solution in sight, a ray of hope?

PR: Yes absolutely, I knew that my only chance was to negotiate with the killers. I knew that I was lucky to be standing together with them, because as long as they were prepared to talk we would be able to find a solution.

ES: That is a strategy used in terror attacks, airplane hijacking, kidnapping and obviously your philosophy on life; talk, talk and stop them from shooting.

PR: Yes, and exactly that would have been the precise responsibility of the international community, but they didn’t fulfil it. And do you know why? Because they don’t care about Africa. They do not bother about us, the Africans are of no interest to the International Community. So they deserted us. A few weeks ago I was in Dafur, where the same is happening as in Rwanda, exactly the same. Everyone knows it. Yet because it is occurring in Africa no one is bothered about it. There are UN Reports on Congo, highly official documents with horrendous statistics: three million eight hundred thousand people have been killed since 1996 – but it’s only Africa.

ES: There must have been moments of total hopelessness and desperation?

PR: Yes, but I couldn’t succumb to them. They were there, but I wouldn’t allow them to take control, that was my whole ambition.

ES: In the film ("Hotel Ruanda") there is a really dramatic scene: When there was absolutely no food left, you went at great personal risk across the city to meet with George Rutagunda at his depot, who made it clear however that he would soon not be able to support you anymore with provisions, time had run out for the fugitives. You say in the film “but you can’t kill them all” and he answered cynically, “Why not, we are doing it at the moment.”

PR: Yes that wasn’t unusual, that discussion was typical. I experienced these types of negotiations day and night. It wasn’t a surprise.

ES: Who were the people in your hotel?

PR: Frightened Tutsi’s and also Hutus, simply desperate people. The hotel was a refugee camp, but also a place where the militia would come in and out. The hotel was a place where soldiers stayed and also spies lived.

ES: Did you know who the spies were? Did you talk to them?

PR: Naturally. If you want to have someone within your control, then you have to build up a close relationship with them, never push them away. Otherwise you will never know what they are thinking. Only when you are totally close to that person do you have them within your control.

ES: Was there a daily routine in the hotel?

PR: No there was no normality. No day was like another.

ES: Your family also lived in the hotel. Your wife appears to be very strong, very determined. As you watched the neighbours through the garden fence being butchered and taken away your wife insisted you had to do something about it.

PR: Yes that’s my wife. She comes from the North, where people were already vrey hostile to the Tutsi’s before the genocide. I met her at the wedding of a friend of mine, there was this beautiful lady. I asked her then how she was able to cope with the tensions and the danger. She said, “I can manage, but I am afraid”. She was a nurse, and I approached the Ministry of Health and managed to secure her a transfer to Kigali.

ES: You belong, like many Rwandans, to a mixed family.

PR: Yes my father is Tutsi, my mother Hutu. We were nine children altogether. Not everyone survived. When I only imagine, that they threw my sister-in-law and her 6 children into a cesspit. We only discovered this when it was all over. All the events happened so quickly and so overwhelmingly. Even when we received news from the countryside we didn’t believe everything anyway. No one trusted anybody.

ES: How were you able to keep the business side of the hotel going?

PR: When I look back I see that I was in constant movement. I had to feed a hundred men, the food had to be organised, had to be found and served out, I had to bribe and persuade and deter people from the worst things. I had hardly any sleep. Just to organise the water rationing for the swimming pool alone was crazy. People came down with wastepaper bins to scoop up water. What was most important was that nobody washed themselves anymore, in order to save each drop. The highest number we had to take care of in the end was 1268 people, and we had 113 rooms. The greatest problem was the security, to live from day to day, and to have a roof over one’s head.

ES: Security had to be retuned and re-negotiated every day.

PR: The worst moment was on the 23rd April. In the night before I stayed up until 4 o’ Clock in the morning, I spent the whole night sending faxes throughout the world, to get Rwanda in to the spotlight. Then I went to bed and was shaken awake at 6am. In a half sleep I heard and aggressive voice, that ordered me to get everyone out of the hotel. “Where should the people go, it has to be organised!” I argued. When I looked out of the window I saw all around, the armed forces with machetes and militia, we were surrounded. It occurred to me, to buy time, to contact the Generals that I knew. This time, we made it.

ES: It must have been so terrible for you and others to witness, what your own country men were doing. Hutus, like you…

PR: In 1994 the whole country went crazy. Even friends of mine were part of it. Perhaps they didn’t have machetes in their hands, at least I don’t know, but they were advisors. And do you know who were the first to throw themselves into this mass slaughter? They were children and teenagers who were living in bitter poverty and hadn’t been to school for years. There is nothing worse than children that are left to their own devices, who haven’t been given the chance to go to school.

ES: The then UN-Commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, still has nightmares ‘til today, he ended up in psychiatry and has now written a shuddering book with eyewitness reports on the human rights violations in Rwanda. (Shake Hands with the Devil)

PR: In any case he proved to be a disservice to the Rwandans. He came with 2.500 UN-troops and gave us all hope for a way out. Then the UN decided to pull out and leave him behind with 260 troops. That was not only a shame for the General, but rather the end of Rwanda. In this way it gave the UN presence its legitimacy. A plain swindle. We did not expect the General to be a good man, we expected him to stop the Genocide. He was the person who could say to the rebels, to the soldiers, to the militia: “It is enough, stop the killing immediately”.

ES: One of the darkest days was surely the withdraw of the Europeans....

PR: The international community were evacuated and the Rwandans, innocent civilians fled. “Don’t leave us behind, they will kill us, if you don’t take us with you” Isn’t that just unbearable? At first the International observers and aid workers bring hope and as the genocide drew out, then they left. The UN ran away and that was a calamitous decision. With that the UN sent a clear message to the militias: “You guys are stronger than we are, you have won”. They handed over the carte blanche without a struggle.

ES: The hotel Mille Collines was an island of hope for Tutsis and Hutus in this crazy time. How did the people get along with each other?

PR: Who was Hutu and Tutsi, didn’t matter to us, we were all in panic. Even the solders, who were threatened in the army, because they didn’t want to join in with the hardliners, sought refuge with us. You should know one thing, not all solders wanted to kill their fellow countrymen. I reckon that certainly 60% of the solders did not want the genocide.

ES: In many interviews with government representatives in Kigali, I have heard that, in relation to the national campaigns for reconciliation and unity of the country, the terms Hutus and Tutsis should not be used anymore. Again and again it is being said that we don’t know anymore who Hutu is and who is Tutsi.

PR: Nobody believes that. For me it sounds as if I would say that you from Austria are not longer white and I from Rwanda am no longer black. Due to denial there can be no reconciliation.

ES: I am amazed, that after the liberation, you went into exile in Belgium. Why are you not part of the government today, why were you not invited to help in the rebuilding of Rwanda?

PR: Everywhere in the world it is like that, people are afraid of opinion-leaders, perhaps also in Rwanda, I am just speculating. I haven’t gone back for a long time, because I also have the feeling that the situation isn’t safe. I have always said to my wife, when I am 50, I will go into politics, but really I believe that I am better doing what I do now: I have founded an initiative that helps orphans, raped women and their children after the genocide. And the most important thing for me is to stay who I am.

Edit Schlaffer met Paul Rusesabaging on the 6th of April 2005 in Bruxelles. The interview was published in a shorter version in the Austrian magazine "Profil" on the 11th of April 2005.

COMMENT: "As Mr. Rusesabagina points out, I have been really frustrated that only after ten years have passed does the world take notice of an atrocious event. The exact same thing is today happening in the Sudan and the Congo and we won't care until a decade into the future when we have a beautiful story to tell. I think what he said about Africa as the forgotten continent is painfully accurate."

Kate Brubacher, a student from the U.S., was recently working voluntarily with Liberian refugees in Ghana. Edit Schlaffer and Xenia Hausner met her in Kigali, Rwanda, in February this year.

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