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In one heart-stopping scene, Rusesabagina discovers that the bumps in the road are human corpses.

Hotel Rwanda

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published August 10, 2005

When One Man Said No to Mass Madness

When the subject is death, we are numbed by numbers: 3,000 on 9/11, more than 200,000 in the December tsunamis. We editorialize on the horror and do our best to display our sympathies, to make things right. Yet during a period of approximately 100 days in 1994, an estimated one million people in the small central African nation of Rwanda—one million!—were brutally slaughtered, and few in the West knew or cared much about it. The most blatant and brutal episode of genocide since Nazi Germany barely rated a blip in our media, and the United States—this occurred under Clinton’s watch—and the rest of the world basically shrugged and turned its back.

            The massacres were not the handiwork of outsiders but the result of centuries-old hostilities between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes that comprise the bulk of Rwanda’s population. The Hutus, although significantly vaster in number (approximately 85 percent), had long been deemed the lesser of the two peoples by the governing Tutsi royal family and the Belgians, who had controlled Rwanda since the end of World War II.

The Belgians kowtowed to the ruling Tutsis, and although the majority of Tutsis were themselves poor peasants who bore no ill will toward the Hutus (just as most Hutus had no problem with the Tutsis), resentment built among some vengeful Hutus. Following Rwanda’s independence from Belgium in 1961, the position of the Hutus began to improve, and a rebel faction developed, expanding over the next few decades.

Finally, on April 6, 1994, all hell broke loose: Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash attributed to Hutu extremists angered by his recent peace proposals toward the Tutsi minority. That very night, Hutu militiamen began killing Tutsis indiscriminately, often using clubs and machetes. They also chopped down any moderate Hutu who sheltered or even sympathized with the Tutsis. Determined to entirely eliminate the Tutsis, whose own advantageous position in the past had been responsible for no shortage of Hutu death and grief, this growing army of Hutu insurgents was exceedingly merciless: children, women, all were marked for extermination. So rampant was the killing fever that neighbors murdered neighbors in their homes, churches, schools, on the streets—no place was safe.

One Hutu, Paul Rusesabagina, the middle-class house manager of a posh, upscale hotel largely catering to wealthy white tourists, not only couldn’t fathom why such utter hatred was directed toward the Tutsis, he was married to one.

Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda is Rusesabagina’s story, a disturbing, harrowing, but ultimately uplifting account of how one man refused to give in. Don Cheadle’s Rusesabagina isn’t a superman; he’s just someone who knows how best to use what’s at his disposal, be it bribery, diplomacy or merely the gut instinct that comes from being a successful multitasker. Drawing on his connections, his craftiness and his willpower, the resourceful and unflappable Rusesabagina ultimately spared the lives of some 1,200 Tutsis by harboring them in the hotel—since abandoned by all but its black staff—repeatedly ducking death and numerous threats to his family and his grateful new guests.


Excellent (four stars)

Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language.

In English