Rusesabagina delivers anticipated lecture

Lauren Piro

On Tuesday, Villanova welcomed Paul Rusesabagina, an acclaimed hero of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, as he delivered a lecture on his life, experiences and message to today’s world.

At 8 p.m., students, faculty and other members of the Villanova community filed into the Jake Nevin Field House, filling all floor seats and much of the overhead bleachers. They were greeted with the African beats and vocals of Sistah Mafalda and the Kuumba Performers, whose performance displayed the country’s culture and set the scene for the event. The group’s performance involved the audience, prompting them to clap and sing along with the message “give peace a chance.”

Dr. Maghan Keita, professor in the history department, introduced Rusesabagina. Keita expressed his appreciation for the large number of attendees, attributing this to the great “power, energy and feeling” of the event. Keita also asked the listeners to think about Rusesabagina as “an ordinary man,” which is the title of his recently published autobiography.

“I will ask you to listen very closely to Mr. Rusesabagina’s remarks, because in those remarks lay the key to what you as ordinary people might do … your own capabilities in being ordinary and the power to rise above and accept the challenge that this world offers you,” Keita said.

As Rusesabagina took the stage, the audience welcomed him with a standing ovation. He stated that he would not only talk about the occurrences in the genocide in Rwanda and his reactionary measures, but he would also offer his thoughts on the state of world and its people today.

Ongoing conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in the country at the time characterized the Rwandan genocide. The events leading up to the massacre can be traced back to a Hutu slave revolution in 1959, Rusesabagina said. This began decades of violence and political clashes, continually leaving thousands of African refugees stranded in the middle. By April 1994, genocide had officially begun. Rusesabagina spoke of seeing neighbors killing each other and guns and machetes appearing everywhere he turned.

“When I woke up, I saw the world around me upside down,” he said.

However, as more of his neighbors came to his house for help, Rusesabagina realized that, while he was scared, he could not turn his back on these people. For most of the 100-day massacre, Rusesabagina sheltered people in the hotel he was managing at the time and did whatever it took to protect the refugees. He worked day and night, contacting anyone who would respond to his pleas and even bribes, while attempting to raise awareness in hope of receiving more help.

“In life, whatever happens, when someone tries to open his mouth and try and talk to you, there is a solution,” Rusesabagina said.

Rusesabagina described the hardships and fears the refugees faced while staying in the hotel. Having little protection and no water, food or electricity, the people constantly faced hard decisions and consistent worries of seemingly eminent deaths.

Rusesabagina recounted what he considered the hardest choice he had to make – allowing his family the chance to be escorted out of the country while he stayed behind to continue to help the people in the hotel. Even though he described the situation as unimaginable and heartbreaking, Rusesabagina could not leave his people to be slaughtered.

Toward the end of the lecture, Rusesabagina shifted the topic of his speech to discuss the state of the world today, specifically highlighting the present violence in Darfur. While the Rwandan genocide left the rest of the world stigmatized for their ignorance and apathy, Rusesabagina hopes his story and voice can keep such a tragedy from happening again. However, he fears he has not been completely successful.

“We have not listened to what our history has said … we have not learned,” he said. He also mentioned how people say, “Never again, never again … and yet it is happening again.”

Following the lecture, Rusesabagina participated in a short question-and-answer session. One particular question asked his advice to college students today.

“It is time for you,” he said. “It is time to raise awareness.”

Attendees of the event also got the chance to meet Rusesbagina personally after the lecture as he signed copies of his book “An Ordinary Man.” He hopes to continually spread awareness of global problems and the ability one has to make change.

“Stand up. Do not remain bystanders. Fight for other people’s rights. Today, young people, the world is yours,” he said.