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The Real Rwanda
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The Real Rwanda

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Sunday at the Virginia Holocaust Museum , I entered into a world of genocide horror. I witnessed machete massacres, refugee starvation, slaughters of children - and it's not even the genocide you might be expecting.

In 1994, in the African country of Rwanda, 1 million people were killed in only a period of 100 days.

Yesterday at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, Rwandan refugee Paul Rusesabagina told his amazing story of survival to an audience of engrossed listeners.

If you've seen the movie "Hotel Rwanda," Rusesabagina probably sounds familiar. Released in 2004, the film is based on his life during the genocide.

During the war, Rusesabagina became the general manager of the three-star Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. When terror broke out, he opened the hotel doors to neighbors fleeing the Hutu and Tutsi slaughters. By the end of revolt, he had rescued 1,268 refugees.

If you haven't seen the movie, you might not know anything about this genocide. And that's not uncommon; the annihilation was hardly mentioned in the news. In fact, at the time of the Rwandan killings, no "first" world country even offered help, including the United States.

Rusesabagina addressed the lack of international intervention, expressing discontent with the failure of response including the withdrawal of United Nations soldiers.

"To us, the UN soldiers were everything," he said. "They were supposed to be peacemakers and everything we expected."

Rusesabagina then told a story that happened right before the UN's evacuation from Rwanda. He was having dinner with his brother when they heard a plane shot down. His wife phoned him, pleading him to come back home, saying it wasn't safe. After Rusesabagina parted dinner from his brother and sister-in-law, the couple was killed by Tutsi rebels. Their deaths orphaned two daughters, a 2 year old and an infant.

Surprisingly, the Rusesabagina's found both children at a refugee camp after the war and now raises the girls at their home in Belgium.

Rusesabagina's brother's and sister-in-law's deaths, however, were just two of a million slaughters.

"When Belgium heard the news [of massacres], they withdrew from being peacekeepers," he said. "The whole world abandoned the mission."

But Rusesabagina never did. With more than 100 lectures on his current tour, and three awards to his name, including the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom , Rusesabagina is devoted to bettering the African plight of poverty, violence and lack of education.

A small man with a humble presence, Rusesabagina's passionate words are reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. , preaching to solve hate and war through non-violent means, such as a "dialogue at a round table." He advocates the power of communication as opposed to weapons and warfare.

"To me, a gun is never a solution," he said.

And in recounting his experiences, Rusesabagina's words aren't his only form of communication. His temporary pauses at difficult memories speak years of pain that he probably will never fully forget. Even his silences are full of stories.

"Life became very much complicated without any hope of surviving," Rusesabagina said.

Eerily, it makes perfect sense to hear this statement when sitting within a museum dedicated to the Holocaust victims of World War II. The complication of survival surrounds you. On the wall, the floor, the ceilings, echoes of past horror encapsulate the environment and force them into the present world, where genocides still occur.

That's why Rusesabagina shares his stories with the world because "history keeps repeating itself.

"We have a saying in Rwanda," he said, "if your neighbor is sick, you better buy medicine because you could be the next one."

And to Rusesabagina, that medicine is dialogue, to communicate your knowledge to others even when others fail to help.

In his eyes, part of the reoccurring problem to genocide in the contemporary world is the manipulation of the media, the discrimination of news reports that happens on radio, television and print.

And while "Hotel Rwanda" helps to open many people's eyes to the reality of the Rwandan genocide, it was made 10 years after the war occurred. And, it was made by Hollywood.

"Ninety percent of what you saw on screen [of the war] is a reality. It's a real story so few things have been added," Rusesabagina said. "But it was a little diluted for the audience to come down and see it."

And diluted truth is the complete opposite to Rusesabagina's work as a humanitarian. For to him, there is nothing more powerful than the words and action of experience.

"In my life, I am optimistic," he said. "I believe where there's a will, there's a way. We need to raise awareness, to become messengers and wake up the administration. What is going on in Africa is unacceptable."

And apparently, given the standing ovation he received at the conclusion of his speech, Rusesabagina is not alone in the cause.

Education is the first step to progress. To learn more on this topic or to find out how to help the cause, visit the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation Web site at www.hrrfoundation.org.

A non-profit organization started by Rusesabagina, the HRRF foundation "provides support, care and assistance to children orphaned by, and women abused during, the genocide in Rwanda." They also provide assistance to other African countries in conflict.

"In my life, I am optimistic," Rusesabagina said. "I believe we can make it."

And as long as stories like his and the many victims of the WWII Holocaust continue to be shared and inspire activism, change must happen, Rusesabagina said.

"And it definitely will."

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