- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

NEW YORK - Paul Rusesabagina still has sleepless nights. And when he does nod off, he still has nightmares.

Witnessing wholesale slaughter and narrowly eluding death remains fresh for the hotel manager who saved 1,268 persons during Rwanda’s genocide a decade ago.

For a long time, he was bitter. Somehow, though, the movie “Hotel Rwanda” has helped him allay some of that pain — which stemmed from the world ignoring the hellish situation.

“Whenever I talk about the genocide, whenever I will see the movie, I see it as if it was happening yesterday, or today in the morning,” says Mr. Rusesabagina, 50, who now runs a heavy-duty transport business in Zambia.

His family lives in Belgium, where he visits often. A bond exists among him, his wife and four children, he says, because they all feel there’s almost nothing they can go through now that could top what they’ve already endured. They can always tell each other: “We have shared worse.”

Don Cheadle, who portrays Mr. Rusesabagina in the film (opening this week in New York and Los Angeles, and on Jan. 7 in area theaters) said he thought he’d find a much more tragic figure.

“I expected to find somebody who was really haunted and really shellshocked in a way. Because the stories I had read and the tapes I had seen and the accountings I had heard were horrific, and I just couldn’t imagine myself, what I would be like, if I had experienced and witnessed all of that,” says the actor, who’s received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Mr. Rusesabagina.

“But meeting him and spending time with him and having dinner with him and getting drunk with him and just hanging out with him in that way, it made perfect sense once I got to know him. Paul sees every day since he got away from there as a bonus.”

The movie has a few scenes where it appears Mr. Rusesabagina is going to be killed. Rwanda’s Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis (and moderate Hutus), and they were livid that he was sheltering people they wanted to slaughter. (In 100 days, hundreds of thousands were slain.)

Mr. Rusesabagina is depicted as a man who had no intention of becoming a modern African version of Oskar Schindler. Early on, he tells his wife, Tatiana (played by Sophie Okonedo), who wants to help someone: “He’s not family. Family is all that matters.”

But as the nationwide murderous rage spirals out of control, Mr. Rusesabagina transforms. By the end, the innkeeper’s attitude is: “There’s always room.”

For that reason, Mr. Cheadle thinks the movie is “ultimately uplifting.”

“It’s a love story in the middle of a thriller, to put it in movie terms,” he says, hoping that people don’t just look at it as a movie about mass murder and go: ” ‘Oh, God, this is going to be a downer… .’ I hope everyone who does a report about this movie reports that it’s not… it’s not a blood fest.”

It’s so relatively unbloody that some critics have complained that “Hotel Rwanda,” which is up for a best dramatic film Golden Globe, downplays the colossal carnage.

Director/screenwriter Terry George has an answer for that: “Documentary is sort of the wine of storytelling, and nonfiction feature film is the brandy, the distillation of those events into something that’s potent.”

The Rwandan strife in 1994 made the briefs packages in newspapers or got short mention at the end of newscasts. (A Time magazine cover story and a front-page Los Angeles Times article were notable exceptions.)

Where it happened and to whom — in other words, blacks in Africa — is offered as the biggest reason.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Mr. Cheadle says, addressing the issue of race. “I mean, if it was whites… there would have been much more of a drive to do something.”

Mr. George, who directed the 1996 feature “Some Mother’s Son” and co-wrote the Jim Sheridan films “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer,” agrees. “For me, there’s a subliminal, subconscious racism that we have in the West that does not equate the value of African life with a Western life,” he says.

And you can even quantify it, he maintains. The deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers were more important than nearly a million Africans, he says, alluding to how the United States has been reluctant to send a peace mission to Africa ever since 1993, when 18 American troops were killed by Somali fighters. Intervention would have been easy, Mr. George declares, saying the “raggle-taggle army” — wielding nothing more than clubs, machetes and knives — could have been routed.

President Clinton and the United Nations subsequently apologized for failing to intervene. And Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general whose U.N. peacekeepers had to stand by helplessly as events unfolded, went into a suicidal depression. (A composite character based on Mr. Dallaire is played by Nick Nolte, in a smartly subdued supporting performance.)

Rwanda — a landlocked former Belgian colony with 8 million people — has kept a relative peace, although internally the Hutus and the Tutsis remain wary of each other and externally the country continues to clash with neighboring Congo.

Mr. Rusesabagina has his doubts about just how real and lasting the peace is. “There is no better place to live than Rwanda,” he says. “That is my home.”

He visited last year. But will he live there again? “I’m not really in a hurry.”

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