- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2005

Paul Rusesabagina turned the 1994 Rwandan massacre that left thousands dead into a message of heroism for more than 300 students, teachers and parents at a Falls Church elementary school.

Mr. Rusesabagina — whose story inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda” starring Don Cheadle — told second- through fifth-graders at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School yesterday that his is a story about saving lives, following one’s beliefs and doing the right thing.

“I’m here to tell you what happened in Rwanda in 1994,” he began. “There were bad people and good people. And good people were the victims.”

The United Nations sent 2,500 soldiers to help allay the war. But when the country’s two presidents were killed, the Hutus and Tutsis — two tribes that share more similarities than differences — began fighting and the United Nations pulled back its forces, Mr. Rusesabagina said.

“That’s when I realized the situation was becoming more serious,” he said.

Mr. Rusesabagina said he hid the “good people” in the hotel where he was manager, supplying them with food, water and shelter.

The students’ hands flew up: Why did the war start? Why did you do it? Were you scared?

“Almost the whole country went bad,” Mr. Rusesabagina said, describing how he housed 1,268 persons in his 115-room hotel for two months. Some of them slept 10 to a room, some slept in corridors.

When the attackers cut off the hotel’s electricity and water, he used the swimming pool for cooking, washing and drinking, wondering where he “would find another drop of water for tomorrow.”

“It was not easy,” Mr. Rusesabagina told the children.

Attackers brandishing machetes and guns visited the hotel each day, but he held them off.

“It was the exception, the only place where the people were hiding and nobody was hurt.”

Mr. Rusesabagina said he wasn’t afraid. “Fortunately, I did not have time to be scared. And I did not know what I was doing was different. I thought all the people were doing the same things,” he said.

Mr. Rusesabagina, who said his name means “warrior who disperses his enemies,” insists he is not a hero. “I’m a father, a husband, someone who loves people who did what he thought was right,” he said.

Mr. Rusesabagina said he wants to raise awareness on international issues, especially genocides and wars.

Reuters reported yesterday that World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, while visiting a Rwandan genocide memorial, apologized on behalf of the international community for not trying to prevent the 1994 slaughter.

“What I have noticed is that history keeps on repeating itself, but it is not teaching us a lesson. The same thing happening today happened in Rwanda in 1994,” he told the children, adding that he fled to Brussels nine years ago. Solutions to the Rwandan conflict are being found slowly, he said.

Students gave him a standing ovation and presented him with an honorary alumnus plaque. They sang songs and played instruments for him. A homemade banner welcoming him was hung on the back wall of the gym.

Fifth-grader Heather Dady, 10, thinks Mr. Rusesabagina’s words will inspire students to appreciate and respect one another’s differences.

“He was never afraid of all the things that happened because I sure would have been,” she said.

Eve Davies, a second-grade teacher at Sleepy Hollow, said Mr. Rusesabagina’s story teaches children the true meaning of heroism.

“It’s important to their future,” she said. “They’re looking at what can they do to be a hero and to contribute to their society. It’s being a good citizen.”

A movie, slide show and tidbits on African geography and humanitarianism were incorporated into school lesson plans over the past two weeks in preparation for Mr. Rusesabagina’s appearance, Assistant Principal Ernest Ibarra said. The speech brought them to life, he said.

“We tried to frame genocide in a way kids could understand — saving people, saving lives, following your beliefs, heroism,” Mr. Ibarra said. “Sometimes people may not believe in what you do. And he also talked about doing the right thing. And I think the kids connected with that.”

Scott Kenyon, a fifth-grade teacher, said Mr. Rusesabagina’s message was well-tailored to his audience.

“He’s so soft-spoken, but there’s a passion. Just to shake his hand was inspiring for me,” he said.

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