Saturday, June 04, 2005

hotel rwanda

While more than 800,000 people were being murdered with machettes in Rwanda I was finishing up my college education in Boulder, Colorado. My final semester was an easy one, just eight credits --an idependent study, Film History 2 and, ironically, African and Asian Film. Ironic because I didn't have clue what was going on on the other side of the world. Springtime is beautiful in Boulder. The only thing I remember from that time was when I picked up my cap and gown, probably on a day in early May, when the death count was well over half a million. I was driving back to my apartment from campus that afternoon and I broke into tears of joy, momentary elated at the realization that I had succeeded at something, that I'd managed to earn a degree a mere seven years after graduating from high school, and that I'd been sober for almost the entire time, and that I had God in my life. How grateful I was for His grace.

I didn't really learn of the genocide untiil six years later, when I was living alone in an apartment in Kansas City. I watched a 1999 90-minute episode of Frontline. It was the most incredible documentary I'd ever seen. Several images from it will remain with me for the rest of my life.

At one point, the narrator says, "Rwanda's dead had begun to float downstream into the outside world. The country was literally overflowing with corpses." A low-end video camera pans slowly along a quiet, sunlit river shore. By and by the hand of dead man comes into view, then his entire body, then another, then three more, until we see a dam of dozens of bodies. They're bloated, a bit bleeched by the water and the sun. The only sounds are chirping birds and gentle breezes through the reeds on the banks.

It was an image so shocking that it seemed my entire body and soul fell agape as I watched it, especially coming after a long section in the film detailing the West's overt avoidance of the situation. The section began with shots of white people pressing their way past crowds of Africans:

NARRATOR: In the first days of the killing, France, Belgium and Italy all sent troops to Rwanda, but they were under national rather than U.N. command. They'd been sent not to stop the killing, but to rescue their own citizens, like the white staff at Kigali's psychiatric hospital. But the hospital had become a makeshift refuge where Tutsis were hiding from the killers in the surrounding fields.

KATELIJNE HERMANS, Belgian Television: At a certain moment, they were shouting. We heard people crying. And I still remember now. I turned my head, and I saw tens, hundreds of people coming. They came just to ask for help. And then when they came nearer, they put themselves on their knees. They put their hands in the air. They knew there was shooting around. They told us, "There are military guys here around, and yet they are against us. They are there to kill us. So please take us away. Take us with you."

One woman started to speak and started to explain why they were afraid and what was happening to them. And she started begging us to take her and the others with us. She was speaking to me, a woman to a woman, saying, "I am afraid there are- those men, I am afraid that they will rape me."

It was very hard to say "I cannot help you." I was not talking to hundreds of people, I was talking to one woman, and that's very hard to say. But it's like that. I couldn't do anything. But they were as afraid as the white people over there. And they just said, "We will be killed. Please take us with you. Bring us to another place, but don't leave us here."

So we left. For the white people it's over, but we knew the hundreds that stayed, and we heard the shooting the moment we left. So it was clear for me that hell starts for them.

NARRATOR: Back at the airport, French soldiers were escorting their citizens to safety, along with French diplomats and the embassy dog. They did not evacuate the embassy's Tutsi staff who, were later murdered. The Americans, too, were airlifted out.

The new Western troops were only on the ground for a few days. UNAMIR commanders say that if their governments had ordered them to stay, the massacres could have been stopped.

Brig. HENRY ANYIDOHO, Deputy Commander, UNAMIR: Had they been deployed, we had enough troops.

INTERVIEWER: So there was a moment? There was a moment when there were troops on the ground?

Brig. HENRY ANYIDOHO: There was a moment. We just missed it. It was a fleeting opportunity, and we just missed it.

INTERVIEWER: Why was it missed?

Brig. HENRY ANYIDOHO: Because there was no political will?

KATELIJNE HERMANS: The only mandate was "Evacuate white people." It could have been another mandate.

INTERVIEWER: Could have been different?

KATELIJNE HERMANS: It could have been different. But somebody has to decide that it will be different, and nobody took the decision.

NARRATOR: At the psychiatric hospital, the killers had moved in after the Belgian soldiers left.

[The screen fills with a black and white images of people, hundreds of them]

Almost all of these people were murdered.

And those are the other images that'll stay with me forever, those still shots of people who knew they would be hacked up with machettes, of the white people running toward military vehicles, a couple of them pausing to lift their dog into the truck. Though I have to admit that when I first watched the program the majority of my emotions were a sort of buzz at having witnessed a brilliant work of journalism, and no small amount of pride at being a journalist myself.

Today Ebony's over and we're watching Hotel Rwanda. I've been avoiding the film since its release, mostly because I know the story well and I haven't mustered the strength to dive back into it for another two hours, especially at the hands of Hollywood types. After seeing the Frontline documentary, I immersed myself in the subject, reading a number of books. Last year, Allie and I watched Frontline's follow up, The Ghosts of Rwanda which is about as close to art as any journalistic work I've ever seen. And again I felt a pride of association to it, however distantly, through my chosen field, though the experience of watching it was more religious in nature. It changed me, or nudged me onward, along with other experiences that occured at about the time -- my grandfather's death, my reading of shifted Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains, planting my first garden.

Several of the film's stories are now permanent parts of me, stories that literally scream, Get off your ass and do something for someone other than yourself. Like this one, which might be the starkest description of our inhumanity I've ever heard:

NARRATOR: American officials worried that U.N. troops would get embroiled in Rwanda's civil war because the Tutsi rebels of the Rwanda Patriotic Front made it clear they would oppose a robust U.N. force.

NARRATOR: The U.N. told Dallaire he would get no more troops. And without a larger force, all he could do was to keep trying to negotiate a ceasefire between the Tutsi rebels and the Hutu government.

Gen. ROMEO DALLAIRE: I was also determined to continue to keep negotiations going because maybe it'll stop. Maybe, with a ceasefire, you know, between the two belligerents, we might be able to stop the massacring.

NARRATOR: When the ceasefire talks again went nowhere, Dallaire asked to meet directly with the commanders of the death squads.

Gen. ROMEO DALLAIRE: I had to crack the nut of the militias, and so I asked Bagosora, I said, "Listen, let me meet these guys. Let me negotiate with them."

NARRATOR: Inside a Kigali hotel, the leaders of the Interahamwe were waiting.

Gen. ROMEO DALLAIRE: And so when I arrived, Bagosora introduced them. And as I was looking at them and shaking their hands, I noticed some blood spots still on them. And all of a sudden, it didn't-- they disappeared from being human. All of a sudden, something happened that turned them into non-human things. And I was not talking with humans, I literally was talking with evil. It even became a very difficult ethical problem. Do I actually negotiate with the devil to save people, or do I wipe it out, I shoot the bastards right there? I haven't answered that question yet.

Or this story, which is my nomination for the greatest "Great American Hero" tale of all time:

CARL WILKENS, Aid Worker, Adventist Church: If people in Rwanda ever needed help, now was the time. And everybody's leaving.

NARRATOR: Carl Wilkens had put his family on an American convoy, but he decided to stay behind with Rwandan colleagues and workers who'd sought refuge in his home.

CARL WILKENS: That Tutsi young lady and that Tutsi young man were faces right there to me representing the country, and I felt if I left, they were going to be killed. And then-- and then I recognized, you know, how is it-- I've got a-- I've got this blue American passport. That means I can go. But all of these people don't have a passport. They can't go. And-- and while all of those things played in, the bottom line is it just seemed the right thing to do.

NARRATOR: By the evening of April 10th, Carl Wilkens was the only American left in Rwanda.


NARRATOR: The bureaucratic paralysis emerged from the administration's decision not to intervene. Seven weeks into the genocide, President Clinton restated his policy that the U.S. would intervene in a humanitarian crisis only if it were in America's national interest.

May 25

Pres. BILL CLINTON: The end of the superpower standoff lifted the lid from a cauldron of long-simmering hatreds. Now the entire global terrain is bloody with such conflicts, from Rwanda to Georgia. Whether we get involved in any of the world's ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake.

NARRATOR: The one American to stay in Kigali when the embassy closed probably saved more lives during the genocide than the entire U.S. government. Carl Wilkens discovered the Interahamwe had surrounded an orphanage.

CARL WILKENS, Aid Worker, Adventist Church: One day, as we brought a load of water to them, this counselor, local counselor from the area comes ripping in in his-- in his little stolen Mercedes station wagon. And I-- as he got out of his car, I looked around, and here, surrounding the orphanage, just materializing, is, like, about 50 militia guys-- camo jackets or camo pants, but all of them with machine guns.

And I said to my Rwandan colleague, who was driving the truck, I said, "Siphon as slow as you can. We've got to make this last. I don't know what we're going to do, but it seems like they're not coming while we're here."

NARRATOR: While his colleague stayed at the orphanage, Wilkens went to the local government headquarters looking for help.

CARL WILKENS: And a young secretary I'd become friends with, he says, "The prime minister's here." And I'm, like, "So what's that mean?" And he's, like, "Ask him." And I'm, like, "Ask him?" You know, it's, like, that's the stupidest thing you could imagine, to ask this guy, who's obviously orchestrating the genocide, a key player. And yet I had no other options.

And door opens, everybody snaps to attention, and here comes Kambanda and his group, little entourage. And they're coming down the hall, and I'm-- you know, I'm-- and I stand up and I put my hand out and I said, "Mr. Prime Minister, I'm Carl Wilkens. The director of ADRA." And he stops and he looks at me, and then he takes my hand and shakes it. And he said, "Yeah, I've heard about you and your work. How is it?" And I said, "Well, honestly, sir it's not very good right now. The orphans at Gisimba are surrounded, and I think there's going to be a massacre, if there hasn't been already." Just tell him, you know?

And he turns around, talks to some of his aides or whatever. He says, "We're aware of the situation, and those orphans are going to be safe. I'll see to it."

NARRATOR: The orphans were saved. Years later, Prime Minister Kambanda would be convicted of genocide by a U.N. tribunal.

CARL WILKENS: You know, the genocide is so complicated. I was in so many positions that could have been interpreted as compromising or even collaborating with the enemy, huh? You know, who's going to believe someone who goes to court and says, "Well, actually, I asked Kambanda to help me save some Tutsis"? Huh? Who's going to believe that?

The stuff in the genocide just turns-- and that's why, you know, the thing about this is, is we got to recognize in each one of us there's such a potential for good and there's such a potential for evil.

This story floored me too:

NARRATOR: Soon after the killing began, [Phillippe] Gaillard [Red Cross worker] decided he had to challenge the extremist government. Rwandan troops had stopped a Red Cross ambulance and killed six patients.

PHILIPPE GAILLARD: I decided to call my headquarters in Geneva to tell the story. And my counterpart in Geneva told me, "Do you think we could make it public?" And then you think twice. I mean, because if you make it public, then you know that people might kill you, or would really decided to kill you because of what you told. It was [unintelligible] We decided to do it. So following day, BBC, Reuters, Radio France Internationale-- it was everywhere.

NARRATOR: The publicity embarrassed the extremists, and their government gave the Red Cross safe passage throughout Rwanda.

PHILIPPE GAILLARD: So these six people didn't die for-- for nothing. I mean, they-- because of their deaths, hundreds of other people could be saved.

NARRATOR: Gaillard cultivated a relationship with the extremist leadership, which he believes helped the Red Cross save 65,000 lives.

PHILIPPE GAILLARD: When-- when we talk about mass saving, I think that's best. And the only way is to talk with the people who want to kill them.

I remember one day, I met by chance Colonel Theoneste Bagosora. I told him, "Colonel, do something to stop the killing. I mean, this is-- this is absurd. I mean this-- this-- this is suicide. I mean"-- And his answer was-- there are words you never forget, you know? His answer was, "Listen to, sir. If I want, tomorrow I can recruit 50,000 more Interahamwe." So I took him by the shirt. I'm 58 kilograms and he must be 115. Now I took him by the throat, looked his eyes and told him, "Theoneste, you will lose the war."

NARRATOR: Gaillard's network of aid workers across Rwanda gave him the most accurate count of the death toll. He estimated that in the first two weeks, 100,000 Rwandans had been killed.

The Red Cross has a tradition of neutrality and public silence, but Gaillard decided that this genocide would be different.

PHILIPPE GAILLARD: The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a 140 years old organization, was not active during the Armenian genocide, shut up during the Holocaust. Everybody knew what was happening with the Jews. In such circumstances, if-- if you don't at least speak out clearly and-- you are participating to-- to the genocide. I mean, if you just shut up when you see what you see-- and morally, ethically, you cannot shut up! It's a responsibility to-- to talk, to speak out.

And, lastly, but most of all, this one:

NARRATOR: As the outside world left Rwanda to its fate, one U.N. soldier in Kigali was taking matters into his own hands. Captain Mbaye Diagne of Senegal was an unarmed U.N. observer, renowned for his ability to charm his way past the killers.

ALEX GROMO: He's tall, a tall guy. And he had this smile, you know, a big, toothy smile. Even in all this gore and hatred, as long as you can have that brief glimpse of, you know, a smile or something to laugh about that's good, you grab onto it. And with Mbaye, I think that's what everybody did. At all those checkpoints, they all knew him.

NARRATOR: From the first hours of the genocide, Captain Mbaye had ignored orders to remain neutral. He had rescued the children of Prime Minister Agathe, hiding them in a closet while their mother was being killed. Based at the Hotel Mille Collines, a safe haven in the center of Kigali, Captain Mbaye was part of a group of U.N. observers whose very presence was often enough to keep the killers at bay.

Gen. ROMEO DALLAIRE: These guys didn't move, this heart of observers, the gang that stayed at the Mille Collines -- there were seven or eight of them. That particular group, on their own initiative, would go to places where people told there might be people hidden, and they would get them out and bring them to either the Mille Collines or another safe place that we had. And Diagne was one of those leaders in that. I mean, he was evident, courageous and risk-taking.

NARRATOR: But even General Dallaire didn't realize the full extent of Captain Mbaye's secret rescue missions.

GROMO ALEX: We could see in this back room in the Amahoro Hotel, the headquarters, they had large groups of people that all of a sudden appeared and then the next day were gone. We began to put together that Mbaye was bringing people from all over town to the headquarters and then evacuating them or having them picked up and taken to safety elsewhere.

MARK DOYLE, BBC World Service: I knew what Mbaye Diagne was doing. I had a very, very strong suspicion -- put it that way -- of what he was doing. And had I investigated, I could have found out, but I didn't want to find out. I didn't want to say, "There is a Senegalese officer saving people in this town." You can imagine what the impact of that would have been. He would have been killed.


NARRATOR: By late May, the extremists were running out of Tutsis to kill. They threatened to storm the U.N. sanctuary at the Hotel Mille Collines. Captain Mbaye Diagne of Senegal led 600 Tutsis to a safer part of town.

MARK DOYLE, BBC World Service: And the militia attacked the convoys. And I saw individual soldiers, including Captain Mbaye Diagne, actually kicking people off because they didn't have guns. The U.N. soldiers didn't have guns. They were actually kicking people off and saying, "You can't come up here. These people-- we're saving these people."

NARRATOR: A few days later, Captain Mbaye was driving from the hotel back to U.N. headquarters. He stopped at this bridge, a final checkpoint.

ALEX GROMO: A mortar had landed behind his car and shrapnel came through the back window and in the back of his head and apparently killed him instantly. They're calling around for a body bag, and there's no body bags, not a body bag. There's nothing left. There's nothing. And you wonder, you know, [unintelligible] at this time, we're starting to put it together and we're saying, you know, "Here's a-- here's a guy who gave his ultimate, did everything, and we don't even have a body bag," you know, nothing to, you know, show him some respect.

We had some UNICEF plastic sheeting and we had some tape. You know, we're folding him up and, you know, the creases aren't right, you know, because his feet are so damn big, you know? And you don't want that for him. You want it to be like, you know, just laid out perfectly so that, you know, when people look at him, you know, they-- they know that he was something great. [weeps]

NARRATOR: No one knows how many lives Captain Mbaye Diagne personally saved, at least 100, perhaps 1,000.

SENEGALESE OFFICER: Captain Mbaye Diagne is one of the best officers in my army. And the job he done here, none of-- one of us did it.

MARK DOYLE: I remember bursting into tears with a colleague of his, a Senegalese captain. And the captain said to me, "You're a journalist. I'm a soldier. Now you've got to tell the world what Mbaye Diagne did. You've got to tell the people that he saved lots of lives. Even while the U.N. was shamefully pulling out its troops, you know, he was saving people's lives and-- please tell the world."

Gen. ROMEO DALLAIRE: We carried the stretcher into the Hercules aircraft. It was a very, very low point, very low point, such an incredibly courageous individual, amongst others who were strong and courageous. But he seemed to be untouchable.

I didn't think that Hotel Rwanda would match these stories. Worse, I worried that Hollywood would somehow dishonor them. But I was moved by the film.

Part way in, Ebony, who also watched Ghosts of Rwanda and has studied the genocide, suddenly announced, "Here comes Operation Save Whitey." Nick Nolte, playing Gen. Dallaire tells Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), "You should spit in my face." Then, in a line that'll likely stick with Ebony for the rest of his life, "The West is abandoning you because you're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African."

During the subsequent scenes, the dramatizations of whites being led past doomed Rwandans, I burst into tears, and I went all weepy during several later scenes, as Rusesabagina hustles to save nearly 2,000 lives. I suppose the tears could be shrugged off as side effects of movie magic, but I know it's deeper than that. There's a bit of the old Terrence in there, the "I am human; nothing human is alien to me." But there's also awareness of where I was in the spring of 1994, when I was giddy with a sense of accomplishment and fearful of what might come next -- afraid, above all, that I might not prosper or succeed at the level I felt I deserved.

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