Rwandan who saved 1,000 refugees in 1994 tells his story at PSU

UNIVERSITY PARK — Paul Rusesabagina talks for survival.

He talked his way to safety in 1994, when warriors threatened the Diplomat Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, and the more than 1,000 civilians he safeguarded there.

Now he talks to build awareness — and prevention — of humanitarian crises worldwide.

“Tonight, let us stand out all together as one and say no to the killing fields,” Rusesabagina told a near-capacity crowd of more than 2,400 Thursday night in Eisenhower Auditorium.

Appearing here as part of the Penn State Distinguished Speakers Series, Rusesabagina drew parallels between the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and more current crises, particularly in Africa.

Ongoing war in Darfur, Sudan, where death estimates have topped 300,000, evokes “exactly what I saw in Rwanda,” Rusesabagina said. The Rwandan genocide claimed almost 1 million people in about 100 days.

“The whole continent seems to be completely forgotten,” treated as though it’s outside the view of the United Nations, he said.

Rusesabagina, who was manager at the Diplomat Hotel when he housed refugees in 1994, has received awards including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for his heroism. His actions inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” in which Don Cheadle portrayed him.

Now a renowned speaker and writer, Rusesabagina has visited more than 250 universities, associations and other venues in the United States to deliver his story and message. He spoke for about an hour at University Park, delving into wrenching detail about the Rwandan conflict and his post-genocide exile.

For collegiate audiences, he explained at a pre-lecture press conference, he wants to bear a message of hope.“My message is to encourage them to be active and shape the world,” Rusesabagina said. “ ... Young people — the future is in their hands.”

The U.S. and other Western countries have faced criticism for not more aggressively intervening in Rwanda or in Darfur. Rusesabagina, appearing to be accompanied by a security guard, said the U.S. has been viewed from the outside as a self-sufficient country.

Its lack of intervention in Africa, he said, is perhaps driven by some national tradition.

But he called on U.S. youth to involve themselves in international affairs, educate themselves about humanitarian crises and lobby their government — including through petitions — to take action. He said the U.S. can pressure African warlords and threaten to freeze funds.

“This is a mission of young people,” Rusesabagina said, “because they are the ones who can change the world.”And achieving that mission, he added, means communicating.

“In my life, I believe the best solution is always through negotiation,” Rusesabagina said. “I believe in dialogue.”

Adam Smeltz can be reached at 231-4631.