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“Straight Talk Africa” on November 16, 2011 – VOA’s “Straight Talk Africa” Host, Shaka Ssali discuss the significance of the Tom Lantos Foundation on Human Rights as they honored Paul Rusesabagina for the 2011 award for providing refuge to over 1200 Rwandans during the 1994 genocide.
By: Jennifer Fierberg, MSW
Paul Rusesabagina received the prestigious Lantos Foundation Humanitarian Medal of Honor for his heroic actions during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. He kept over 1,200 Tutsi and moderate Hutus from being brutally slaughtered by the Interahamwe who murdered over 800,000 others in just 90 days. While this recognition should be seen as an honor to the small but mighty country of Rwanda, it has become glaringly obvious that the Government of Rwanda does not support the decision of the Lantos Foundation. This government sent their propaganda machine into high gear in order to stop him from receiving this award. Reports earlier this month falsely painted Mr. Rusesabagina as being barred from Canada to speak at an event he had been invited to, but the reality is, according to member of the Hotel Rwanda Foundation, he does not need a visa to enter Canada. He holds European citizenship and is not required to obtain a visa to travel to Canada. So, while the opposition celebrated his “visa denial” into Canada, the truth of the matter is that Mr. Rusesabagina cancelled his appearance due to the demands on his schedule and The Lantos Foundation Ceremony the following week.
Much controversy has surrounded Mr. Rusesabagina for receiving this award. He has been vilified in the press the world over and in many Rwandan blogs by RPF supporters. One only has to read a few of the articles and posts to see that the narrative is the same in all of the negative press. This commonality leads one to believe that much of this writing is coming from the same script that has been provided by key members of the current ruling regime in Rwanda. While the money trail is not clear yet, time will show that money is at the root of this negative press.
Of the many skeptics regarding the authenticity of Paul Rusesabagina and his actions at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, of which he has denied and disputed all allegations, one key allegation is that he demanded money from the people who lived in the hotel with him during this time. While it is true that money exchanged hands, he used the money he received to bribe the Interahamwe from killing his residents and his family, and he also used this money to provide supplies, food and to purchase alcohol as further bribes and peaceful discussion to those who came to the hotel to do harm to the residents there. During the preparations for filming the Academy Award nominated Hotel Rwanda the director of the film interviewed over 1000 people who resided at the hotel at the time of the genocide with Mr. Rusesabagina in order to verify his accounts of what happened there. All 1000 people confirmed that Mr. Rusesabagina was a hero and saved their lives. They corroborated his accounting of events without hesitation. Since 2008 when Mr. Rusesabagina began to speak out about the human rights violations committed by the ruling regime in Rwanda, suddenly the regime changed its opinion of Mr. Rusesabagina and began to tell a different tale of what happened at the Hôtel des Mille Collines. He began to be branded as a “genocidaire” and accused of funding terrorist organizations in the DRC. There is very sketchy evidence to these accusations and no one can seem to confirm these allegations which Mr. Rusesabagina has vehemently denied.
Below is a transcript of the speech Mr. Rusesabagina gave at the Lantos Humanitarian Awards ceremony in which this reporter had the honor of attending.
Rusesabagina Lantos Foundation Human Rights Award Speech 11/16/11 Congressional auditorium:
“It is not always easy to stand and speak after such words, that today I am going to try to. My dear friends at the Lantos Foundation for Human rights, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen please help me to thank once again Katrina Lantos Svelte, the entire staff and good members at the Lantos Foundation for their convictions for human rights. They have stood up to threats and protest designed to silence our pleas for human rights and freedoms in my beloved Rwanda. My dear friends, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply humbled to receive the prestigious Lantos Foundation Humanitarian Rights award. I am an ordinary man. I feel incredibly honored to be in related to the same class as his holiness the Dali Lama and Professor Elie Wiesel who have received this award before me. Please help me to thank these two distinguished and towering figures who have contributed so much to the advancement of humanity. They are now high on my list of my mentor and I hope they will be kind enough to share with me their precious knowledge and wisdom. As I receive this award to I ask you to join me in committing to the idea that never again must mean never again.
My name is Paul Rusesabagina; I am a child of Rwanda. My parents named me Paul Rusesabagina, that name means he who disburses in English. That is my name and that is my life. When I was a small boy growing up in Rwanda my dad was one of my heroes, he was my hero because he did not know he could not read and write he told me that whenever two brothers are fighting and I am supposed to separate them I am to stand in the middle and look straight up. Not to the left and not to the right because I could be influenced by one of the brothers. Today those brothers in Rwandan are Tutsis and Hutus always brothers but not always living in harmony. Today I do not charge that brother but I tell them I tell the truth about what they are doing. I want to create a world where those two brothers can live together in peace and harmony like brothers are supposed to do. Not one brother oppressing or imprisoning the other just living together as equals in harmony like brothers are supposed to do.
In 1994 I was a hotel manager, not a politician, not a soldier. Still I listened to a little voice inside me, my conscience and tried to do everything that I could to stop the violence and to shelter the 1,268 people who had come to my hotel for shelter. Some who had first could pay, some who asked for safety but who had made it through hell. I am proud to say that the Hôtel des Mille Collines was the only public place in Rwanda where no one died. No one was beaten and everyone who sought shelter made it through the genocide alive.
Today, I tell my story, the story of those who died during the terrible genocide in Rwanda 1994 over 400,000 Tutsi and now 400,000 Hutus were also killed. I tried to provide a voice to the voiceless. As you may know, a humanitarian cannot measure his success by how harshly his work is criticized and my critics often say that I deny the genocide. Nothing can be further from the truth. I am here a living testament to the genocide. To those who died to provide testimony about the horrible people in that Hutu elite government in in the military, in the militias who caused those deaths. The genocide was a terrible defining moment in my life and in that of my country and it must never be forgotten.
Seventeen years after the genocide we don’t have two armies fighting to the death for power control nor do we have roving guns, guns of militia men killing innocent villagers by the thousands every ten minutes. We have a country that, on the surface, appears to be peaceful but it is a country with no space for political dissent or real democratic action. The potential violence is just below the surface. As the human right abuses spreads and media oppression spreads things get more dangerous. I am calling up on the International community to work with me for a truth and reconciliation process to break the historic cycle of violence in Rwanda and replace it with sustainable peace.
But what I have found over the years is that Rwanda has unfortunately has not changed so much. The leaders who caused the genocide are now gone and this is an excellent thing. But Rwanda has new leader now, and as we say in Kinyarwanda, the dancers have changed but unfortunately the music stays the same.
Now, I spend my time as a humanitarian reminding people that we must never forget and saddened that we forget all too often. In addition to talking about the 1994 genocide I also cannot stay silent about what is happening in Rwanda today. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press do not exist. Political oppression is the norm. Opposition leaders are arrested and killed. Today in Rwanda leaders insist that a dictatorship is necessary to safeguard the people. In fact, as with all dictatorships, it only serves to safeguard itself.
In the current government, the government that we all believed in 1994 that saved Rwanda from the genocide is now responsible for unthinkable violence next door in the Congo over 6 million people dead in a war driven by conflict minerals. With so much that the United Nations said that war crimes have been committed by current war in government, crimes against humanity and possibly even a new genocide. I see my native country the home of my parents and I cannot stay silent. I feel that it is now a dormant volcano waiting to erupt again. As Katrina knows only too well, raising my voice comes to a price during the genocide I and my family were often in terrible danger. Now, I am threatened once again on a regular basis.
I want to thank very much Katrina who is just behind me and everyone at the Lantos Foundation not just for this award but for their support in recent weeks. As the Rwandan governments and its applicants tried to silence my voice, they (Lantos Foundation) were steadfast in standing up for what was right, in standing up for free speech and for the prospect of truth, reconciliation and peace in my native Rwanda. They stood up for the power of words to heal our differences with a few more people like those at the Lantos Foundation our world will be a better place, much better.
In closing, I would like to leave you with the words of a good man Mr. Albert Einstein, he said, “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of some of us or because of those who look on and do nothing.” I hope you will join me in saying that never again must mean never again. I hope you will join me in doing something when we see evil and confronting it. I hope you will join me in leading ordinary people who take every opportunity to do the right thing. I thank you all for listening to my words today. I thank the Lantos Foundation from the bottom of my heart for this award. Thank you, thank you.”
A hero does not blink in the face of danger; he looks it in the eyes and faces down the challenge. Paul Rusesabagina did this in 1994 and continues to do so today.
Lantos Foundation Responds to Protests
2011 Lantos Prize Controversy is Manufactured
CONCORD, NH – Katrina Lantos Swett, President of The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, responded today to a protest staged in opposition to the upcoming award of the 2011 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize to Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina:
“The protest staged today is only the latest attempt to smear the good name of this year’s Lantos Prize recipient, Paul Rusesabagina. These protests were not staged when the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda” was released, nor were they staged when Paul received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush. It was only once he started to speak out about the need for more freedom and democracy in Rwanda, including a Truth and Reconciliation process, that these attacks were suddenly manufactured. Unfortunately these attacks appear to be consistent with a disturbing pattern of censorship, intimidation and even violence that has been directed at those who have dared voice concerns about the government of Rwanda. This pattern is not unique to Rwanda. Other authoritarian regimes have responded in a similar fashion.
The most recent high profile example happened in 2010, when the Chinese government vehemently protested the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and tried to bully governments into boycotting the Prize ceremony. The irony of such manufactured protests is that, in the end, they only serve to provide a brighter spotlight to the intended target.
As the child of Holocaust survivors, I, along with the Lantos Foundation staff, have made particular efforts to listen to the concerns of Rwandan genocide survivors who have contacted us. While many have thanked us for our decision to honor Paul Rusesabagina, there are others who have expressed contrary views. We have spent hours talking to these individuals by phone and email, and even meeting with some in person. The bottom-line is that the more we speak to them, the more it becomes painfully obvious that there is a “script” in place. This script is at times absurd and at other times petty. They accuse Paul of denying the genocide when in fact he has devoted his life to telling the awful story of Rwanda’s genocide and working to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation. They complain that Paul charged the guests who found refuge in the hotel a fact that Paul readily shares in his book, in person and in the movie Hotel Rwanda- money was needed to feed the 1200 people living in the hotel and to bribe the ever murderous gangs that prowled outside the hotel gates. At the end of the day, it seems that his real offense in their eyes, is that he has been outspoken in defense of democracy in Rwanda even in the face of determined efforts to silence him.
We did not intend to cause controversy with this year’s Lantos Prize, but it seems the controversy has found us anyway. We did not intend to step into the political disagreements that are currently swirling in and around Rwanda, but it seems we are not able to avoid that either. We originally chose Paul Rusesabagina as the Lantos Prize recipient purely based on his heroic actions during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, not for his work since then through the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation. But we now find ourselves quite in awe of Paul’s willingness to stand up and speak out for freedoms in his home country, despite the backlash that work has caused.
In the end, the most poignant take away from today’s events is that the very freedom to take part in these protests is something that wouldn’t be allowed in Rwanda under the current government. Paul Rusesabagina is simply asking for his native country to experience the same of freedom and openness that we deeply value here in America.”
The Lantos Foundation established the Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2009 to honor and bring attention to heroes of the human rights movement. It is awarded annually to an individual or organization that best exemplifies the Foundation’s mission, namely to be a vital voice standing up for the values of decency, dignity, freedom, and justice in every corner of the world. The prize also serves to commemorate the late Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress and a prominent advocate for human rights during his nearly three decades as a U.S. Representative. Former recipients of the Lantos Prize include His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. This year’s award will be presented to Paul Rusesabagina in Washington, DC on November 16th.