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Hudson grad shares stage with 'Hotel Rwanda' hero

Lisa Huftel of Hudson had the honor of introducing Paul Rusesabagina to an audience of 3,000 at UW-Eau Claire last week.

Huftel was the student host for a Forum program that brought the former hotel manager from the African nation of Rwanda to the university.

The gripping and popular film "Hotel Rwanda" tells the story of how Rusesabagina protected 1,200 people inside his hotel during 100 days of genocide in 1994. Between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans of the Tutsi tribe were massacred in the rampage, most hacked to death by Hutu militants wielding machetes issued by the Hutu government.

Huftel introduced Rusesabagina as part of her role in organizing a Nov. 2 conference on international crises. A series of afternoon discussions and workshops preceded Rusesabagina's talk to the sold-out crowd at Zorn Arena.

Huftel also is a member of the committee that selects speakers of national and international prominence for the university's Forum program.

She has been active in the Student Senate during her time at UW-Eau Claire and presently serves as its diversity resource coordinator. She will graduate in December with majors in political science and public relations.

Her parents are Karen Huftel of Hudson and Harland Huftel of Carlsbad, Calif.

Huftel spoke with poise in introducing Rusesabagina and while facilitating a question-and-answer session that followed his more than hour-long speech.

"Every day for us is a bonus," Rusesabagina, accompanied by his wife, Tatiana, told Huftel when they met in the Gold Room of Zorn Arena, minutes before walking on stage. He and Tatiana didn't expect to survive the genocide, he said.

Rwanda's main radio station is said to have incited the violence by blaming Tutsis when a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down. Announcers reportedly lied that Tutsis were attacking villages and planned to eliminate all Hutus. They urged Hutu farmers to stop the supposed takeover by killing the minority Tutsis first.

Rusesabagina retreated to the Mille Collines Hotel with his Tutsi wife and their children after militants took away and murdered Tatiana's sister and her husband. When others came to the hotel seeking refuge, he sheltered them, too, and soon the hotel was full of people hiding from the militants.

He used his wit and negotiating skills to keep the militants at bay and to barter for food for the refuges inside the hotel. Using a phone line for a fax machine that the militants didn't discover, he pleaded with world leaders to send help.

"Life became a kind of hell," he told the UW-Eau Claire audience.

Rusesabagina's personality was warmer than actor Don Cheadle portrayed in the film. But then, his circumstances are much different than they were 11 and a half years ago.

Today, Rusesabagina and his family live in Belgium, where he operates a transport company.

Dressed in a finely tailored camel suit and gold-striped tie, Rusesabagina smiled broadly, bowed slightly and clasped admirers' hands with both of his when being introduced. He listened graciously as people related how his story had inspired them.

He recounted the story in detail from the podium, explaining that the butchery was worse even than what was depicted in the film.

When militants and government officials tried to get Rusesabagina to abandon the hotel, he told them: "If I leave these people, I will never be a free man. I will forever be a prisoner of my own conscience."

Noting the radio station's role in inciting the genocide, he said, "The media can be the best weapon if used for a good cause. But the media can also be the worst evil if used as a weapon."

"I've become a humanitarian and I never thought I would become one," he was quoted as saying in the program for The Forum. "And, as a humanitarian, I wanted to take this message on a wider scale, to raise awareness of what happened in my country so that the international community can help others who suffer now."

In the question-and-answer period that followed his speech, Ruesabagina urged the audience to write letters to the president and their representatives in Congress supporting increased U.S. involvement in African affairs.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Africa is suffering and Africa needs you," he said.

He said African countries need more than just food, such as assistance in establishing just and democratic governments.

"You are the ones that can change things," he said, asserting that it was pressure from citizens of the United States that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Behind every African dictatorship, there is a powerful non-African nation helping it remain in control, he said.

"People always pretend not to know what is going on," he said, regarding continuing human rights abuses in Sudan and other African nations.

Randy Hanson can be reached at

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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