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Hero comes off silver screen to examine story

Tuesday the real-life hero of the movie Hotel Rwanda will visit St. Petersburg to talk about his experience.

Paul Rusesabagina saved more than 1,000 lives during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that left 800,000 dead.

His actions are evidence of what one individual can do, regardless of the circumstances, said William Felice, professor of political science at Eckerd College and a trustee with the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

"I think we learn that individual action makes a difference and even in the face of unbelievable conditions, when family members are being taken away and torture is occurring, it is possible to stand up for what is right. And as the world is getting smaller, that we are our sister's keeper, our brother's keeper," Felice said.

Rusesabagina, 51, who will speak at Eckerd College this week, was a hotel manager during the massacre in his country. He protected the hundreds of people who sought shelter at the luxury hotel where he worked. Since then he has established the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to help children orphaned by the carnage and women abused during the tragedy. In April, Viking Books will publish his memoirs, An Ordinary Man.

Last year, President Bush awarded the Rwandan hero this country's Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Rwandan genocide, which targeted members of the country's Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus, began April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. It is believed Habyarimana had been ready to share power with the Tutsis, a decision extremist Hutus opposed. They blamed the downing of the plane on the Tutsi guerrilla army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and orchestrated the massacre of Tutsi and anyone who supported them.

Recent history recounts other genocides. The Holocaust took the lives of 11-million people, 6-million of them Jews, during World War II. Between 1915 and 1923, 1.5-million Armenians were killed by the Central Committee of the Young Turk Party of the Ottoman Empire. The genocide in Bosnia during the early 1990s claimed more than 200,000 lives, many of them Muslims killed by Serbs. In Cambodia, an estimated 1.7-million people were killed between 1975 and 1979.

Today's genocide is taking place in the Darfur province of Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias are destroying communities of African descent. More than 300,000 people have been killed so far and an estimated 2-million people have been displaced.

"I'm struck by how short our memory is that we let these things happen at such regular intervals. Every time, we say, no more," said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.

There is no one answer to what is at the root of genocide, Felice said.

"I think there are different factors that are unique to each situation, but one factor I would say is at the root is politics. I think that too often, we see genocide through the lens of ethnicity, but what I see when I look at Rwanda is a country where Hutus and Tutsi got along for years and didn't hate each other and a small group, under the banner of Hutu power, politically used ethnicity to gain more power," Felice said. "So I think that genocide is a product of political forces seeking more power and they gain it at the destruction of other ethnic groups."

What was unique about the Rwandan genocide was its speed, Felice said. "It was the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century. In 100 days, 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus were murdered. And during that time, the United States and the U.N. did almost nothing."

Janamanchi said everyone needs to get involved in ending such brutality.

"As individuals, we can be asking our elected representatives to act on our behalf, pointing out to them that we are deeply troubled and would like them to take corrective action," he said.

"I feel the whole world needs to be concerned, but the United States has a unique place in the world," he said, adding that a country founded on the principles of freedom, equality and justice "ought to be a moral leader in the world."

IF YOU GO

Paul Rusesabagina will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Fox Hall, Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. The title of his talk will be, "Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to be Learned." His appearance is sponsored by the Eckerd College Afro-American Society. Free. Call (727) 864-7979 or e-mail eventseckerd.edu.

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