December 23, 2004
The Los Angeles Times
'Hotel Rwanda' Should Open Our Eyes to the Genocide in Sudan
A film about compassion in a time of slaughter asks how we can stand silent.
I don't go to the movies to feel guilty. If I stumble into one that leaves me feeling that way, I generally don't recommend it to friends. I like my movies soft, entertaining and message-free.
I wanted to wring James Brooks' neck for "Spanglish." The director of "Terms of Endearment," which my daughter and I have watched a hundred times, has no business serving up "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" without a warning label stamping it as unsuitable for romantics.
So I had to be dragged last week to see "Hotel Rwanda." For a time, I fitfully resisted but was quickly drawn in. It is a story about love in a time of slaughter. Without preaching to its audience, it shows how a man can be transformed from ordinary to heroic.
Paul Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, is the solicitous manager of an elegant, luxury hotel in Kigali. It's a going concern despite outbreaks of violence. He caters to European businessmen and corrupt local officials, whom he courts with Cuban cigars and single-malt Scotch. His intelligent eyes say he knows he's just the help. But like many an underling, he is confused by his proximity to power. When his brother-in-law, a Tutsi like Paul's wife, asks for protection, Paul shoos him away. He doesn't believe all hell is about to break loose, or that if it does it will penetrate his bubble of privilege.
Gradually, he awakens to the violence raging beyond his gates. He reluctantly takes in a handful of orphans and then more, until he's hiding more than 1,000 of his countrymen. But he has nothing more than his wits and whiskey to protect them with. Paul believes if he can keep his refugees safe one day at a time, the world will awaken and send in the troops. That illusion is utterly dashed when the U.N. mission chief takes Paul aside to tell him there will be no rescue: "The West, all the superpowers, everything you believe in, Paul, they think you're dirt … you're worthless. You're African."
Where does heroism come from and how many of us have it? The uplifting message of "Hotel Rwanda" is that if Paul is capable of such bravery, maybe we are too.
After 9/11, I remember reading of the $10-an-hour security guard last seen alive racing back from another building to guide his fellow workers to safety, and of the insurance agent "just doing his job" who denied that guard's widow benefits because her husband wasn't officially "on duty" when he died. Would I be the security guard or the agent?
At the outset, Paul believed the system he served would protect his country. When it didn't, he took it upon himself to save as many people as he could, whatever the peril to himself. Will "Hotel Rwanda" open Americans' eyes to the almost identical genocide in nearby Sudan?
After Rwanda, presidents Clinton and Bush said that never again would the West turn its back on such suffering. Yet the slaughter in Darfur by the janjaweed and Arab militias has killed tens of thousands and displaced about 2 million more.
In September, Secretary of State Colin Powell called the killings genocide, a word the U.S. pointedly didn't use about Rwanda because to do so would have acknowledged a duty to intervene.
War is God's way of teaching Americans geography. Few of us even know where Rwanda or Mogadishu or Sudan are unless, by chance, some American gets caught in the crossfire there. Who can sort out the Tutsis from the Hutus or make an educated guess as to what beyond blood lust, revenge and despair they are fighting over? The Middle East we care about. Africa, we don't.
Bush's appointment in June of former Sudan envoy John Danforth to be U.N. ambassador offered the country a ray of hope, at least until he quit just six months later. A day after announcing his resignation, he publicly denounced the failure of a motion that (mildly) criticized human rights violations in Sudan. "One wonders about the utility of the General Assembly on days like this. One wonders if there can't be a clear and direct statement on matters of basic principle. Why have this building? What is it all about?"
As Christmas neared, Save the Children, one of the last relief organizations left in Sudan, announced that renewed fighting made it impossible to stay. The White House tossed the ball back into the United Nations' court, telling Secretary-General Kofi Annan that it was up to him to go there and reopen peace talks.
Let no one be dragged in years to come to "Hotel Sudan." That's a sequel no one should have to see.
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