Actors Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker won Oscars last weekend for their portrayals of real-life rulers. That's as up-close and personal as you're going to get to Queen Elizabeth or the late Idi Amin. Paul Rusesabagina also inspired an Oscar nomination, but for a different brand of leadership; Don Cheadle brought the heroic hotel manager to life in the award-winning 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. But cinematic celebrity hasn't stopped Rusesabagina, dubbed the "Oskar Schindler of Africa," from making personal appearances. He speaks Saturday night at Middlebury College as part of a convocation series focused on genocide.
Rusesabagina was manager of the high-end, Belgian-owned Hotel Diplomate when the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated in 1994. Because Habyarimana was a member of the Hutu tribe, his murder was blamed on rival Tutsis. (Think Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.) A bloodbath ensued, with Hutus indiscriminately slaughtering Tutsis for 100 days. Rusesabagina, a Hutu, took it upon himself to shelter more than 1200 endangered Tutsis, moderate Hutus and ex-pats at the hotel for the duration of the brutal genocide. His dealings with the machete-wielding murderers in Hotel Rwanda is a portrait of humanitarian sangfroid.
The title of Rusesabagina's subsequent autobiography, An Ordinary Man, suggests he hasn't let numerous peace awards go to his head. And his talk, entitled "Hotel Rwanda: A Lesson Yet to Be Learned," indicates a larger mission. That makes his an ideal intro to the college's first, four-week convocation series. "The goal is to create opportunities for the entire college community to come together and reflect on an important event, lecture or idea," says Middlebury Dean Tim Spears.
UVM anthropologist Rob Gordon will put Rusesabagina's experience in a larger context on March 8 with a talk on the history of genocide in Africa. Catherine Besteman of Colby College is scheduled for March 15. An expert on Somali Bantu populations - in country and in Lewiston, Maine - she was the subject of a recent New Yorker story.
Middlebury found Rusesaba- gina through a student, according to Spears, but "I'm not sure of the nature of the connection, to tell the truth," he says. However it happened, his appearance is a coup. On a busy campus, "To get people's attention, you've got to bring in someone with a certain profile," says Spears. The college recently hosted Chief Justice John Roberts. This year's commencement speaker is Bill Clinton.
Paul Rusesabagina, Saturday, March 3, Mead Chapel, Middlebury College, 7 p.m. Free. Info, 443-3300.