I have two heroes. My first hero is my father, Rupfure Thomas; the second, Nelson Mandela. My father is the one who shaped my life. He taught me to try to be honest and sincere with my neighbors and friends. For as long as I can remember, I saw that people needed my father. When there was trouble in the neighborhood, they knew they could call him. When I was growing up in Rwanda, there was a system for settling disputes called justice in the grass. A group of elders would meet and sit under a tree and discuss dilemmas in the village. In Rwanda many of the disputes are about land or property and the tribunal of elders would contemplate these arguments and then my father would come and solve them. The people in the village would tell me, "When your father comes, he will solve this problem." Everyone always knew what he would say: the truth.
Sometimes people who were swearing falsely would hear he was coming and suddenly confess! This was the power of my father. He was straightforward with people. He became my hero.
He was also known to speak for both sides when there was a dispute. Though he was a very eloquent speaker, he was also a very good listener. Because he listened sincerely, people in the village trusted that he would make the right decision.
Later, I went to university and get a degree. There they taught me a basic principal of business administration: if you listen, you have already solved one-half of your problem. But I already knew this. I had learned it in the grass, at the knee of my father.
My father taught me that if you want a lasting, serious life, you've got to be honest. We say in Rwanda, "You can eat from a lie once, but not every day." A person must eat every day. The truth is essential. My father was not only generous with his wisdom and guidance; he also built trust in the community by sharing what he had with the people who needed it. Many people came to our home. My mother would give milk to the neighbors who didn't have cows and food to those who were hungry, and that was very well known.
My father paid close attention to everything around him, especially his children. Even as married adults, all my siblings would gather at my father's house on New Year's Eve. He would give us his reflections on our progress. "You have not come far enough. You have done well. You are halfway." He was very frank with us. He had nine children but he knew exactly where each of us stood. His close attention taught us things we didn't know about ourselves. We respected him. He was tough, but we were not afraid of him. My relationship with my wife is very like the relationship my father had with my mother. They were together for 49 years, until my mother died. In a marriage, each partner negotiates for his or her rights, and each partner must both give and take. My father was good at those negotiations as well!
My fatherï¿½s lessons have followed me. The way he educated me is the way I try to educate my children. My father used to tell us, "Whoever does not talk to his father will never know what his grandfather has said." To my father, dialogue was most important. To convey a message, to talk, was a privilege.
My other hero is Nelson Mandela, whom I read about as a young boy in school.
The first and most important lesson I learned from Mandela is to never change your message. Since 1946 up to now he has been consistent in his message, fighting for rights but also respecting other peoples' lives. Black rights have been his focus, but it is very important to his success that he also respected whites. He saw South Africa to be a land for whites, for blacks, for Chinese, for Indians--a land for everybody.
Later on when he was given power in 1994, he knew he was old. That was his pride, to be a leader of South Africa, but he also knew how to give power to others. I so admire such character. Mandela is someone who was consistent in telling people, "You have your rights, but so do we have ours." Looking at the truth. Being fair.
Mandela has fought for his rights and the rights of all people since he was very young. Even in jail he never changed his positions. I'm not sure I could do that. I have not had such a baptism.
But I felt that both those men were with me during the genocide, my own moment of truth. I had no other choice but to stay and help--my father would never have run from such a situation! I only did what he would have done. And I hope that I stood my ground, as I learned to do from Nelson Mandela.
The genocide broke out on the night of April 6, 1994. The next morning I had 26 neighbors who came to hide in my house. At first we thought the war would only take a week or a few days. So they came to stay in my house, where they felt safer.
When soldiers came to take me to the hotel, I knew immediately that I could not leave my neighbors behind. My only choice was to convince the soldiers that my neighbors were my family members.
I told them, "You can take me to the hotel, which is a good idea, but I cannot leave my family here."
On the road we were stopped by the same soldiers, who threatened us. I said, "I know you are thirsty, you are hungry, and you are tired. You are stressed by this bloody war, but do you believe the enemy you are fighting is this old man? Is this baby? Do you see yourself ever moving through this life with this baby's blood on your hands? What will be your profit for this killing? If you were to face history today, what would you say?"
We came to a compromise and I was able to take my family and my 26 neighbors up to the hotel with me.
When I had the opportunity to leave the Mille Collines Hotel where I worked, I had to make the hardest decision I have ever made in my life. I knew that some of us were going to be evacuated. I looked at those people in the hotel, the refugees--there were about 800 people by that time, and more were coming. I looked at them. I saw that I was the first person to be evacuated, yet I was the only one who could deal with the militia in favor of the victims. If I was evacuated, there was a possibility that I would not be killed. And if I was not going to be killed, I wondered, how could I live afterwards? How could I live if I leave these people behind and they are killed?
I gathered my wife and my children and told them, "Listen, tomorrow, you will be evacuated." And they said, "You or we?" and I told them "I am not going to be evacuated." I said, "If I leave this place and these people are killed, I will never eat and feel satisfied. I will never drink and feel satisfied. I will never go to bed and sleep. I will always feel guilty. " I said, "Please accept my decision and leave."
I escorted my wife and children to the trucks. I helped them onto the trucks and I saw them off. That was heartbreaking and a very hard decision to make.
By the time the last truck was leaving, the radio was already reading the list of people who were on the trucks getting evacuated. I heard the execution order for my family. I heard them mention my wife by name. I heard them mention my son Tresor, who was only one and a half years old. They were saying, "All the cockroaches are leaving. They are escaping. They are being evacuated by the U.N. from the Mille Collines Hotel. Among the cockroaches that are leaving, there is one called Tresor Rusesabagina. He pretends to be going to Belgium. And yet he is not going to Belgium! He is going behind the RPF line and coming back to attack us!"
This they said of my son who was only one and a half years old.
My family and the other evacuees did not make it more than two kilometers from the hotel. They were stopped and they were beaten. Most of them were injured, including my wife. By the time she got back she was not even able to get up. She was just lying down like a dead person. But she lived, as did everyone who took refuge in the Mille Collines Hotel during the genocide.
Imagine you are driving through your village, hearing the sounds of people being killed and seeing the corpses of neighbors you know very well. You say, "There is Paul. There is Peter!" And someone comes to you and says,"You traitor! You are lucky we are not killing you today. But have this gun and kill all these cockroaches here. Remove this infestation." And the cockroaches are your wife, your children, your neighbors.
You have no choice in this moment. You simply begin to take action, to talk. And so I did. I never want to fight with guns or with machetes. I want to fight with words. You sometimes win, you sometimes lose, and through this, you learn to recognize and respect and sometimes win over the other party. My father and Nelson Mandela were both men who proved that dialogue is the most powerful weapon of all. I learned this lesson from them, and their strength gave me strength, even as I looked into the worst face of humanity.