Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 2 February 2005

"Hotel Rwanda" replays in Sudan

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON, Feb 2, 2005 (Chicago Tribune) - While world leaders gathered at the barbed wire and crematoriums of Auschwitz, 60 years after the liberation of that Nazi death camp, Oscar nominee Don Cheadle gathered with members of Congress in Washington who are trying to stop a genocide that goes on today.

In a crowded House hearing room, the star of "Hotel Rwanda" faced a firing squad of television cameras with Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Diane Watson (D-Calif.) to talk about their recent fact-finding mission to the strife-ridden Darfur region of Sudan.

More than 70,000 innocent civilians are believed to have died and more than 1.8 million forced from their homes in a deadly ethnic cleansing campaign by the janjaweed militia backed by the Sudanese government.

The victims are ethnic Africans. The janjaweed and the Sudanese government are ethnic Arabs. Yet the United Nations and others quibble over whether the barbarism constitutes genocide and they keep on quibbling while the killing goes on.

The film "Hotel Rwanda" relives a similar atrocity. Similar diplomatic foot-dragging, hairsplitting and finger-pointing in 1994 by the United Nations, the Clinton administration and others allowed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis to be slaughtered by ethnic Hutus in Rwanda.

The movie relives that horror through the life of one man, Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life Hutu hotel manager and husband of a Tutsi (beautifully played by fellow Oscar nominee Sophie Okonedo). Inspired by his love for his own family, he uses his wits, a lot of bribes and a lot of courage to help save 1,200 other people whom the rest of the world did not find important enough to rescue.

In one unforgettable scene, "Col. Oliver," commander of the woefully undermanned UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, powerfully played by Nick Nolte, explodes with rage when international forces arrive only to rescue the Europeans.

"You should spit in my face," he rages at the patiently proper hotel manager, after a couple of shots of good booze. "You’re dirt. We think you’re dirt, Paul. ... The West, all the superpowers. ... They think you’re dirt. They think you’re dung ... You’re not even a nigger. You’re African!"

Scenes like that one, bloodless yet filled with emotional power, left me, my family and the rest of the audience leaving our neighborhood theater asking ourselves more questions than anyone else could ever answer for us, questions like, Is Col. Oliver right? Are we in the rest of the world that indifferent to Africa?

Nolte’s character appears to be based on Gen. Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian left embittered by his experience. He told a PBS "Frontline" interviewer last year that the outside world cared less for human Rwandans than it does for the rare mountain gorillas of northwest Rwanda that the late Dian Fossey made famous, as depicted in "Gorillas in the Mist."

"People [who] saw the film [`Hotel Rwanda’] said: `Wow, that’s terrible. What happened? Wish I had known,’" Cheadle told reporters. "Now you know."

And now we need to do something, he said, calling today’s "tsunamis of violence" in Sudan a "sad replay of Rwanda."

Indeed, the same international quibbling over whether "genocide" should be applied to the Rwanda slaughter is vividly recounted in the movie and replayed this week. A UN commission investigating violence in Darfur reported Monday that it had found mass killings, forced displacement of civilians and other "criminal" atrocities, but refused to use the G-word to describe it.

As an infamous internal Clinton-era memo said, calling the Rwanda crisis "genocide" would obligate the United States and the UN to actually do something.

The Bush administration has been calling the Sudan situation genocide since September, but the African Union force of about 1,000 soldiers on the ground there has been no more effective than the small force the UN put into Rwanda in 1994.

The Bush administration and the UN are feuding over where Sudan officials should be tried. At the same time Russia and China have blocked U.S. efforts to impose punishing sanctions against Sudan’s government so it will tell the janjaweed to back off. China’s thirst for Sudanese oil and Russia’s catering to Sudan’s arms market has more than a little to do with their desire to play ball with Sudan’s murderous regime.

Clinton has since apologized to the Rwandans and the rest of the world for allowing so many people to be killed in just three months before taking action to stop it. The Bush administration, then under former Secretary of State Colin Powell, tried to take more decisive action. Yet the killing continues.

As Cheadle said, now we know. But, what are we going to do about it?