January 24, 2005 12:00 PM

In April 1994, as his country was starting to go mad—in the next 100 days, 800,000 Rwandans would die as members of the majority Hutu ethnic group massacred minority Tutsis—hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina was forced out of his house by armed men and piled onto a bus with 31 family members and neighbors, most of them Tutsis. Soon the bus pulled over and the militiamen handed Rusesabagina, like them a Hutu, a gun. “Their leader told me,” says Rusesabagina, “to kill all the cockroaches”—meaning the Tutsis. “I showed him an old man and said, ‘Do you really believe this old man is the enemy you are fighting against? Are you sure your enemy is that baby? Take me to the hotel, and I will give you some money. But I am the only one with a key, and if you kill me, you will not have the money'”

True to his word, Rusesabagina, 54, paid off the militia and saved the lives of the Tutsis. They were far from the only ones: Using the skills he had polished as the manager of a four-star hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Rusesabagina reasoned, wheedled, bartered and outright bribed his way into saving the lives of 1,268 fellow citizens who took refuge behind his doors while a civil war raged outside. The story is told in the acclaimed new film Hotel Rwanda, a Golden Globe nominee for best drama starring Don Cheadle as the soft-spoken but steadfast hotelier. “People ask Paul, ‘Do you consider yourself a hero?’ ” says Hotel Rwanda director Terry George. “He says, ‘No, I was just doing my job.'”

His tale is a modern Schindler’s List. In 1994, after the Hutu president of Rwanda was assassinated under mysterious circumstances, long-simmering ethnic resentments erupted. Bands of Hutus murdered Tutsis—men, women and children—on sight, hacking many to death with machetes. Two days after refusing to shoot the “cockroaches,” Rusesabagina and his Tutsi wife, Tatiana, moved into the hotel he managed, along with their four children and two baby nieces orphaned when Tatiana’s brother and his wife had been killed days earlier. The Belgian-owned Mille Collines normally slept 200 but was filling up with several times that number of refugees fleeing the carnage in the streets. The hotelier, who always made it a point to hire both Tutsis and Hutus, says he never turned anyone away. Why did he take such a risk? Rusesabagina, one of nine children of farmer parents, says it was his inner compass. “I’ve always known when to say no. It’s just always been clear to me—I don’t agree with injustice.” With only a few U.N. soldiers on hand to stand guard, Rusesabagina paid off the rampaging militia with the hotel’s Scotch and cash and worked every connection he had made during his years catering to the country’s elite to keep his guests and himself alive. “I negotiated and juggled,” he says. “If you want to control someone, it is best to keep him close to you.” Adds Odette Nyiramilimo, a Rwandan doctor who took refuge at the hotel: “Paul had always been a very calm person and very good at his job. During the war he remained himself. He was in charge.”

When the water and electricity were cut off, “my treasure was the swimming pool,” says Rusesabagina. “Twice a day I would ration water out.” He used the hotel’s sole intact phone line to plead for help from the French, Belgian and American governments—to little avail. (Then-President Bill Clinton apologized in 1998 for the international community’s failure to act strongly enough during the genocide.) When refugees began to be evacuated, only foreigners were allowed out. His bosses in Belgium said they could do nothing. “They all left, but as an African I was expected to stay back and know how to survive,” he says. His voice drops slightly: “They even evacuated their dogs.”

After 100 terrifying days—”We just prayed,” says Tatiana, 46—they and the remaining Rwandans finally left the hotel during a U.N.-brokered truce and made it to a refugee camp. Granted political asylum in Belgium in 1996 with his wife and children Lys, now 27, Roger, 25, Diane, 23, and Trésor, 12 (they also adopted their orphaned nieces Anaïs, 13, and Karine, 11), Rusesabagina, who lives near Brussels, now runs a small trucking company based in Zambia. Over the years, “many people told us our story needed to be told,” says Tatiana. One of the most persistent was director George. “[Rusesabagina] wanted the story to get out to the widest possible audience,” says George. And his message: “What happened in Rwanda is now happening in Darfur, in the Congo, in all of these places they are butchering innocent civilians,” Rusesabagina says. “It is high time we know that a human life in Africa is as important as a human life in the West.” But watching his ordeal onscreen is still hard. “It is not easy to see what I saw,” says Rusesabagina. “I think we have to forgive but I don’t know that we can ever forget.”

Kyle Smith. Dietlind Lerner in Brussels and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles

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