TCS Daily

"We Think You're Dirt"

By James K. Glassman - February 25, 2005 12:00 AM

I'm no movie critic, but the best film I've seen this year, without a doubt, is "Hotel Rwanda." It's so good, I saw it twice in a week, including once in the company of my 12- and 14-year-old nephews, who left the theater as edified, angry, uplifted and drained as I did.

The film, directed by Terry George, is the true story of a Europhile hotel manager who simply wants to raise his family without complication and to do his job with "style." Suddenly, thrust into a moral crisis, he rises to leadership and saves the lives of 1,268 adults and children during the genocidal slaughter of nearly one million minority Tutsis by Hutu militias and soldiers between April and July 1994, as the world sat on its collective hands.

Unfortunately, "Hotel Rwanda" is not nominated as best picture for this Sunday's Oscars (8 p.m. Eastern on ABC), eclipsed in the judgment of the Academy by such clunkers as "The Aviator." But Don Cheadle is up for best actor, Sophie Okonedo for best supporting actress, and George and Keir Pearson for original screenplay.

Cheadle, who was terrific in little movies like "Boogie Nights," is finally getting the break he deserves, but Okonedo, the daughter of an English mother and Nigerian father, is the star, in a performance that's frighteningly real.

I hope they win, but I'm just happy that the TV audience, few of whom have seen the movie, will be able to get a look at even a couple short clips.

Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. He's a Hutu and his wife Tatiana, played by Okonedo, is a Tutsi. These racial distinctions are even more artificial than most. Through intermarriage over centuries, the races were largely merged -- only to be resurrected in opposition in 1863 by a loony English anthropological theorist named John Hanning Speke.

As Philip Gourevitch shows in his superb 1998 book on the genocide, "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families," Speke's ideas were exploited by the Belgians when they took over Rwanda after World War II, putting the Tutsis (who, according to Speke, were racially superior) in charge. The Hutus began their revenge on the ruling Tutsis in 1963, after the Belgians pulled out.

Massacres and expulsions of Tutsis by Hutus proceeded, on and off on a relatively small scale, for three decades, until April 6, 1994, when Hutu extremists engineered the death of the Hutu president in a plane crash and blamed it on Tutsi rebels. Then the butchering of civilians, including small children, began, with machetes as the weapon of choice.

The United Nations, which had a force in Rwanda to oversee a tentative peace agreement between the two sides (their role, says a Canadian colonel played by Nick Nolte, is to be "peacekeepers, not peacemakers"), pulled nearly all their troops out two weeks later. The Clinton Administration ignored the genocide and refused even to use the term, except as an adjective referring to isolated incidents. In the end, the U.N. helped a few Europeans escape but left Tutsis to die in horrific ways.

Michael J. Totten, writing on TechCentralStation last month, called the U.S. and European attitude toward Rwanda in 1994 a manifestation of the Genovese Syndrome, a reference to Kitty Genovese, who was knifed to death in New York in 1964 as neighbors looked on without trying to help her.

Now, the Syndrome is being played out in Sudan, whose Darfur region is the site of an "ethnic cleansing," or genocidal, campaign by militias with government support -- in a replay of Rwanda. The U.N. Security Council has passed resolutions threatening sanctions, but it hasn't issued sanctions or taken serious steps to restrain the attackers, who have killed an estimated 70,000 and created 800,000 refugees.

President Bush was among those moved by "Hotel Rwanda" and recently asked to meet with Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina, who now live in Zambia. They got together in the Oval Office on Feb. 17, along with Mrs. Bush, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley.

Rusesabagina had recently returned from Darfur with a delegation that included five congressmen and Cheadle, and his message to the president was that "what is going on in Darfur is exactly what was going on in Rwanda....

"The rest of the world failed when the genocide was taking place in Rwanda. The [U.N.] soldiers ran away and left on our own. Today, there is no one who is intervening really in a good way in Darfur. Darfur is left on its own."

Unlike in Rwanda, the U.S. is pressing for action in Sudan, but America is being thwarted by France, which has rejected both sanctions and a proposed NATO role, and China, which has oil interests in the country. Europeans are cynically trying to create an uncomfortable situation for the U.S. by pushing for the prosecution of Darfur war crimes in the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose permanent status the Administration correctly opposes for fear that innocent U.S. officials will be hauled to the dock by anti-war extremists.

In fact, the U.S. could support a special tribunal for war crimes in Darfar without backing a permanent ICC with broad powers.

But this story runs far deeper. The theme in Rwanda and Darfur can be seen throughout Africa. As Nolte's character, who is tormented by the U.N.'s neglect, says to Rusesabagina: "They're not going to stop the slaughter. You should spit in my face..... We think you're dirt, Paul.... You're not even a nigger. You're African."

Consider the treatment that Africans are receiving today at the hands of a U.N. agency, the World Health Organization, which has approved the use of rip-off Indian-made copies of American and European drugs to fight AIDS. The companies that make these drugs now admit they can't prove their medicines are "bio-equivalent" -- that is, composed of the same chemicals as the originals -- and many have been withdrawn from the WHO's list, but with no follow-up to find who has been taking them.

Sick Africans deserve the same drugs as sick Americans and Europeans -- especially when those drugs cost no more than the knock-offs, as research has shown.

Last summer at an AIDS conference in Bangkok, I heard Randall Tobais, who heads the Bush program to fight the disease, put the issue very well: "It is a moral imperative that families in programs funded by the United States in the developing world have the same assurances as American families that the drugs they use are safe and effective. America will not have one health standard for her own citizens and a lower standard of "good enough" for those suffering elsewhere."

Yes, there are well-meaning and hard-working relief workers making sacrifices, but too many officials of developed countries -- and of the U.N. -- still act as though Africans were dirt.

That's the message of "Hotel Rwanda," a movie the world should be watching.

James K. Glassman is host of TCS and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.



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