(LEFT: Creative Loafing Coverage by Robin Postell)
(NOTE: This event is what inspired the movie HOTEL RWANDA.)
by Robin Postell
(Special Correspondent to The Athens Banner-Herald)
Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, is being murdered.
It is estimated that up to 500,000 people have been slaughtered there. The Alagera River is swollen with the bodies of men, women and children. The streets of the country’s capital, Kigali, are painted red with the blood of its citizens. And no one is immune to the killings – not Hutus or Tutsis, not anyone.
On June 1, Dr. Marc Daniel Gutekunst, president of the Athens-based non-profit group Forging New Tomorrows (FNT), received a phone call from a friend, Birarne Thiam, in Senegal saying that U.N. Captain Mbaye Diague had been killed. Gutekunst returned recently from Rwanda, where he was stranded in the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali for several harrowing days. During that time, he worked closely with Mbaye to assist the rescue of hundreds of people. Mbaye, singly, was responsible for organizing the departure of thousands from the country.
“If there was one hero from the U.N. it was Mbaye,” Gutekunst said. “He kept taking his U.N. car, by himself, going out, bringing food, trying to find out people he knew in places that were in danger. He was trying to rescue them and bring them to the hotel, bring them to the U.N. headquarters or to the stadium. For the most part he would bring back people if their lives were threatened and provide them with shelter at the hotel. We did this together.”
Born in Rwanda while his father taught at Gitne College near Butare and having lived there on and off through the years, Gutekunst’s last memories of the pristine country are not bullet-riddled. Gutekunst was invited by the Rwandan minister of health to develop a post-war rehabilitation and development program for the displaced people in Rwanda in May 1991.
Athens artist and co-founder of FNT, Stan Mullins, twice traveled with Gutekunst to the then-peaceful country. The first trip was in November 1993, the second this past February, with the intention of painting the endangered mountain gorilla in order to generate funds for Gutekunst’s humanitarian programs.
Mullins returned to Athens early, leaving Gutekunst in Kigali to complete his work. Noticing that an ominous calm had descended on the capital city, Gutekunst, despite rumors that the president might be killed and that a war was roiling just beneath the surface, continued to work as planned.
The rumors proved correct. The President’s plane was shot down and fighting began almost immediately.
Gutekunst stationed himself at the Hotel des Milles Collines and it was there that he began developing an evacuation plan with Mbaye. The captain, who had been placed in the hotel as an observer shortly following the assassination of Hutu President Habyartacana and 10 Belgium U.N. officers, was instrumental in the rescue and evacuation of hundreds of individuals from the onset of the war.
The 129-room hotel quickly filled with terrified Rwandans and foreigners, becoming a refuge. People got word that it was safe and began to arrive in droves. At one point 336 people crammed into the hotel. Up to 30 people were sometimes forced to sleep in one of the rooms. Food and water were scarce.
Gutekunst, who left Kigali on April 11, felt an immense responsibility to those he left behind in the hotel. His childhood friend, Dr. Jusue Kaylaho, whom Gutekunst managed to bring to the hotel on a rescue outing in an unarmed vehicle shortly after the fighting began, pleaded with him in tears not to leave. Gutekunst said, “He was killed (on May 31) on his way to me on the FRP (Rwandan Patriotic Front). Liaison officer, Frank Karmani, securing the authorization for them to for Nairobi. The U.N. is still trying to secure an authorization for these people to tr4ansfer into Nairobi and stay there during the time it will take to get the necessary papers to go to other countries.”
It was yet another senseless killing in the small faraway country, a country tha few people in America had heard of until the corpses began mounting.
The shell of the mortar from the FPR-held territory exploded 4 feet away from Mbaye’s car at a roadblock. The shrapnel his him on the temple and he was killed instantly.
“He was a hero. He saved hundreds of people who were going to be massacred,” Gutekunst said. “He was circulating in town in every single neighborhood in Kigali, being a liaison officer between the different bases on the U.N. , checking on information on the mood of the governmental forces and the mood of the FPR, evacuating families who were caught between fire. He was very courageous while the crazy killing was going on. It is so unfortunate that this hero has to die once he had accomplished his big mission of saving all these people at the hotel.”