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Lantos Swett: In Darkness, There Is Always Room for a Hero

In the last line of the 2004 Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda,” the Paul Rusesabagina character says, “There’s always room.” With those simple words, he summed up the remarkable story of his quietly heroic efforts to save more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus marked for death during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that took almost a million lives.

As we prepare to award the 2011 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, we see these words as expressing the fundamental human decency that lit the path of humanitarian heroes like my father, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.); Raoul Wallenberg, the hero of the Holocaust; and, of course, this year’s prize nominee, Rusesabagina.

Nobel Laureate and Lantos Prize honoree Elie Wiesel has written, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must, at that moment, become the center of the universe.”

Seventeen years ago, when Rwanda desperately needed to be the center of the universe, the world turned away. But Rusesabagina did not turn away from those who sought his help. Instead, he made room for them.

In the midst of unimaginable darkness, there is always room for a hero. Albeit reluctantly, Rusesabagina earned that distinction during the Rwandan Genocide. Using his position as manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, this self-described “ordinary man” used every stratagem and connection he could muster to shelter desperate refugees at his hotel, protecting them from the brutal slaughter occurring just outside the gates. What began as a quest to protect his family and a handful of neighbors quickly snowballed into a three-month ordeal that saved the lives of more than 1,200 Tutsis and Hutus.

My family knows something about the courage it takes to provide shelter in a time of great turmoil and danger. My father was saved during the Holocaust by just such an act of bravery; he was able to survive the last brutal days of World War II in a “safe house” run by Wallenberg, a young Swedish diplomat. Heroes such as Wallenberg and Rusesabagina audaciously lived the idea that we are all our brother’s keepers, risking their own lives to protect strangers simply because it was the right thing to do.

Tragically, Wallenberg was rewarded for his heroism with imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag where he died before the efforts of his family and grateful survivors could succeed in freeing him. Unfortunately, Rusesabagina, like Wallenberg and many others throughout history, has learned the hard way that there is often suspicion when it comes to one’s heroism. As he has sought to promote democracy and a truth and reconciliation process in Rwanda, he has been subjected to bitter attacks on his character and his motives.

Despite the significant progress that has been made in Rwanda under President Paul Kagame, many deep-rooted tensions along ethnic lines remain. If this mutual suspicion is not addressed, it could pose an ongoing risk to the people of the region.

At the Lantos Foundation, we strongly believe there is always room for dialogue. It was one of the things my father did best. We think Rusesabagina’s call for dialogue is the right prescription for his native country, and we hope for a robust and respectful conversation between all those who are working for a better future for Rwanda.

The Lantos Prize is awarded annually to an individual or organization that best exemplifies our foundation’s mission, namely to be a vital voice standing up for the values of decency, dignity, freedom and justice in every corner of the world.

In our humble opinion, Rusesabagina has been a very vital voice, and there is always room for another one of those.

Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which she established in 2008 to carry on the work of her father, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).

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