Blood flowed in the streets. Machine guns and machetes replaced courtesies and conversations among neighbors and colleagues from different ethnic groups.
As Rwanda fell into the grip of genocide 10 years ago, what distinguished Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager in Kigali, the capital, from many of his countrymen was an unspoken passion to serve others and a knack for decorum.
Actor Don Cheadle, right, talks with Paul Rusesabagina, whom he portrays in the film "Hotel Rwanda," a story of heroism during the 1994 genocide.
(Frank Connor -- United Artists)
"I was not brave, but maybe I was someone who refused to follow the mob," Rusesabagina said in an interview in Washington before the screening last week of "Hotel Rwanda," a film based on heroic exploits by which Rusesabagina ultimately saved more than 1,200 people.
The movie, shown at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, follows events beginning in April 1994, as Rusesabagina was transformed from a suave host into a heralded savior and turned his once-elegant establishment, Hotel Mille Collines, into a haven for the helpless. Using his standing and connections, he staved off tragedy, cajoling bloodthirsty soldiers and outsmarting their leaders to save not only his family and friends but also strangers who came seeking refuge.
The slaughter began on April 6, 1994, when gunmen shot down the Rwandan president's plane, killing him and the president of neighboring Burundi. The incident quickly degenerated into genocide, a brutal door-to-door killing frenzy in which more than 800,000 people were massacred in just 100 days, as extremists from the majority Hutu population lashed out mercilessly against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Amid the carnage, Rusesabagina remained the consummate professional, resorting to bartering luxury items hoarded in his hotel to ensure the safety of his patrons, keep food supplies coming in and thwart potential massacres. Rusesabagina rationed the water in the swimming pool, using trash cans to measure out portions for each room so that clients could cook, eat and wash.
His first brush with calamity came when militiamen stopped him and a van filled with his neighbors and asked him to shoot the whole vanload because they were Tutsi.
"I know you guys are hungry, tired, thirsty and stressed by the war," he told the militiamen. "Look at this old man here. Are you sure he is your enemy? Can you imagine killing him and moving through life with his blood, or this child's blood, on your hands?
"There is a better solution. Escort us to the hotel, so I can get you something to drink. Also, I have money. I will pay for each of these people," he said to the militiamen. If they killed him, he pointed out, no one could lead them to the hotel safe and the money stashed there.
Rusesabagina, the son of a farmer and one of nine children, studied theology and, later, hotel management. He remembers community elders visiting his father, a man with a strong sense of justice, to settle land disputes. As an adult, Rusesabagina shuttled easily between his family life, with his wife, Tatiana, and their children, and his demanding job -- until the killing started.
The tools of his trade were nothing unusual: the keys to the hotel's storage rooms and cellars and a Rolodex of important people, including Rwandans, U.N. officials and employees at Sabena, the Belgian firm that owned the hotel.
"I would go into my secretary's office at night to secretly use the phone, fax, wake people up at 4 a.m., just to keep buying time, begging people to intervene," he said. "Every day, every minute represented unspeakable danger."
One morning, a phalanx of soldiers appeared at his door. "Are you the hotel manager?" one of them barked. "If so, tell all the cockroaches to leave in 30 minutes."
Rusesabagina rushed to the roof and looked down on a sea of spears, guns and machetes. "This is the end, I told myself," he said.