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Hotel Rwanda

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Emma Cobb

The one and only time I saw Paul Rusesabagina, I was on the hunt for a Primus beer with a fellow journalist. Rumor had it that the manager of the Hôtel des Milles Collines, as Paul then was, kept a stock of it in his suite.

The Rwandan genocide had started the week before. The day we went to look for Rusesabagina was my birthday, one of the days that would later represent a peak in the 1994 genocide. We had been covering the killings taking place everywhere in Kigali.

Bands of men with machetes and other agricultural tools were manning roadblocks. Forcing us to a halt, they’d check the nationalities on our passports and, after long tense minutes, wave us through. Bodies of men, women, and children lay on the roadside near these checkpoints. Once I saw a woman with her legs cut off. A few hours earlier, when we’d passed by the same row of houses accompanied by a French military escort, she’d been alive and standing by the roadside.

Her attackers were known in the Kinyarwanda language as the Interahamwe, militias from Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority. They’d wait for us, foreign journalists—and for foreign soldiers too—to be out of sight before preying upon their targets, most of whom were members of the country’s Tutsi minority. In the 100 days between early April and early July 1994, at least 500,000 Tutsis were killed, a number that represented about three-quarters of the Tutsis living inside Rwanda at the time. Many, if not most, were killed in the first two weeks.

On that evening when we washed up at the Mille Collines, I remember Paul Rusesabagina sandwiched between others on a sofa. An ordinary man in an ordinary khaki suit of the kind once favored by men from Africa’s middle class, he seemed to be swallowed by the sofa’s puffy cushions. He spoke—in Kinyarwanda and French—with the men seated to either side of him. There were women in the room, seated delicately on chairs, a little to one side.

I hope we had more important questions for Paul than beer, but after what we’d seen on the streets of Kigali, all I can remember is aching for a drink and the stolid, impenetrable atmosphere in the hotel suite. Rusesabagina was needed for something else and we were ushered out empty handed. I recall a vague promise of beer reappearing in the dining room in the coming days. I am not sure the Rwandan women in the room ever spoke.

Now Paul Rusesabagina, the model for the character played by Don Cheadle in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, once considered a hero, is in prison accused of terrorism. I am thinking back to the man I saw, clad in his respectable, ordinary clothes, dwarfed by that enormous sofa.

It is worth our attention to take his measure in full. The story of how he landed in a cell should make us all think about what got him there, whether we live in Rwanda or the U.S., or anywhere in between.

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In the film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina is portrayed as a Schindler-like hero who saves the lives of more than 1,200 guests as a genocidal civil war raged around them. To explain why we sought out Rusesabagina that night, it was said that he kept beer and other alcohol in his suite to pay off the soldiers and militiamen who pitched up in the lobby. They came to seize Tutsis who had booked themselves into the hotel when the killings started, and were hiding in family groups, packed into its rooms.

Rusesabagina had shut the main dining room on the top floor of the hotel because it was too vulnerable to artillery fire. The only evidence journalists like us saw of the people sheltering at the hotel was at mealtimes, when they would send a family member to the dining room, set up in an area that previously served another use. They would grab a tray of whatever the kitchen was managing to serve up and scurry with it back to their rooms. I remember wondering why none of them would sit down at the tables to eat. I realized later that no Rwandan hiding there wanted to be seen by another, for fear of their hiding place being revealed. It was like that.

Before the genocide, the Milles Collines, so named for the Rwandan tourist board’s pitch of the country as the land of “a thousand hills,” was jokingly referred to by visitors as the “milles copines” or “a thousand girlfriends,” a reference to the sex workers foreign guests might choose to entertain. Then, it was the smartest hotel in town, its pale grey and salmon pink décor unfaded, a dining area opening out onto a tropical garden around the pool, its breakfast spreads a glorious melange of wonderfully fresh radishes, papaya, pineapple, and purple maracuja—passionfruit, the size of golf balls. I think it cost about $100 a night to stay there, perhaps slightly more, a price we, as journalists based in the region, considered decidedly at the upper end of our budget, très cher.

Off the lobby was an expensive curio shop with beautiful kimonos made of African print fabric hanging in its windows. I so wanted one, but the price tag, another $100 (or the Rwandan francs equivalent), held me back. After the genocide, on visits to the hotel, I would check the hotel shop for the reappearance of kimonos, wondering if the tailors who made them had been Tutsi, and if they had survived. Eventually, in perhaps 1996 or 1997, one appeared in the display of the hotel shop, but I saw it as a pale imitation of the ones I’d seen before.


That may sound trivial, but it is still the most cheerful image I can excavate from my memories about Rwanda then.

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Now Rwanda is, by all accounts, impressively tidy. Plastic litter was banned some years back. The man given credit for clipping off Rwanda’s loose ends is Paul Kagame. Now Rwanda’s president, in 1994 he was the leader of its rebel army; at 37 years old, a fearsome military opponent. Not yet in power, already stories circulated among regional reporters of his disciplinarian streak.

One loose end, apparently, was Paul Rusesabagina. Hotel Rwanda not only propelled actor Don Cheadle to an Oscar nomination; it gave Rusesabagina, then living in exile in Texas, national and international fame. In 2005, President George W, Bush awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and U.S. permanent resident, had quit running the Milles Collines soon after the war ended, and, in 1996, feeling unsafe in Rwanda, left for Belgium. Eventually, even Belgium—with its large Rwandan communities and porous borders—felt too close to Rwanda for comfort, and after a series of suspicious break-ins at his house, Rusesabagina moved to a gated community in San Antonio, Texas. Rusesabagina had been living in relative obscurity, as far as most Americans were concerned, but thanks to the fame generated by the movie, he had come to see himself as a player in Rwandan politics.

In August 2020, Rusesabagina travelled from San Antonio via Chicago to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to meet a pastor who’d invited him to speak to his congregations in Burundi, a country similar in topography, size, and ethnic composition (majority Hutu, minority Tutsi) to Rwanda. The pastor brought a private jet with him. Instead of flying to Burundi, it landed in Rwanda.

Rwandan prosecutors charged Rusesabagina with terrorism and complicity in kidnapping and murder for supposedly funding a rebel group called the National Liberation Front (FLN) and sponsoring a raid on two villages that border Burundi in which at least nine people were killed, including two children.

The prosecutors promised documents and witnesses. But nothing credible materialized; only shadowy figures that Rusesabagina had never met and bank records of small and ordinary disbursements to friends and family back home. While there is little debate over whether Rusesabagina supported the opposition group - he hasn’t denied it - there is no evidence that he funneled money to its members. By most accounts, his finances hardly left him in a position to do so.

“No witnesses to the alleged terrorist incidents, no identification of who did it, no linkage to Paul, nothing,” said Brian Endless, a political science professor at Loyola University Chicago, who has been following the case. “And many witnesses provided evidence that exonerated Paul, especially between him and the FLN. The second half of the trial was marked by recantations of Paul’s co-accused, who withdrew their prior accusations saying they had no choice but to accuse him, after having been held in ‘inhumane conditions.”

Yet on Sept 20, 2021, Rusesabagina was sentenced to 25 years to life. It is an open question whether he will survive more than a few years of incarceration. After his arrest, Rusesabagina swore in an affidavit that he had been tortured, recalling one instance where a Rwanda Investigation Bureau agent allegedly stepped on his neck with military boots. Rusesabagina said he "was hardly breathing" by that point but could hear the agent say, "We know how to torture," according to the affidavit.

Since his conviction, Rusesabagina, a 68-year-old cancer survivor with high blood pressure, has often been kept in solitary confinement — illegal by global justice standards — and, until recently, denied visits by his lawyers.

Tom Zoellner is a journalist and professor at Chapman University. Co-author of Paul Rusesabagina's 2006 autobiography, An Ordinary Man, Zoellner says that he hadn’t seen or spoken to Rusesabagina for 15 years, but as he watched Kagame’s regime become increasingly authoritarian, he wondered if Kagame would retaliate against Rusesabagina, who had been vocal in his opposition to the regime.

After Rusesabagina’s arrest, alarmed at its extra-judicial nature and a court process he believed was controlled by Kagame, Zoellner began writing about the case - and about Rwanda, which he believes is misunderstood by the West.

Zoellner and others, including the journalist Michela Wrong, author of a recent book on Rwanda, Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad, believe that Kagame has capitalized on the West’s lingering guilt over the failure to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Over the years, Kagame authoritarianism has been largely ignored by the West. But the impunity stretches beyond the country's borders. In the mid- and late-1990s, Rwandan troops invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo, triggering six million deaths through murder, starvation and disease and enriching Rwanda's coffers in the process.

Yet the U.S. and other Western nations continue to support Kagame's rule. In a recent Washington Post oped, Zoellner pointed out that “the genocide not only turned Kagame into an international figure of renown; it also drove billions of dollars of corporate investment and direct aid to Kagame’s regime. Bill Clinton told Kagame repeatedly that not deploying U.S. troops to halt the slaughter was the biggest regret of his presidency.”

Guilt translated to money. From 2004 to 2016, U.S. funding to Rwanda increased from about $48 million in 2004 to more than $128 million annually. The Biden administration, which continues to regard Rwanda as an ally, has kept to a 2020 Trump administration promise of delivering more than more than $100 million annually for five years. Most of it goes into fighting AIDS and malaria, and to improving food security. (Rwanda has always had more people than it can feed: “Are you hungry or have you just come from Rwanda?” has long been a joke made to a visitor with a hearty appetite in neighboring Uganda.)

The official line from the U.S., Rwanda’s largest donor, consists of lauding its “remarkable progress” in reducing poverty and maternal and child mortality. And that, an academic with many years of experience in Rwanda told me, is for donors seeking an example of aid well spent, an acceptable trade-off.

To anyone not in the foreign aid business, the toll of Kagame’s dictatorship outweighs the social good of his regime.

Yet Kagame is still profiting from the reputation he gained as the man who halted the genocide. He has successfully controlled the narrative for nearly 30 years, keeping that image in place by silencing anyone who disagrees with him, including journalists and academics. Nevertheless, starting with questions about the causes of the genocide itself, cracks have appeared.

While the West was more than ready to believe that, like the Bosnian conflict, Rwanda’s genocide was driven by ethnic tensions, economic tensions and French meddling also contributed to what was essentially a coup by Kagame and others.

Despite the divide and conquer strategy employed by Belgian colonialists who fostered tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, the two ethnic groups had lived in relative peace for decades, often intermarrying. After independence in 1962, the Hutu majority dominated the government. The incident that started the genocide was originally perceived as an internal power struggle: when a plane carrying the country’s Hutu president was shot down in April 1994, journalists thought Hutu extremists had done it to trigger the murders, which took place immediately, of Hutu moderates in government, along with Tutsi civilian politicians and civil and human rights activists who were both Hutu and Tutsi.

The widespread massacres of ordinary Tutsis swiftly ensued. Accounts written shortly after the genocide concluded that about 507,000 Tutsi were slain during the genocide, a figure representing about three-quarters of the Tutsi population living in the country at the time. Hutus who helped Tutsis were also killed by militias. The RPF rebels, led by Kagame, were also implicated in the murders of 25,000-35,000 Rwandans. There were military casualties on both sides, too.

Years later, investigating a case brought by the former president’s family, a French judge found that the RPF was responsible for planning and carrying out the attack on the president’s jet. The findings suggested that the RPF downed the plane to accelerate its aim of taking over the government. Kagame broke off diplomatic relations with the French.

In 2011, after Nicolas Sarkozy became president and sought reconciliation, a French commission visited Rwanda to investigate and came up with a different conclusion. Normal business resumed. For what it's worth, an alternate theory is that the French government was behind the assassination.

The turnabout would find an odd parallel after Paul Rusesabagina’s arrest, when Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, a member of the Democratic progressive group known as the Squad, and a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform, visited Rwanda in October 2021. Several months later, she opposed the bipartisan resolution calling on the Government of Rwanda to release Rusesabagina, introduced on February 1, 2021 by Texas Democrat Rep. Joaquin Castro, saying that Rusesabagina had been “credibly accused of terrorism, tried and convicted.”

Was Omar, who lived in refugee camps as a child, blinded by her residual anti-colonialism? Is she simply naive? Those would be the kindest interpretations. It’s also well known that Rwanda is, as Tom Zoellner put it in an article about her odd turnabout, “eager to do business with the U.S. It hosts a branch campus of Carnegie Mellon University and a startup minor league of the National Basketball Association. Goldman Sachs funds a women’s education program there and electric car manufacturers are eyeing the tin and tungsten produced from its Rutungo mines.”

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Dictators become dictators by assuming control of a country's legislative and judicial branches. We've seen a recent if clumsy attempt to do this in the United States. What gets less attention but may be even more important is an autocrat's control of a country's narrative, even to the point of rewriting history. What’s striking about Rwanda is Kagame's brilliance at doing exactly that, using both subtle and brutal methods. Kagame has proved to be a master at rewriting history, and anyone who diverges from the official narrative is punished, according to Zoellner.

As Zoellner has documented, after Rwandan professor Leopold Munyakazi gave lectures characterizing the 1994 genocide as a conflict over political power more than ethnicity, he was jailed on charges that he had participated in the killings himself. It was a classic case of projection; something Americans have come to recognize among certain politicians.

Zoellner writes: "Ethnicity has to remain at the center of the official narrative because it gives a simple — if incomplete — explanation for the genocide and for the need of a strongman like Kagame to stop it from happening again. Munyakazi was eventually cleared of those accusations but sentenced to nine years in prison for the intellectual crime of “genocide revisionism.”

Now Paul Rusesabagina appears to have gotten the same treatment.

“There is no credible evidence that Paul Rusesabagina funded terrorism,” Zoellner said. “Before the trial Paul Kagame came out and said he was guilty. There’s no independent judiciary in Rwanda, so that was it. But think about it. You don’t kidnap a guilty man and deny him due process. If they had the goods, they would have done it legally. This was a revenge kidnapping.”

I asked Zoellner if Rusesabagina harbored presidential ambitions, as one former Rwandan government official had mentioned. “He probably had it in the back of his mind that he could be the unity president,” Zoellner said. “I urged him to tone down the rhetoric. Then we lost touch.”

While Rusesabagina remains in prison, his health declining, a campaign for his release has grown. Don Cheadle has spoken out in Rusesabagina’s support. House Resolution 892 co-sponsored by Castro and California Republican Young Kim (R-CA) urging Kagame to release Rusesabagina has garnered support from more than 40 members of Congress. As Rusesabagina has himself pointed out, he is no longer even a Rwandan citizen, something that renders his trial in Rwanda, without extradition from Belgium, illegal. Human Rights Watch, the Clooney Foundation for Justice, the European Parliament, PEN America and other rights organizations have called for his release.

Yet Zoellner says there is an “almost Walter Durante-esque” aspect to much of the press coverage, referring to the New York Times correspondent who purveyed Russia’s party line in the 1930s, deliberately covering up of the Stalin-engineered famine that killed more than 4 million Ukrainians.

“Kagame has lied and lied and lied about his political opponents,” Zoellner said. “There is a torrent of lies accusing Paul of absurd things, draining the swimming pool, charging people for rooms, all these things that never happened, things that historians have checked. Yet some reporters are printing these allegations without checking them.”

It's all about controlling the narrative, and that includes surveillance, according to Zoellner.

“Kagame maintains order through ruthless control of all levels of society, a giant 'spying machine,' in the words of exiled top official David Himbara, where informants are everywhere. Kagame’s agents have assassinated many of his critics overseas, including former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya in a Johannesburg hotel room in 2013. Rwanda was an enthusiastic user of Pegasus spy software, which it has used to listen in on phone conversations at home and abroad,” Zoellner wrote in The Washington Post.

The life of Paul Rusesabagina may hinge on the campaigns to free him.

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Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda

The cacophony of criticism the Rwandan government has faced as a result, in Europe as well as in the US, may result in Rusesabagina’s release. Or it could backfire, making Rusesabagina seem an even more credible threat. The U.S.-based watchdog, Human Rights Watch, is publicizing the targeting of opposition members, journalists, and commentators by Rwanda’s judicial authorities. In 2020 and 2021, the rights group says its representative monitored trials in which judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent. Poets and rappers, popular on YouTube for rhetoric the government perceives as critical, have been locked up; at least one has died in prison.

That could very well be Rusesabagina’s fate. Many who know him, found him, as we did that night, and as his autobiography was titled, an ordinary man. He is, perhaps, smarter than many; he had studied hotel management in Kenya and Switzerland, he survived the genocide, and whether he was as heroic as the man portrayed by Don Cheadle, he lived to tell the tale.

But there is a more common fate for rivals. Many of Kagame’s former allies, men who might have challenged him politically, have been found murdered in exile. Several of his closest army chums are locked up in semi-isolation, with the locations of the houses they are kept in often unclear, some unable to even bid farewell to loved ones suffering from terminal illness. If Kagame succeeds in killing his most prominent critic, a U.S. permanent legal resident, without reprisal, it will do nothing to keep repression against his own citizens in check.

There are signs that the pressure on the U.S. government is working. The U.S. State Department has let the Rwandan government know it is keeping a close eye on Rusesabagina’s treatment in prison. It insists that Rwanda stick to a commitment allowing him to talk to his family in the U.S. by phone for five minutes each week. That’s something.

Perhaps Kagame will decide, between the bad press, and the threat to his continued good relations with the U.S., that Paul Rusesabagina is, after all, just an ordinary man.

Emma Cobb is the pseudonym for a journalist who reported on Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

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