Rwanda has rebuffed international pressure to release Paul Rusesabagina, a man made famous by Hollywood.
Paul Rusesabagina may be one of the Rwandans most famous in the world. His actions during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi were made famous in the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda.
This film is inspired by what happened at the Hotel des Mille Collines, in the capital, Kigali. It was there that 1 Rwandans, both Tutsi and Hutu, were rescued from the genocidal forces that awaited them beyond its walls.
The film depicts Rusesabagina – who left Rwanda in 1996 – as a hero who saved those lives. After the film's release, Rusesabagina received several humanitarian awards, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded in 2005 by former President George W. Bush. He eventually became a US resident and Belgian citizen.
On August 27, 2020, however, Rwandan authorities arrested Rusesabagina. Human Rights Watch accused the Rwandan government of having intentionally misled by making him take a flight to Kigali.
The government accused Rusesabagina of supporting anti-Rwanda groups. He was charged with terrorism, arson, kidnapping and murder for two attacks committed in 2018 that killed nine Rwandans. On September 20, 2021, Rusesabagina was found guilty of these charges. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Since his conviction, Rwanda has refused to give in to growing international pressure for Rusesabagina's release.
In August 2022, during a visit to Kigali, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged government to release Rusesabagina. In Hollywood, actors and actresses have highlighted the issue through a “Free Rusesabagina” clothing campaign.
In my latest research paper, I became interested in the Rusesabagina case. Based on interviews with Rwandans, I conclude that Hollywood's interpretation of historical events differs significantly from that of people who lived in the hotel during the genocide.
Hotel Rwanda is a double-edged weapon for the country.
On the one hand, he made known the horrible 1994 genocide to a world that knew little about what had happened in this small African nation. For 100 days, between April 6 and July 19, Rwanda was the scene of the deaths of almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
On the other hand, the historical inaccuracies of the film strengthened the image of Rusesabagina. Based on what I discovered during the interviews I conducted, I contend that he used his notoriety to promote his version of Rwandan history and his desire for political power. The results of my research echo those of other people, including Rwandan academics, who studied the gap between stories.
Many people from the north whose knowledge of Rwanda comes down mainly to film have allowed themselves to be influenced by Rusesabagina to the detriment of the history, aspirations and wishes expressed by Rwandans. This narrative has been fueled to a large extent by human rights groups, which have been highly critical of the human rights situation dans le pays.
Between 2008 and 2018, more than 100 survivors of Hôtel des Mille Collines spoke with me about their historical experiences and their belief that Rusesabagina was not the reason they were still alive. I conducted most of these interviews at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Hotel, which houses the remains of over 250 genocide victims. My research also used existing networks within the Rwandan government and civil society organizations.
Survivors who were at the hotel have declared that Rusesabagina ran the hotel as a personal, for-profit business.
If you couldn't pay it, you risked being kicked out of the hotel grounds, which meant certain death. A survivor said:
If you could pay you could stay in a room. If you couldn't pay for a room, you could pay to stay in a hallway. If you couldn't afford that, you could pay to stay by the pool. If you couldn't pay that, he (Rusesabagina) would ask you to leave.
A hotel employee told me this:
He (Rusesabagina) didn't care about any of us (the workers). I begged him to let my family stay because I had been working there (at the hotel) for a long time. He didn't care and demanded that I pay him money or he would throw them out to kill them.
Several others survivor stories suggest a different narrative from that of the film. In Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina is described as collecting money only to pay the perpetrators of the genocide.
Rusesabagina during the genocide
Before the genocide, Rusesabagina worked at the nearby Hôtel des Diplomates. He took over the management of the Hôtel des Mille Collines after discovering that its European director, Bik Cornelis, had been evacuated. A former hotel employee told me:
…a few days after the murders, Rusesabagina came in one day and saw that the former manager (Cornelis) had been taken away with the other Europeans. He called (the owners of the hotel) and told them to … only work with him. They had no idea what was going on and probably hadn't spoken to Cornelis yet, so they agreed.
While the film credits Rusesabagina with creating an oasis during the conflict, it is not thanks to him that the hotel – one of the few places of refuge at the time – survived the attacks of the perpetrators. of genocide.
The film does not describe the seven to ten soldiers of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) who were constantly positioned in front of the establishment.
In its free, Roméo Dallaire, former commander of this UN mission, says he posted troops at the only entrance to the hotel to symbolically indicate that it was under UN protection. Dallaire denounced Hotel Rwanda as historical revisionism.
In addition, the Interahamwe, the main Hutu death squads responsible for the genocidal massacres, had been ordered to stay outside the hotel walls. They allowed people in, but threatened or killed those who tried to get out.
A former Interahamwe who had been stationed about XNUMX meters from the entrance to the hotel told me that he had received the order from his regional commander “not to move from the hotel and to allow the Tutsis and others to access it”. The hotel was also used for prisoner exchanges “and it would be the last place we could clean up (murder the Tutsis) once we beat the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front)”.
The Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Paul Kagame, took control of the country in July, ending the genocide. The horrors of the 100 Day period led Rwanda to focus on forming a new unique ethnic identity: the “Rwandan”.
Jonathan beloff, Postdoctoral Research Associate, King's College London
This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.