Paul Rusesabagina is heroized as the model Rwandan during the country’s genocide. Often, his role in saving the lives of hundreds of people who took shelter from the 1994 genocide at a hotel he managed, Hôtel des Mille Collines (Mille Collines hotel), is highlighted and singled out for praise, thanks to the 2004 Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda.
Rusesabagina became the darling of the West and attained the status of a celebrity while becoming a human rights advocate, philanthropist and opposition politician. He was even featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show, received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and made money delivery speeches across the world.
He also framed himself as someone who stood up to Hutu rebels during the 1994 genocide which claimed hundrends of lives and left many as refugees. In Western media, he is portrayed as an ardent critic of President Paul Kagame.
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But on August 31, Rusesabagina was arrested in Rwanda, a country he vowed never to return to, on charges of terrorism by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB). His arrest, as expected, attracted international media attention.
He has been on the watch list of the Rwandan’s authority since 2010. It would be recalled that the country’s prosecutor-general tried to bring up a case against him, which Rusesabagina would later describe as “baseless” after the charges against him were dropped for lack of evidence.
As a result of his global reputation, it was not surprising when his arrest attracted global attention. However, in Rwanda and among survivors as well as people who were there at the time of the genocide, he is less so.
Rusesabagina’s role in saving the lives of more 1,000 people who took shelter in his hotel led to an Oscar-nominated movie, Hotel Rwanda. Hotel Rwanda was based on Rusesabigina’s personal experience captured in the book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, authored by Philip Gourevitch. The movie starts by claiming that the viewer is being presented with a “true story” of events as witnessed by Rusesabagina.
The release of the movie received mixed reactions. While others applauded the movie, others skewered the exaggerated portrayal of Rusesabagina as a hero. One of the forceful critics of the portrayal of Rusesabagina in the movie was Captain Amadou Deme of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda (UNAMIR).
He remarked in his memoir When The Victors Tell The Story. The UN’s Victims in Rwanda, that he found the movie as “repulsive for its untruthfulness.” He told a conference that UNAMIR troops who stayed in Rwanda and supporting troops from Congo-Brazzaville were the ones who saved the lives of people in the Mille Collines hotel and not “the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina.”
Another person on the ground, UN observer Major Stefan Stec alleged in 2004 that Rusesabahina gave out the names and room numbers of most frightened refugees and that UN observers had to intervene to redirect them to different rooms.
Two prominent genocidaires, Valerie Bemiriki, who worked for the notorious Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) radio, and Paul Rutaganda, dismissed Rusesabagina’s heroism saying not only did Rusesabagina do nothing to save the refugees, but he was also informing the genocidaires about “cockroaches.”
A survey of 74 refugees who sought shelter in Mille Collines hotel were also asked about Rusesabagina’s role in their safety and only three confirmed he helped save lives. Some survivors also claimed he made profits out of the refugees plight, charged people for making phone calls and was selling food to the occupants.
The heroism of Rusesabagina seems to have gone unchallenged for so on, especially when by the accounts of people who lived through the genocide, he is not the hero we are being made to believe he is.
However, it is important to point out that this is not an attempt to justify the arrest of Rusesabagina. The targeting of political opponents in Rwanda is well documented. This piece sought to only look at the heroic status being accorded to Rusesabagina and whether he merits the same.