Rwanda: Correcting the Depiction of the 'Hotel Rwanda Hero'

Paul Rusesabagina, centre, with his lawyers David Rugaza, right, and Emeline Nyembo during the pre-trial hearing at Kicukiro Primary Court on Monday, September 14.
14 September 2020

Concerns about Paul Rusesabagina's arrest may be well-founded, but descriptions of him as a real-life human rights hero may be less so.

On 31 August, news broke that Rwandan police had arrested Paul Rusesabagina, a man made internationally famous in 2004 by the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. In that Oscar-nominated work, Rusesabagina was portrayed by Don Cheadle as the brave saviour of over 1,200 people during the 1994 genocide. The film depicted the former hotel manager as a real-life hero, a Rwandan Oskar Schindler. After its release, Rusesabagina picked up numerous international human rights awards including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom as George Bush lavished praise on the "good man".

It is not surprising therefore that his arrest in Kigali last month was greeted with widespread alarm. Many groups and commentators in the West condemned Rwandan officials for detaining a human rights hero simply for criticising the government. They raised fears for Rusesabagina's safety and access to justice. President Paul Kagame, by contrast, gloated about luring the exile into a trap and repeated allegations that Rusesabagina is the leader of a rebel group responsible for deadly attacks.

The following article does not seek to comment on most of these perspectives. The Rwandan government's repressive treatment of opponents, at home and abroad, has been well-documented elsewhere. Meanwhile, the details of Rusesabagina's alleged links to rebel groups and the exact events around his arrest are yet to fully emerge.

Instead, this piece merely aims to correct the record on one aspect of these events: the simplistic depiction of Rusesabagina in much of the media and by human rights groups as an unambiguous hero. While many viewers seem to have taken the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda as facts, numerous first-hand witnesses to the actual events - including those allegedly saved by Rusesabagina, UN peacekeepers and genocidaires - have told a much more complex story.

"Repulsive for its untruthfulness"

Hotel Rwanda was loosely based on Rusesabagina's personal experiences as told to Philip Gourevitch in his bestseller We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. This formed the foundation of a screenplay that told the story of a courageous and compassionate hotel manager who risked life and limb to rescue hundreds of Tutsis by sheltering them in the Hotel des Mille Collines. He is depicted as being horrified at the unfolding violence and of currying favour with influential Hutu soldiers in order to protect his secret scheme.

On its release, Hotel Rwanda received many plaudits as well as some criticism. Perhaps the harshest critiques, however, have come from eyewitnesses to the events depicted.

"I can testify that I personally was not able to watch that movie beyond a point as I found it so repulsive for its untruthfulness," wrote Captain Amadou Deme of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda (UNAMIR) in his memoir.

Putting it more simply, UNAMIR's force commander Romeo Dallaire dismissed the film as "not worth looking at". He told a conference: "I would like you to acknowledge the role played by those UNAMIR troops who stayed in Rwanda, including the troops from Congo-Brazzaville who were the ones who saved the people at the Hotel Mille Collines - not the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina". Dallaire is himself regarded by many as a hero for adamantly staying in Rwanda with a few hundred poorly armed troops in April 1994 despite orders from the UN Security Council to withdraw.

Major Stefan Stec, one of the UN observers who was staying at the hotel during the genocide, also questioned the Hollywood depiction of events. In a 2004 interview, he reported that Rusesabagina at one point gave the Rwandan army the names and room numbers of the most threatened refugees. The UN observers helped the targets move to different rooms to avoid capture.

Furthermore, in a survey of 74 refugees who sheltered in the hotel, only three confirmed that Rusesabagina had rescued people. Rusesabagina dismissed the findings by the Rwandan researcher as part of a smear campaign by the government and called the respondents "cowards".

Elsewhere, survivors from the hotel have said that the manager was an opportunist who had made them pay for everything in the hotel even though Sabena Airlines, which owned the hotel, had sent him a fax instructing him not to.

Conspiracy theories

The exact events in the Hotel des Mille Collines will probably never be fully known. However, it is not just the facts of what happened in 1994 that require scrutiny. If Rusesabagina is to be presented as a hero, his words and beliefs also demand attention. On this front, the former hotel manager's comments are also at odds with typical depictions of the man.

Most alarmingly, Rusesabagina denies the 1994 genocide as researchers and journalists have documented it. In a 2007 interview, he refuted the fact that Hutu extremists played a leading role in the killings. He claimed that now President Kagame infiltrated the Hutu militias known as the Interahamwe and they were unknowingly "working for him". He said that the Interahamwe's president was secretly an agent of the Kagame-led rebel group and that most of the people at roadblocks, where many people were killed, were not Hutu extremists but "Kagame people". Rusesabagina suggested that international observers were fooled into believing the narrative of the 1994 genocide and that if the massacres could be labelled a genocide, it was committed by Tutsis.

More recently, Rusesabagina publicly expressed sympathy for the remnants of the former Rwanda army that was driven out of the country in 1994. These armed rebels are now operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo under the banner of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Rusesabagina has signed petitions in support of the FDLR and wrote a letter in 2013 in which he urged the UN to see the group, which has been accused of war crimes, as wrongly demonised refugees.

By this time, the Rwandan government had already suspected him of supporting the rebel group financially and issued an international arrest warrant. More recently, they have alleged that Rusesabagina is the founder of the National Liberation Front (FLN), a newer armed outfit that has emerged.

Disputed and contested

As stated in the introduction, this article does not aim to comment on, or infer anything about, Rusesabagina's arrest. It merely seeks to urge commentators on all sides - from those celebrating his detention to those raising concerns about the Rwandan government's forceful intolerance of opposition - to be accurate.

Hotel Rwanda is not a historical record, but a fictionalised depiction of a story that many eyewitnesses dispute. And Paul Rusesabagina is not the character in a film but a complex and contested real-life figure. This should be noted for the sake of accuracy.

Jos van Oijen is an independent researcher from The Netherlands who publishes on genocide-related issues in various online and print media.

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