Hero for Hollywood, “terrorist” in Kigali: Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda”, has become one of the most famous opponents of the Rwandan regime, which accuses him of being responsible for deadly attacks carried out by a rebel group.
The former director of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali will be tried on nine charges, including “terrorism”, and his fate will be decided Monday. He faces life in prison.
The story of this moderate Hutu with a quiet appearance, with his moustache and well-dressed suit, inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda”, released in 2004, which recounts his rescue of more than 1,000 people during the 1994 genocide that left 800,000 dead, mostly Tutsis.
Portrayed on screen by Don Cheadle as a soft-spoken altruist, Mr. Rusesabagina is also one of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s fiercest critics.
Now 67, he reappeared in Rwanda in August 2020, after nearly 25 years in exile, in a pink prison uniform, handcuffed, after what he denounced as an “abduction.
The Rwandan justice system accuses him of being the mastermind of attacks carried out by the National Liberation Front (FLN), a rebel group considered terrorist by Kigali.
He and his family deny this. His relatives say he has always been the courageous, calm and determined man portrayed in the Hollywood blockbuster and denounce a “political” trial aimed at silencing an opponent.
“Dad has always advocated for justice, peace and human rights. Now it is his rights that are being violated,” said his niece and adopted daughter, Carine Kanimba, in October 2020.
– Ordinary” man –
Born in 1954 into a farming family in central Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina briefly studied theology and then hotel management in Kenya and Switzerland.
Returning to Rwanda in 1984, he was hired as deputy general manager of the most prestigious hotel in the capital, Kigali, the Hotel des Mille Collines.
When the genocide began in April 1994, hundreds of people, mainly Tutsis, took refuge there.
A moderate Hutu married to a Tutsi woman, Paul Rusesabagina talked with the killers, soothed them with beers, and used his connections to obtain food, while his “guests” drank the water from the pool. He will send SOS to the European governments and to the American president Bill Clinton with the fax of the hotel.
American journalist Philip Gourevitch, who met him, describes him as “a mild-mannered, solidly built man of rather ordinary appearance.”
“That’s how he seemed to see himself, an ordinary person who did nothing extraordinary in refusing to give in to the whirlwind of madness that surrounded him,” he wrote in his 1998 book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.”
Paul Rusesabagina is disappointed with the new Tutsi-dominated government, which overthrew the extremist Hutu regime and put an end to the genocide.
He accuses the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its leader Paul Kagame of authoritarianism and of fueling anti-Hutu sentiment. He left the country in 1996 with his wife and children for Belgium and the United States.
– Notoriety and criticism –
The release of “Hotel Rwanda” in 2004 brought him sudden fame: he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States and gave conferences around the world…
However, he was criticized by survivors of the Mille Collines, who accused him of taking advantage of their misfortune and of embellishing his role.
“He took advantage of the refugees (who) paid for their rooms and for food,” one of them, Edouard Kayihura, told AFP: “A hero is someone who puts his life at risk to save others. I can’t think of anyone who has done that to save us”.
With his newfound fame, Rusesabagina has also become more vocal against Paul Kagame, which has led to attacks from regime supporters.
“As he was attacked, he was pushed into more extreme positions,” says Timothy Longman, a professor at Boston University who first met him in the mid-1990s.
Linked to exiled opposition groups, Rusesabagina helped found the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) in 2017, of which the FLN is considered the armed wing.
In 2018, in a video, he considered “the time has come for us to use all possible means to bring about change in Rwanda, because all political means have been tried and failed.”
But he has always denied any involvement in the attacks for which he is being tried.