Correcting the depiction of the “Hotel Rwanda hero”
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.
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.
Thanks for drawing my attention to Paul Rusesabagina’s 11/25/2013 statement about the FDLR militia here: https://rwandinfo.com/eng/paul-rusesabagena-pdr-ihumure-urges-caution-and-wisdom-in-dealing-with-fdlr/. You seem to think that it evidences his perfidy—that he would dare ask us to try and understand the FDLR in nuanced, historical terms—but I think it evidences his own rational and compassionate approach to the reconciliation needed in his country.
He will always be my hero. The film tells me that no body can love Africans more than Africans. The whites escaped with their puppies and cats while children were neglected. Even if the good deeds of Paul Rusrsabegina was 10 percent of what was depicted, he would still he an authentic world hero. Well done Paul.
Thanks for raising the awareness of the young generation.
Things are always what they seem..
It’s one thing to be a rebel and rebel for your ideals but it’s another to kill innocent civilians just to make your ideals come true whether be a hero of sort or a public figure, murder is a crime that should be punished
I was there.
10 years old and stopped the squad that was attacking the hotel ,125 soldiers + the general.Canadian Soldiers where there but they told me they wont shoot because this way they become war criminals(saving refugees).
I was also hit by grenades so after placing the people in the hotel i crashed.
When i woke up,Rusebagina from prisoner became a hero ,Don Cheedle showed up.
Mr Jos, you should write and comment on what you know or you have experienced, and what you have facts on. Is ridiculous to see a person like you trying to create confusion. The fact is if Dallair or his UN were heros, they could have saved more Rwandans. They could even should have stopped rpf to kill people in the regions of Byumba and also UN could have stopped them from shooting every civilian innocent people in the refugee camp of kibeho, UN could have stopped rpf of grabbing unlawfully the power, UN could have helped to implement arusha accords. Dollair and his troups were useless. We as people of Rwanda who actual are victims all these, we know what happened. I will ask you politely to ask Kagame give some cash you need for driving his narrative but stay away from this kind of toxication of an achievement of somebody.
As much as the writer of this article wants to clear out that this is not a comment to that issue. It is clear, the use of words and phrases clearly expresses a commentary that in this regard against Mr Rusesagabina.
Let me get to a short Answer to every one who has a doubt about rwanda and kagame please do your homework very good about this country. its a crime to be a celebrity in rwanda. the only person allowed to be potraid as a celebrity is kagame paul. If dare to be called so you will be killed example kizito mihigo.what do you think happened to him and we have so many that have been killed. so please the issue of Rusesabagina why he is in jail now its because of the good deed he did back in 1994 and the movie hotel rwanda
In 2007 Rusesabagina published a memoir, “An Ordinary Man.” Alison Des Forges, a noted scholar on the genocide, conducted a review of the book for his publisher, Penguin. Des Forges wrote Rusesabagina’s account was “true to what I have witnessed and experienced in this complicated society.”
Luc Reydams’ comment is copied from a New York Times article of 18 September that ends with the remark: ‘… Ms. Des Forges wrote in a confidential letter seen by The Times.’
The quote itself is very short and non-specific which makes me curious about the rest of that letter, or even that sentence, and why the letter is confidential. Without context it’s not very informative.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that different perspectives about Rusesabagina’s conduct during the genocide exist. But I doubt Des Forges would have remained positive after reading his interview with Keith Harmon Snow – also 2007.
Kagame himself went to a screening before general release and he praised the film to the director in person. It was only a month or so later, after Rusesabagina declared his opposition to the RPF that the regime started calling the story “fictionalised”. Original witnesses from the hotel changed the stories they first told the filmmakers out of fear for their lives. Everything else the writer says flows from this.
To answer James: Stefan Stec’s interview predates the premiere of Hotel Rwanda. Amadou Deme is a radical opponent of the RPF. Their comments can’t be suspected of being part of a government campaign. In his book, which also predates the film, Romeo Dallaire reported that Rusesabagina contributed to the efforts of others, but not the leadership or heroism attributed to him later:
‘I called Moigny,* who had proven his worth several times already, fending off RGF soldiers, gendarmes and Interahamwe. The militias had only breached the building once, kicking down doors in search of Tutsis. But Moigny and his unarmed officers, supported by some very determined Tunisian soldiers, were able to persuade them to leave before any harm was done – aided by the hotel manager’s deft and generous gift of many bottles from the hotel wine cellar.’ (Shake hands with the devil, p. 360)
* The Congolese commander of the UN observers and peacekeepers in the hotel.
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Look, even though the UN also left us during genocide that doesn’t make Rusesabagina innocent. Both sides are in the wrong, the only forces I’m grateful for is RPF, u’re talking about them unlawfully capturing power, there was a political vacuum for goodness sake and also the the present leaders back then were corrupt, the RPF came to make things right. So if I were instead of judging Rwanda come and see for yourselves or else mind ur own business, this is our country we know how well to manage it ourselves. Who dares to say Kagame is the only one allowed to be a celebrity, first know the truth about Kizito’s death and start running your mouth. Paul Rusesabagina is one shameless man how dare he say genocide was carried out by Tutsis. How can he wrongly accuse the victim . May God be the only judge because its really beyond understanding. All I have learnt in this life is that haters won’t miss but we Rwandans will remain united that’s the only way to surpass you guys, we won’t commit that mistake again. Peace be upon our country ❤️
Please people, stop spreading lies. These things hurt millions of Rwandans. In the 1994, over one million people lost their lives. They were Tutsis, there was no Genocide against the Hutu but the other way around. The Hutu extremists, known as Interahamwe, the government that was there, elite genicidaires and others planned the act of killing THE TUTSIS for many years. They even tried it before in 1992 but put it in action in 1994 after crashing the president’s plane for they thought he had betrayed them by signing certain treaties with RPF, where Major General Kagame Paul was one of the leaders. They planned all of this. If you know the 10 stages of Genocide, you would understand the last one which is Denial, the exact thing happening now. Please research well about Rwanda. Come to the country, ask the victims, watch Movies about Truth like ‘ THE 600 ‘ visit memorial sites and not just jumping to conclusions from what you see on internet. Few Rwandans use internet which is why it is not easy to hear their testimonies. But know that RUSESABAGINA Paul is NOT A HERO. Just imagine the fact that he was asking for money for not denouncing you. And what he says is NOT TRUE. Make deeper research people. HE PAUL KAGAME AND RPF INKOTANYI ARE THE TRUE HEROES with other RWANDANS among whom RUSESABAGINA is not among. Thank you. I say it as a Rwandan, in Rwanda, who knows what I’m saying for I leave with people who suffered but survived. I visited memorial sites and museums.
I am not Rwandan, but I think common sense is helpful:
1. True heroes don’t sing their own praises, in fact they tend to undermine their efforts. Only opportunists do that.
2. The mere fact that the dude is shifting responsibility for the genocide on its own is very telling. How can Tutsis be responsible for their own mass-murder! Wouldn’t it compare to saying Jews carried out the Holocaust?
3. The dude is an obvious tribalist who exhibits all the pro-Hutu characteristics that compounded the mentality behind the massacre! His own interviews show where his loyalties lie… He depicts all the Hutu Power mentality both in actions and words, so much so that one would be kind to say he is an apologist at best, but at worst (and more accurately) he is a revisionist!
4. Considering all three commonsense issues alluded to above, there’s no hero here. I feel ashamed to have fallen for his nonsense when I first saw his drivel of a movie!