No doubt that Paul Rusesabagina, fictionalized as the hero of “Hotel Rwanda,” supports the revolutionary group that successfully blew up tiny bits of Rwanda over the last five years. But was his tricked kidnapping by a wicked priest for a show trial in Kigali the right way to keep Rwandans from massacring each other?
Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen and permanent U.S. resident, was sentenced to 25 years in prison yesterday for treason against Rwanda. His story reveals better than most the extraordinary supremacy of authoritarianism over the complexities of truth and history.
Most people think of Paul Rusesabagina as Dan Cheadle staring in the movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” Fun but sorrowfully incomplete. Rusesabagina was a wheeler/dealer in Rwanda for a very long time, considered fair and level-headed but no moral champion.
Rusesabagina lived his whole life on a knife edge. He was born a Tutsi but his mother and wife were Hutu. Often times that gave him advantage, but more often it was a mark of death every time ethnic conflict broke out in Rwanda, which was very often before 1994.
Landing the top job at Kigali’s top hotel was about the most successful goal someone like him could achieve and still live functionally in the country. His reported exploits spanned everything from influencing diplomatic choices in France to organizing black market deals for rare earths from child labor camps in The Congo. Everyone of importance stayed at his Hotel Mille Colines.
Even me. Had I not, and had I not been introduced by Rusesabagina to the President of the local Rotary Club in Kigali (something of a front for a much more complicated person), I would never have gotten my eight stranded travelers out of the war that began the Rwandan Genocide.
Neither is there any doubt that Rusesabagina risked his own skin to save quite a few others during the actual genocide, and that portion of the movie is correct. You can’t call him a bad man. Life in Central Africa before the 2000s was impossible without gruesome compromise. Not exactly, though, the type of character to get America’s Medal of Freedom. (George Bush didn’t have a clue.)
Rusesabagina escaped the terror of Rwanda and was granted Belgian citizenship. Shortly thereafter the movie made him famous. He leveraged many of his former local deals into international business and became a very rich man.
He also got religion. In a 2008 speech at Brigham Young University he explained how God had chosen him to deliver innocent people from the genocide. His wealth and celebrity grew, especially in America.
He founded the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change from which the armed rebel group, the FLN was born. Although Rusesabagina denied ever funding the rebels he clearly endorsed them in a 2018 YouTube video that was used by the Rwandan government in his show trial.
Rwanda may be the most authoritarian regime on earth. There is nothing, not a letter mailed or a word spoken by government officials, that is not exactly what the dictator, Paul Kagame, wants. I’ve often written of the activists and journalists killed by the government, sometimes even when they lived outside the country.
But … there has been no more genocide. Listen, genocide wasn’t an unusual thing in Rwanda. It happened as often as African droughts. Ever since the catastrophic colonization by Belgium and France, and the even more absurd delineation of modern borders between Burundi and Rwanda (very similar to Pakistan and India), the country has suffered increasingly vile and horrid ethnic wars.
Kathleen and I had hardly taken up our first posts in Kenya in 1972 when news of 100,000 people had been machete-ed to death in Rwanda.
It happened repeatedly and often regularly. Global attention – or more correctly, inattention, contributed to it to be sure. But the wounds of colonization could not be undone and would never heal.
Until Papa Kagame came to the throne.
With the singularly important exception known as freedom of speech, life in Rwanda has improved since the dictator came to power, absolutely more than in any other African country. Literacy, health, fiber optics – name it. Kagame mandated peace and the shamed and repentant western powers paid for development on a scale that rivals any similar period of development anywhere else in the world.
So big britches Rusesabagina soiled that pleasant view. Unlike others who the Rwandan secret service simply shot in the head as they were leaving a coffee shop in Johannesburg, Kagame believed the evidence against Rusesabagina was worth airing to the world.
So he coerced a priest who had befriended Rusesabagina to fool him into believing that a charter aircraft was taking them into neighboring Burundi for Rusesabagina to continue his religious lectures about his new friendship with God.
Instead, the plane landed in Kigali. The hero of Hotel Rwanda was jailed then put on a much publicized show trial replete with Rusesasbinga’s infinite YouTubes, and now the old man is in the clinker for at least 25 years.
I don’t know if God is still Rusesabagina’s friend. But the truth is a bit of mess in central Africa, much messier than the authoritarian’s rule and the lasting peace in Rwanda.