Iconic Hero in Irons—the Downfall of Paul Rusesabagina

Iconic Hero in Irons—the Downfall of Paul Rusesabagina

With subterfuge, the celebrity Good Samaritan was lured back and thrown into prison. While Rwandan security czars may have reasons to gloat over this coup, it also exposes the authoritarian rule under Paul Kagame’s watch.

It was a scene straight out of a Hollywood thriller. On August 28, Paul Rusesabagina, a global celebrity for his heroic actions during the infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide, —which inspired the 2004 Oscar-nominated film 'Hotel Rwanda'— flew from Texas, U.S., to board a private jet at Dubai for Bujumbura, Burundi. He was to supposedly deliver talks to churches, but on landing, was handcuffed, blindfolded, and bundled into a van by armed policemen. The aircraft had landed at Kigali, capital of Rwanda. It was a meticulously baited trap with the jet being operated by Gainjet, a charter regularly hired by the Rwandan government. A smiling Rwandan Intelligence Chief announced, “He delivered himself here". 

While parading Mr. Rusesabagina in front of the press, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau announced that “Rusesabagina is suspected to be the founder, leader, sponsor, and member of violent, armed, extremist terror outfits including Mouvement rwandais pour le Changement démocratique (MRCD) and PDR-Ihumure, operating out of various places in the region and abroad”. The Rwandan police further claimed that his arrest was facilitated by an international arrest warrant on charges of “terrorism, arson, kidnap, and murder.” Mr. Rusesabagina faces 25 years of hard labour in a grim Rwandan prison.


The 1994 massacre of Tutsis by the Hutu majority, leading to over a million recorded deaths, innumerable rapes and hundreds of thousands maimed for life, remains a blot on the collective conscience of the international community.  Most ironic was that all the heinous crimes took place in the presence of UN peacekeepers, who claimed later that their Chapter 6 mandate forbids them from using force to save lives. Since then, the UN Department of Peacekeeping has revised its rules of engagement and now allows the blue helmets to operate under what is called ‘Chapter 6 and a half’, which allows peacekeepers to use deadly force to save lives of civilians.

Mr. Rusesabagina, a Hutu, but with a Tutsi wife, was then the suave manager of the only five-star hotel in Kigali, the Hotel des Mille Collines, a favourite watering hole of the rich and powerful. When the killing started, in a brave, almost suicidal move, he turned the hotel into an “island of fear in a sea of fire”, smuggling Tutsis into the hotel, away from the machete-wielding mobs of Interahamwne killers.

Speaking to Philip Gourevitch, the American author of the famous book on the Rwandan massacre, 'We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families', Mr. Rusesabagina said, "I was using drinks to corrupt people.” Recognising that in an embattled city liquor would become scarce, he filled his hotel cellar with liquor. When the killing started, influential political leaders and even the commander of the FAR (the Hutu Army) were his regular guests who were kept “well-lubricated” in exchange for keeping their goons out of the hotel complex, till Kigali was liberated by the Tutsi guerrilla force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of Paul Kagame. All 1,268 inmates of the hotel survived the massacre.


While there is no doubt that many lives were saved within the confines of the Hotel des Mille Collines, there are many sides to the tale. 

Post the capture of Rwanda by Paul Kagame’s RPF, the country remained chaotic and tense, with millions of Hutus fleeing to Congo and raising their own guerrilla armies. Revengeful Tutsi refugees streamed back into Rwanda in their millions from Uganda and Kenya. They looked at all remaining Hutus with suspicion and hatred.  Mr. Rusesabagina, who continued to live in obscurity in Kigali, faced a number of assassination attempts. In 1996, he escaped to Uganda and from there to Belgium where he was granted political asylum. 

Often called a “Rwandan Oskar Schindler” of Schindler’s List’ fame, Paul Rusesabagina established a non-profit group called the ‘Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation’. According to its tax returns, the foundation collected over $200,000 between 2005 and 2007.

In 2005, Mr. Rusesabagina was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, its highest civilian award, and in 2006, he published his memoirs 'An Ordinary Man', which criticised Rwanda under Mr Paul Kagame. In 2007, he also reported President Kagame to an international tribunal of war crimes in Rwanda for atrocities committed by the RPF.

The Rwandan government was quick to respond. The local media described Mr. Rusesabagina as “a man who sold the soul of the Rwandan Genocide to amass medals.” Mr. Kagame called him a “manufactured hero [...] made in Europe or America”. In 2007, he was accused of financing rebel groups in eastern Congo.

During his initial court hearings in Kigali, Mr. Rusesabagina accepted his role in the creation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) to assist Rwandan refugees but said he never supported violence. The Rwandan government classified the NLF a terrorist organisation and blamed it for many killings along its porous border with DRC.

One of the high-profile Tutsi survivors from Hotel des Mille Collines was Odette Nyiramilimo, a Senator and former Minister for Social Affairs between 2000 and 2003. “There is no denying that Mr. Rusesabagina risked his life to provide refuge for my family and me and many others,” she told The East African.  However, now she accuses him of having “sold his soul” to the French, “who promised him financial gain if he became a critic of the Rwandan government”.


A Tutsi-ruled Rwanda has prospered under the iron hand of Mr. Kagame, and is often called an “Israel in Africa.” It has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and is reputedly one of the best places to do business in the world (in the World Bank's 2019 'Doing Business' report, it ranked 29th out of 190 countries).

However, all is not hunky-dory with this small East-Central African nation. This ethnically torn nation, despite its outward calm and progress, remains one of the most complex societies in Africa and its contemporary politics and society continue to be undermined by forces beyond its control.

Mr. Kagame won powerful friends and benefactors — the Clintons, the Gates, and Tony Blair —and funds flowed in.  While he was successful in reducing poverty and running a comparatively “clean” government, he is accused of authoritarianism and excesses. His army regularly raids border areas of the DRC in hot pursuit of Hutu rebels and is accused of killings, rapes, and looting. 

Political power is concentrated in the hands of a small clique owing allegiance to Mr. Kagame.  Elections, in which Mr. Kagame routinely gets 99 per cent votes, are largely considered a sham and constitutional changes have ensured he will rule uninterrupted till 2034.

There is no tolerance for political dissent. Political rivals live in trepidation as the Rwandans have learnt the Israeli art of pursuing enemies to their last breath. Last year, another dissident leader was bundled into Kigali in a private jet. Others have been jailed, and at times pursued in foreign lands where they have died mysterious deaths. A former Rwandan spy chief and a critic, Patrick Karegeya who fled to South Africa, was strangled in a hotel room in 2004; a former Minister living in exile in Belgium drowned in a canal; another fugitive Minister was shot in Kenya, and a former army chief was shot in South Africa. In 2014, a popular gospel singer Mihigo was arrested for treason and died in police custody.


No doubt, Mr. Kagame has been a saviour of Rwanda, making it one of the best-run countries in Africa. Rwandan troops, trained by Americans, are greatly in demand in peacekeeping operations by ECOWAS as also by the UN, for their professionalism.  However, the oppressive policies, largely ignored by the powerful western world, still guilt-ridden for its nonchalance during the 1994 massacres, make it almost impossible for the huge chasm between the Tutsis and the Hutus from being bridged.