The movie Hotel Rwanda has a happy ending, with the protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina, adopting two of his sister-in-law’s daughters, symbolically and literally helping the nation’s next generation rise from the ashes.
It may require pressure from U.S. and Texas officials to make sure the real-life story doesn’t have a tragic ending.
The man known to the world as one of Rwanda’s saviors is now in need of salvation. Rusesabagina was snatched from his life in the U.S. and thrown into a Rwandan prison, allegedly by the forces of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. His crime appears to be supporting Kagame’s political opponents and publicly criticizing the president.
Rusesabagina’s arrest and alleged abduction was an affront to everyone in the Lone Star State. It’s an affront because Texas has one of the world’s largest Rwandan refugee communities and because, in addition to being a Rwandan hero and a Belgian citizen, Rusesabagina is a Texan. He spends about half the year in San Antonio where one of his sons, Tresor, has attended college at St. Mary’s University.
The family of Bob Krueger, the former ambassador to Burundi and a retired Texas senator, considers the Rusesabaginas part of their family.
“In 2007, Paul’s wife Tatiana sat with me in my car at the San Antonio airport and in broken English and French asked if I would be her godmother,” said the ambassador’s wife, former New Braunfels Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Krueger. “Her original godmother was killed in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.”
Here’s what we know: Rusesabagina (Ruses like “recess,” -aba- like “Abba,” gina like “gila”), rode out the pandemic in his home in San Antonio. On Aug. 27, he flew from Chicago to Dubai. His wife, Tatiana, who was stuck in Brussels for much of the pandemic, was not aware of any plans to visit Rwanda.
In an interview with The New York Times, Rusesabagina said he understood he was en route to a public-speaking engagement in Burundi, where he had been invited by a local pastor. Instead, the private jet that picked him up in Dubai on Aug. 27 (the jet operator, GainJet, has not responded to an e-mailed request for comment) took him to Rwanda, in the company of Rwandan law enforcement officers. According to news reports, Rusesabagina was then held incommunicado, bound and gagged for three days. Such treatment would be a violation of international law.
His family was not informed of his arrest and found out with the rest of the world, when he was paraded in front of local media on Aug. 31.
In a Zoom press conference, his son Tresor rejected the initial Rwandan claims that Rusesabagina boarded a jet to Rwanda knowingly or willingly. “This is a place he would never go, not in million years, at least not now, not while we have the president,” said Tresor. “He was definitely kidnapped there.”
For those unfamiliar with the plot of the movie that made Rusesabagina famous, think of him as a modern-day Oskar Schindler. In 1994, Rusesabagina sheltered more than 1,200 mostly Tutsi people from the genocide that was happening around him while he was manager of the four-star Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. All around the Kigali hotel and all around the country, machete- and gun-wielding Hutu mobs were killing hundreds of thousands of people, wiping out the majority of the Tutsi population and many moderate Hutus.
While the killing happened, Rwanda and the rest of the world seemed to freeze in horror. Paul Rusesabagina, an ethnic Hutu, was one of the very few who had the courage to act.
Among the only other people to act was Paul Kagame, the Tutsi military leader who led the Rwandan Patriotic Army into Kigali to put an end to the genocide. The fighting between Tutsis and Hutus — long the disempowered majority in Rwanda — continued, mostly in neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the two groups also live in close quarters, according to Kathleen Krueger.
Kagame may be considered a peacemaker in Rwanda, but his reputation in the neighboring countries is vastly different, she said. Krueger says she saw thousands of Rwandan Hutus, driven out by fear of reprisal from Kagame, in refugee camps in Burundi.
“He was no knight in white shining armor, no saint, no hero, no savior of Rwanda, I can promise you that,” Krueger said in an interview.
By 2002, Rusesabagina’s courage during the genocide had been widely recognized when Kagame invited him back to Rwanda for a commemoration of the genocide. Rusesabagina refused the invitation. This, according to friends and family, is when his public persecution at the hands of Kagame’s government began. State media began to decry him as a “false hero.”
Rusesabagina had fled the country after an attempt on his life in 1996, and moved to Belgium, where he had attended college before his time as a hotelier in Rwanda. In 2004, Don Cheadle played Rusesabagina in the movie, making him a global hero, and that’s when the harassment really stepped up.
“Kagame only wanted to have one hero in Rwanda, and it was not Rusesabagina,” said Kitty Kurth, a longtime spokeswoman for Rusesabagina.
In the mid 2000s, Rusesabagina became good friends with Krueger and her ambassador husband bonding over their experiences with the conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Another Rwandan friend of his was living in South Texas. He and Tatiana moved to San Antonio around 2008, and sent their children to American universities.
The Kruegers and other American friends of Rusesabagina frequently witnessed harassment by Rwandan authorities during his public appearances.
A call to the Rwandan embassy in the U.S. for comment was not returned.
In an explanation of Rusesabagina’s arrest posted on Twitter, the Rwandan government accused him of supporting “violent, armed extremist terror outfits including MRCD.” Rusesabagina has publicly supported, and helped to found, the Mouvement Rwandais pour le Changement Démocratique, a coalition of opposition parties. There may be legitimate questions about the opposition parties’ links to at least one armed group.
But Rusesabagina has denied the government claims that he sent any financial aid to rebels. He says all he has done is speak up for Kagame’s political opponents.
“He cannot receive a fair trial in Rwanda,” said Peter Robinson, one of the family’s team of lawyers at the press conference. The family lawyers have been denied access to Rusesabagina. Robinson pointed to the case of Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, an opposition politician who was convicted of similarly trumped-up terrorism charges and imprisoned for eight years.
Rusesabagina has allowed his defense to be conducted by a court-appointed lawyer who has not complained about his client’s treatment. The family is convinced this is the result of coercion by Rwandan officials because of his out-of-character, muted responses to their inquiries about the case on the few phone calls permitted. A New York Times reporter who interviewed Rusesabagina in the prison noted signs of duress in his answers.
Most worryingly, Rwandan authorities say Rusesabagina, who has a heart condition and is in remission from cancer, has required hospital treatment three times.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy spoke to a Zoom press conference organized by Rusesabagina’s family last month. “I just want Paul’s family to know that the Kennedy family stands with you,” Kennedy said. He exhorted the U.S. government to put pressure on Rwanda, which depends on U.S. tourism and business links and recently received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Remember Anaise Kanimba, the little girl that Rusesabagina adopts at the end of Hotel Rwanda? She’s now a 28-year-old working in public health causes across Africa. So far, the family has been represented on three phone calls with Rusesabagina from his prison cell by Anaise’s sister, Carine. Carine tries to stay on message, as there are concerns that the Rwandan security forces will record these calls and twist any statements they can for propaganda purposes.
Asked in an interview what she would say to her father if she could speak openly to him now, Anaise responded with the composure of someone raised into the noble struggle for human rights.
“I’d tell Dad that I love him so much and I understand he’s been fighting for the voiceless, and today he’s put in a situation where he cannot fight for himself,” she said.
“I want him to know his kids, his family, the whole world that loves him, will fight for him and get him out as soon as possible. He’s a good man, and he should not allow the charges and lies ever to get into his head, and not allow the torture to get into his head.”
She added: “I hope the world is not going to turn their back on him like they did 25 years ago.”
Rob Curran is a writer in Denton.
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