On The Veracity of “Hotel Rwanda” – and Paul Kagame

Since World War II and the birth of the definition of genocide, the issue has received short shrift in the American imagination. As Samantha Power relentlessly argues in her landmark study of the American response (or lack thereof) to genocide in the twentieth century, the United States government has repeatedly managed to do nothing in the face of incontrovertible evidence of ongoing targeted ethnic slaughter. Because of this sorry reality, the release of the film Hotel Rwanda in 2004 was a matter of immense importance to many in the human rights community who valiantly scream about these issues from the margins – typically never within earshot of the mainstream public. Hotel Rwanda dramatized the harrowing story of Paul Rusesabagina and his heroic role in saving the lives of over 1,268 fellow Rwandans during the genocide that convulsed through that country in 1994. Rusesabagina was the manager of the Swiss-owned Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, and the movie demonstrates how he used his position at the hotel to buy-off many of the perpetrators of the genocide and protect those that he sheltered in the hotel – an oasis of sorts in a sea of blood-soaked madness. One particularly searing moment comes early in the film, when the organized murder was in its infancy. Mr. Rusesabagina assures his wife, “They are preparing an intervention force.”

“They”–meaning the West–never come. Sitting in the theatre, watching the insanity unfold (800,000!), you know that no help will be coming. This bit of knowledge is excruciating to the viewer.

When considering the significance of Hotel Rwanda one must consider the timing of the film’s release. Clearly it was intended to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the amazingly efficient slaughter that left 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead – IN 100 DAYS! It was a matter of coincidence that it also arrived in American cinemas as an ongoing campaign of genocide was being waged in the Darfur region of Sudan. Human rights activists were quick to seize on this fact. Writing in The New York Times, Samantha Power noted that, “On this anniversary, Western and United Nations leaders are expressing their remorse and pledging their resolve to prevent future humanitarian catastrophes. But as they do so, the Sudanese government is teaming up with Arab Muslim militias in a campaign of ethnic slaughter and deportation…Again, the United States and its allies are bystanders to slaughter, seemingly no more prepared to prevent genocide than they were a decade ago. “Don Cheadle, the actor who portrayed Mr. Rusesabagina in the film, penned an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal with Africa specialist John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. They also make the case that Rwanda is Darfur, to mourn the former demands doing something about the latter.

After laying out the horrors they witnessed during a recent trip to the region, Cheadle and Prendergast ask: “So what is the real reason why the U.S. has not responded as it should have? The truth is that combating crimes against humanity is simply not considered a national security issue. We don’t want to burn our leverage on Sudan in the face of issues such as Iraq, Iran and Syria.The only antidote to this searing truth–the only way the U.S. will take the kind of leadership necessary to end the horrors for Fatima and her people–is for there to be a political cost to inaction. As American citizens increasingly raise their voices and write their letters about Darfur, the temperature has indeed risen. But not enough. We need to make it a little warmer, a little more uncomfortable for those politicians who would look away. Just a few more degrees. Just a few more thousand letters. It is, frankly, that simple.”The point was clear. Hotel Rwanda was an effective tool to increase activism on the issue of Darfur. To the extent that a Darfur coalition has been assembled in the United States, the dramatic moral power of Hotel Rwanda has been instrumental in raising public consciousness. Mr. Rusesabagina has been touring relentlessly to promote his new autobiography, An Ordinary Man, and he has been very vocal about drawing attention to the issue of Darfur.

All of which brings me to a very interesting story that has been brewing on the margins of the news cycle. Rwandan president Paul Kagame was in Washington, D.C. last week and over the course of his visit he made several statements impugning the credibility of the Rusesabagina narrative. He said that while the film was “useful in bringing up the plight of Rwanda” to the attention of the world community, “the claim that Paul Rusesabagina having saved so many made him seem like a hero. Paul Rusesabagina did not save people. He had no means to do it, and he did not do it.” According to The Washington Post, Kagame said that a trade-off was negotiated by which his forces allowed those stranded in the hotel to go. “He himself tried to escape and was turned back,” he added of Rusesabagina.

Kagame’s remarks represent a growing movement of people in Rwanda who reject the conventional wisdom in the West that Rusesabagina is any sort of hero. In fact, some go so far as to denounce him as a traitor and a criminal. This is where it gets a bit dicey.

While out on speaking tours surrounding the release of the film in America and Europe, Rusesabagina began criticizing the Kagame government as, saying that the last election in which Kagame recieved 90.5 percent of the vote, was not democratic. According to Terry George, who directed the film and penned an opinion column in The Washington Post defending the veracity of the story, because of his criticism Rusesabagina has been advised that it is not safe for him to return to Rwanda. George dismisses the allegations to internal Rwandan politics. “The true fear of Rwandan authorities,” George writes, is that Rusesabagina planned to form a political party.”

Tensions have been exacerbated with the release of Rusesabagina’s new book, in which he writes: “Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis. . . . Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de serviceor Hutus for hire.”

In wading through these charges and counter-charges it has become abundantly clear that no resolution is at hand. It is a very murky affair. On the one hand, I have seen no concrete evidence that Rusesabagina flat-out concocted his story. In fact, it is a tale corroborated by many who survived the horror with him. On the other hand, Paul Kagame comes across quite valiantly – if necessarily ruthless – in many of the accounts of the Rwandan genocide – in particular Philip Gourevitch’s terrific work, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

It is a story worth keeping an eye on because, as my brilliant blog colleague points out to me, intellectual inquiry demands historical truth.

— ERG

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One Comment on “On The Veracity of “Hotel Rwanda” – and Paul Kagame”


  1. Historical inquiry is crucial, and this is an interesting story, but focusing your historical inquiry on whether one Rwandan hotel owner did or did not save “over 1,268” (meaning what? 1,268.5? 1,268 and a baby?) people seems a bit beside the point when compared to historical and political agitation about why we have done nothing about genocide and continue to do nothing about Darfur…

    Your blogging partner seems to have smashed his face into a wall. I’d keep him off the tequila.


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