By Lisa Vives
From the cinematic screen of “Hotel Rwanda” to solitary confinement in a Rwandese jail, Paul Rusesabegina has been there and back.
Now, following a round of quiet diplomacy with two U.S. senior officials of the Biden administration and a final meeting with U.S. Secy of State Antony Blinken, Rusesabegina is free and heading to the U.S. to be reunited with his family in Texas. Thus ends an ordeal of 900 days linked to President Paul Kagame and his war on dissent at home and on opponents abroad.
Rusesabagina had been accused of terrorism over his ties to the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change, a group that opposes Kagame’s rule. He has admitted having a leadership role in the group but denies links to its armed wing.
Found guilty of the charges, he was sentenced to 25 years in the Mageragere prison in 2021. While his captors kept him blindfolded, security forces stepped on his neck and denied him food and sleep. A cancer survivor with hypertension and a history of cardiovascular disease, Rusesabagina was threatened with shortages of food, water and his medication.
In the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda”, viewers were given a rare look inside Rusesabagina’s luxury Hotel des Mille Collines in the capital Kigali. There, 1,268 Rwandans, both Tutsis and Hutus, were saved from genocidal forces waiting beyond its walls. Rusesabagina was depicted as a hero who saved these lives.
As Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsi, described in his autobiography, “An Ordinary Man”, it was his ability to persuade the killers against targeting those who had sought refuge in the Hotel des Mille Collines that spared them.
He was also able to use his connections and call in favors with some of the high-profile people who used to pass through the upmarket hotel. In addition he had cash.
The international community was slow to learn the horrific details of the Rwandan genocide as described in a book by Philip Gourevitch, staff writer of the New Yorker magazine, titled “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families”. Gourevich wrote of a Hutu pastor, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, and his son Gerard who were later found guilty of summoning the Hutus to butcher the Tutsis in what became the worst single massacre in the entire 1994 genocide.
The Hollywood movie may have saved the disaster from oblivion as many filled theaters to watch Don Cheadle in the role of Rusesabagina in 2004.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was among the honors awarded to Rusesabagina over the years for risking his life to shelter hundreds of people when ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority.
“Rusesabagina’s release will conclude a case that has highlighted Rwanda’s blatant disregard for international norms when it seeks to target people deemed an enemy of the state – even those far beyond their border,” Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, on the occasion of the International Right to Truth Day (March 24) Kagame critic Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza called for an independent commission of inquiry to investigate mysterious deaths and disappearances of opposition members, “including those of my friends and colleagues.”