Smear campaign against hero of “Hotel Rwanda”?

Paul Rusesabagina is credited with saving the lives of 1,268 people during the darkest moments of the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994, as an assistant hotel manager at the Sabena Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, he took in and sheltered desperate Tutsis on the hotel’s grounds, as Hutu militias rampaged the city. An estimated ...

Paul Rusesabagina is credited with saving the lives of 1,268 people during the darkest moments of the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994, as an assistant hotel manager at the Sabena Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, he took in and sheltered desperate Tutsis on the hotel's grounds, as Hutu militias rampaged the city. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days. Rusesabagina's story was eventually told in the Hollywood film "Hotel Rwanda." He was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and has become an international celebrity and human rights advocate.

Now, Rwandan authorities are accusing him of having ties to a Hutu rebel group, whose leaders took part in the genocide. Rusesabagina was questioned last week in Belgium -- where he lives -- at the request of Rwandan prosecutors. They accuse him of wiring money to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group that operates out of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo -- where many fugitive Rwandans, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees, fled after the genocide.

The prosecutors say he sent thousands of dollars to commanders of the group via Western Union late last year, evidence that was supposedly corroborated by former FDLR commanders who have since been arrested.

Paul Rusesabagina is credited with saving the lives of 1,268 people during the darkest moments of the Rwandan genocide. In April 1994, as an assistant hotel manager at the Sabena Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, he took in and sheltered desperate Tutsis on the hotel’s grounds, as Hutu militias rampaged the city. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days. Rusesabagina’s story was eventually told in the Hollywood film "Hotel Rwanda." He was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 and has become an international celebrity and human rights advocate.

Now, Rwandan authorities are accusing him of having ties to a Hutu rebel group, whose leaders took part in the genocide. Rusesabagina was questioned last week in Belgium — where he lives — at the request of Rwandan prosecutors. They accuse him of wiring money to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group that operates out of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo — where many fugitive Rwandans, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees, fled after the genocide.

The prosecutors say he sent thousands of dollars to commanders of the group via Western Union late last year, evidence that was supposedly corroborated by former FDLR commanders who have since been arrested.

So why would the hero who risked his life 17 years ago to shelter likely victims of slaughter send money to a group tied to the perpetration of that genocide? Or is this simply a smear campaign by his enemies back home?

In October, when the charges were first leveled against him, Rusesabagina denied them and said they were political payback for his outspoken criticism of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been in power since 2000. Rusesabagina has said Rwanda could be heading toward another genocide if Tutsi elites, like Kagame, continue to hoard power.

"[The prosecutors are] not only lying, but lying with bad logic…. The government has said that I sent money to people who I met many years ago but have not seen or spoken with since the genocide in 1994," Rusesabagina said back in October. "The last time I sent money to Rwanda was in 2002 or 2003 — I think 2002 — to my younger brother for a brain operation."

While celebrated overseas, in Rwanda he has become a controversial figure.

"Back home in Rwanda, Rusesabagina is seen by some as an imposter who took advantage of the information vacuum surrounding what really transpired in Rwanda to claim hero status and rake in millions of dollars," reported one Nigerian newspaper.

Some survivors of the genocide have disputed his version of events, while other critics accuse him of being a publicity hound, the Guardian has reported.

In a statement issued through his charity fund earlier this year, Rusesabagina said Kagame was trying to distract the world’s attention from last year’s "complete sham" election and his government’s heavy-handed tactics in the Congo, where Kagame’s government is accused of "war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly even genocide against Hutus in that country."

Robert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
Tag: Africa

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