How the hero of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ fell into a vengeful strongman’s trap

Now Rusesabagina is back in Rwanda, but this time under arrest, in a spartan cell in Kigali’s central police station. He still cuts the figure of an unruffled hotelier — pressed blazer, white shirt, polished loafers — even as he wrestled with how to explain the latest twists of a life story that threatens to outdo even its Hollywood version.

Not long ago Rusesabagina, 66, was the toast of America, awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and earning large fees for his speeches around the world — a human rights icon who warned about the horrors of genocide.

Now he finds himself in a country he vowed never to return to, at the mercy of a president who pursued him for 13 years, and preparing to stand trial for murder, arson and terrorism.

“How I got here — now that is a surprise,” he said in a jailhouse interview this past week, with two Rwandan government officials in the room. “I was actually not coming here.”

The tale of how a Hollywood hero went from celebrity human rights ambassador to prisoner speaks to the predicament of Rwanda, the small African country where as many as 1 million people died in 1994 in a grotesque massacre that became the shame of a world that did not intervene to stop it.

A quarter century on, the genocide still casts a long shadow inside Rwanda, where the truth about how it unfolded is bitterly contested.

In the aftermath, Rwanda was stabilised under the firm hand of Paul Kagame, a rebel leader turned president who became the darling of guilt-ridden Western countries. Kagame won powerful allies, like Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Donors lavished aid on his government, which cut poverty, grew the economy and promoted female leaders.

Now, Rwanda is also known as an authoritarian state where Kagame exerts total control, his troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighbouring Congo, and political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or die in mysterious circumstances at home and abroad.

Foremost among those critics is Rusesabagina, who leveraged his celebrity as the world’s most famous Rwandan to launch scathing attacks on Kagame, gradually transforming from activist to opponent to, as the government now alleges, a supporter of armed struggle.

Rusesabagina was a leader of a coalition of opposition groups, all in exile, that includes an armed wing. In an address to those groups in 2018, recorded in a video now widely circulated by the government, Rusesabagina says that politics has failed in Rwanda. “The time for us has come to use any means possible to bring about change,” he said. “It is time to attempt our last resort.”

From prison, he said his group’s role was not fighting but “diplomacy” to represent the millions of Rwandan refugees and exiles.

“We are not a terrorist organisation,” he said.

For weeks, the mystery has been how Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and American permanent resident, was lured to Rwanda from his home in Texas. Rusesabagina, speaking in jail, said he believed he had been flying to Burundi. His family insists that he cannot speak freely.

“With guns around him, he’s saying that in the belly of the beast,” said his son, Trésor Rusesabagina, 28, speaking from the United States. “And the beast can bite at any time.”

A Five-Star Sanctuary

The Hotel des Mille Collines, in the heart of Kigali, was a five-star sanctuary in a land of bloodshed in 1994.

As Hutu militiamen rampaged through the streets in a convulsive slaughter, Rusesabagina, a Hutu, employed his wiles and the resources of his Belgian-owned hotel — beer, cash and charm — to fend off the killers. He bribed army generals with dollars and cigars. He battled to protect his wife, Tatiana, a Tutsi.

Outside the gate, Rwandans were hacked to death, burned alive or shot. Inside, miraculously, all 1,268 hotel residents survived.

“An island of fear in a sea of fire,” Rusesabagina once called it.

After the genocide, Rusesabagina went back to work. But the country was chaotic and tense. A new, Tutsi-led government, headed by the rebel leader, Kagame, was in charge.

Two years later, Rusesabagina received warnings that his life was in danger and his passport might be confiscated. The following day, the family bolted for Uganda and, soon after, moved to Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial power.

Rusesabagina applied for political asylum, drove a taxi and bought a house in the Brussels suburbs. In 1998, his story was featured in an acclaimed account of the genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” by American writer Philip Gourevitch. Otherwise, he wallowed in obscurity.

The Kigali Premiere

Terry George, the Irish film director, first met Rusesabagina in Brussels in 2002, a passenger in his Mercedes taxi. George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” released in 2004, was lauded by critics and Hollywood royalty. At the Los Angeles premiere, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon posed with Rusesabagina on the red carpet. Amnesty International promoted the film, and it garnered three Academy Award nominations, including best actor for Don Cheadle, who played Rusesabagina.

In April 2005, for the Rwandan premiere, George flew from the United States to Brussels to rendezvous with Rusesabagina and his wife for the flight to Kigali. But only she was at the gate. Rusesabagina declined to board at the last minute.

“He said he didn’t feel safe,” said George. “He said he had been warned not to come to Kigali.”

In Rwanda, though, Kagame seemed to appreciate the film. He sat between his wife, Janet, and George for a screening in the InterContinental Hotel ballroom. When the audience cheered during a scene that showed Kagame’s face, the president chuckled.

But as Rusesabagina’s profile soared in America, Kagame’s camp bristled.

After President George W. Bush awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award, in November 2005, the pro-government New Times published a series of articles attacking the hotelier. “A man who sold the soul of the Rwandan Genocide to amass medals” read one article.

Months later, Kagame delivered his own broadside. Rwanda had no need for “manufactured” heroes “made in Europe or America,” he said.

After “Hotel Rwanda,” Rusesabagina sold his taxi, signed up with a speaking agency and travelled the world warning of genocide.

At home, the conflict with Kagame boiled over.

Rusesabagina published a memoir, “An Ordinary Man,” that contained sharp criticisms of Kagame’s Rwanda — “A nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis,” he wrote. The few Hutus in power were “known locally as Hutus de service, or ‘Hutus for hire.’”

A battle of narratives erupted.

A Mysterious Flight to Kigali

When he boarded a flight from Chicago to Dubai on Aug. 26, Rusesabagina provided his family with scant details. “Meetings,” he said.

The pandemic had separated him from his wife, stranded in Brussels since February. He hadn’t been able to visit a newborn grandchild near Boston.

But this trip was apparently worth it.

Rusesabagina spent just six hours in Dubai. At the city’s second, smaller airport he boarded a private jet that he believed was headed to Bujumbura, Burundi. It landed just before dawn on Aug 28 in Kigali, where Rusesabagina was promptly arrested.

“He delivered himself here,” said Rwanda’s spy chief, Brig Gen Joseph Nzabamwita, with a smile. “Quite a wonderful operation.”

Human Rights Watch says his arrest violates international law, even if he was duped into voluntarily boarding the flight from Dubai.

Embracing — and Fearing — the Truth

In “Hotel Rwanda” Rusesabagina is depicted as a wheeler-dealer who used cigars and flattery to talk his way out of the deadliest trouble. Now, confined to a jail cell 5 miles away, those are not options.

Supporters, both in Hollywood and the Rwandan opposition, argue that he cannot receive a fair trial. Rusesabagina, for his part, insisted that his group was “not a terrorist organisation,” even if its components include an armed group.

“We wanted to wake up the international community, foreign countries and Rwanda itself,” he said, “To remind them that we also exist.”

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