Jonathan R. Beloff
Researcher of the African Great Lakes

Praising an Opportunist: Rusesabagina is No Schindler

Paul Rusesabagina was recently arrested by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau for charges of supporting the terrorist organisation the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change [MRCD]. For many in the international community, Rusesabagina is the Oskar Schindler of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Within a one-hundred-day period, an estimated one million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus died during the Genocide against the Tutsi. The 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, sought to portray events inside the Hôtel des Mille Collines during the genocide, with Don Cheadle playing Rusesabagina. But many who travel to, and conduct research in, Rwanda on its genocide see the errors within the movie.

In 2012 to 2013, I was able to conduct research about the true events at the Mille Collines. Talking to many survivors and even a genocide perpetrator who had gone through the local reconciliation process of Gacaca, I gained a rather different understanding of what happened in that hotel during the genocide than is portrayed in the film.

Rusesabagina’s story of the events that unfolded at the Mille Collines cannot be corroborated. In fact, survivors tell a very different story of how the hotel and they survived the massacres. While Kayihura, Zukus and even I have previously written about this in detail, most of the world has little idea of the truth. Fundamentally, Rusesabagina acted more as an opportunist than as a Schindler-like figure, by profiting from those he claimed to have saved.

One can argue that as the manager of the hotel, which he was not prior to the genocide, he saved people. However, correlating his actions to the saving of more than 1,200 people is problematic. The hotel had peacekeepers protecting it thanks to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR); it was seen by the leaders of the genocide government as a negotiating tool for exchanging prisoners with the rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who ultimately ended the genocide; and it was regarded by genocide perpetrators in the surrounding neighbourhood as a concentration camp that would later be ‘cleaned out’ of its Tutsis once the country’s other Tutsis were all dead.

One Rwandan Tutsi survivor of the hotel described Rusesabagina contributing to his near death. As a refugee at the Mille Collines, he was ambushed by Rusesabagina and a neighbourhood genocide leader, while waiting for his parents at the swimming pool. Rusesabagina asked if he had paid to remain within the hotel’s grounds. Not only did Rusesabagina charge people to be refugees at the hotel, he pocketed the money. This, despite the fact that its Belgian managing company, Sabena, had left instructions that nobody to be charged to stay at the hotel during the genocide.

When the boy could not answer whether he had paid or not, Rusesabagina grabbed his arm and yelled that he would be thrown out of the hotel grounds, and left to be killed outside. It was the neighbourhood genocide leader who told Rusesabagina to let the boy go as he would die at a later date anyway. Rusesabagina did so and the two walked away. This story of Rusesabagina’s greed is not the only one that emerges when talking to other of the hotel’s genocide survivors.

So how and why was Rusesabagina hailed a hero? Why did former US President George W. Bush award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom? One would think it absurd that he was bestowed these titles and honours. The thing is that Rusesabagina’s story, while inaccurately depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, was the perfect simple story for those in Hollywood and the Global North who wanted to ‘understand’ what happened in Rwanda. It painted a picture of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’, despite the ‘good’ person not being that different from the ‘bad’. Fundamentally, the story that the film told about Rusesabagina and about Rwanda’s genocide slotted in perfectly with how the Global North perceived (and still perceives) Africa, complete with post-colonial stereotypes saturated in racism; and little desire to understand the people, cultures, and history.

Years after Hotel Rwanda debuted on cinema screens, many had forgotten about Rusesabagina. Some universities invited him to speak as he could fulfil the token role of the ‘African’ explaining Africa. Whether he was the best person for the job mattered little as the movie had elevated his status, and his comparison with Oskar Schindler even more so. But while Schindler risked his personal fortune and safety to help Jews, the same is not true of Rusesabagina and those who sought safety at the Mille Collines hotel.

Currently, many are reading about Rusesabagina’s arrest by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau. The accusations against him are not connected to the genocide, but to his comments and beliefs since leaving Rwanda for Europe and the United States. There are serious questions over the nature of his arrest, with his daughter claiming he was kidnapped while in Dubai. I do not want to question the seriousness of these claims, but rather the man himself and the false heroism he has enjoyed.

The Global North must dissociate Rusesabagina from Schindler and acknowledge the historical inaccuracies in his story, and his recent desire to overthrow the government in Rwanda. His criticisms of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and of the government are seen by Rwandans as security threats. In favour of providing financial and moral support to rebel groups that call for a return to ethnic divisions within Rwandan society is the antithesis of what Rwanda is today.

About the Author
Jonathan R. Beloff, PhD, is a researcher focusing on the regional politics and security of the African Great Lakes composing the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have published several academic journal articles, book chapters, book reviews and editorials on issues facing central Africa. Since 2008, my travels to the region have led me to work and consult with numerous Rwandan and international government officials. Within these periods of foreign residence, with particular reference to my multiple extended stays in Rwanda, I developed unique skills to engage and consult with a range of different foreign officials as well as Rwandan elites and policymakers in the understanding and formation of public policy.