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Old neme­sis gets his re­venge

- ABDI LATIF DAHIR Crime · Politics · Rwanda · Kigali · Hollywood · Hollywood · United States of America · Oprah Winfrey · Bill Gates · Tony Blair · Hillary Clinton · Democratic Republic of Congo · White House National Security Council · Council · Barack Obama · Dubai · Human Rights Watch · Burundi · Billerica, MA · Massachusetts · Uganda · Belgium · Los Angeles · Angelina Jolie · Harrison Ford · Matt Damon · Don Cheadle · InterContinental Hotels · George W. Bush · George H. W. Bush · Oskar Schindler · Africa · George Clooney · Washington · Sudan · Freedom · Paul Kagame · Hôtel des Mille Collines · Terry George · Elie Wiesel

As the man­ager of a five-star ho­tel where 1,268 peo­ple shel­tered from the 1994 geno­cide in Rwanda, Paul Rus­esabag­ina was known for his cool head — a qual­ity that kept the killers at bay, helped en­sure that all his guests sur­vived and led to an Os­carnom­i­nated movie, Ho­tel Rwanda, that brought his story to a global au­di­ence.

Now Mr Rus­esabag­ina is back in Rwanda, but this time un­der ar­rest, in a spar­tan cell in Ki­gali’s cen­tral po­lice sta­tion, where he sleeps in a sim­ple bed draped in a mos­quito net. 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 Mr Rus­esabag­ina, 66, was the toast of Amer­ica, feted by Oprah Win­frey, awarded the US Pre­siMedal den­tial of Free­dom and earn­ing large fees for his speeches around the world — a hu­man rights icon who warned about the hor­rors of geno­cide and of­fered a liv­ing ex­am­ple of stand­ing up to it.

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 with a wry smile, in a jail­house in­ter­view last 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 preRwanda, dica­ment of 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. Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Rus­esabag­ina, who lever­aged his celebrity as the world’s most fa­mous Rwan­launch dan to scathing at­tacks on Mr Kagame, grad­u­ally trans­form­ing from ac­tivist to op­po­nent to, as the gov­ern­ment now al­leges, a sup­porter of armed strug­gle.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina was a leader of a coali­tion of op­posiall tion groups, 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, Mr 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. Ex­perts say his sit­u­a­tion is em­blem­atic of Rwanda un­der

How I got here — now that is a sur­prise ... I was ac­tu­ally not com­ing here.



Sur­vivors from the Mille Collines came for­ward to ac­cuse Mr Rus­esabag­ina of ex­ag­ger­at­ing his role and even prof­it­ing from the geno­cide. A gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial pub­lished a book that pur­ported to tell Ho­tel Rwanda’s ‘real story.’

Mr Kagame: As the rul­ing party to­tally dom­i­nates the po­lit­i­cal space, some ex­iled op­po­nents have turned to more ex­treme mea­sures.

“Com­ing on the heels of some­thing as hor­rific as 1994, for­eign­ers of­ten want to paint the sit­u­a­tion in black and white, good and bad, with he­roes and de­mons,” said Anna Cave, a for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil di­rec­tor for African Af­fairs un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. “But it’s more nu­anced to­day. There are a lot of shades of grey.”

For weeks, the mys­tery has been how Mr Rus­esabag­ina, a Bel­gian ci­ti­zen and Amer­i­can per­ma­nent res­i­dent, was lured to Rwanda from his home in Texas.

In an in­ter­view, Rwanda’s spy chief glee­fully de­scribed how Mr Rus­esabag­ina had fallen for an elab­o­rate ruse, in­volv­ing a pri­vate jet from Dubai, that he called “flaw­less.” Hu­man Rights Watch called it il­le­gal, a “forced dis­ap­pear­ance.”

Mr 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.”


The Ho­tel des Mille Collines, in the heart of Ki­gali, has been over­taken by newer, fancier ho­tels. But in 1994, it was a five-star sanc­tu­ary in a land of blood­shed.

As Hutu mili­ti­a­men ram­paged through the streets in a con­vul­sive slaugh­ter, Mr 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,” Mr Rus­esabag­ina once called it.

Af­ter the geno­cide, Mr Rus­esabag­ina went back to work. But the coun­try was chaotic and tense. Two mil­lion Rwan­dan refugees had poured into neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. A new, Tutsi-led gov­ern­ment, headed by the rebel leader, Mr Kagame, was in charge.

Many Hu­tus lived un­der a pall of sus­pi­cion that they bore col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity for atroc­i­ties car­ried out by Hutu mili­ti­a­men. Re­venge killings were com­mon.

One day in late 1994, a soldier burst into Mr Rus­esabag­ina’s home and tried to shoot him. He man­aged to flee, but it “left him anx­ious,” re­called his son, Roger, 41, speak­ing from Bil­ler­ica, Mas­sachusetts.

Two years later, Mr 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.

Mr 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. Some­times, his chil­dren re­called, he re­galed taxi pas­sen­gers with his past life in Rwanda.


Terry Ge­orge, the Ir­ish film di­rec­tor, first met Mr Rus­esabag­ina in Brus­sels in 2002, a pas­sen­ger in his Mercedes taxi. A year later they trav­elled to­gether for a re­search trip to Rwanda.

At Ki­gali air­port, they were greeted by a crowd of cheer­ing geno­cide sur­vivors, Ge­orge re­called, and at the Mille Collines ho­tel, teary-eyed staff gushed about their for­mer boss. “A hero’s wel­come,” Ge­orge said.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina’s ap­pre­hen­sions about his safety had van­ished, and he bought a plot to build a house. “I thought that things had changed,” he said from his cell this past week.

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 Mr 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 Mr Rus­esabag­ina.

“We should be in awe of peo­ple like Paul,” Jolie said.

In April 2005, for the Rwan­dan pre­miere, Ge­orge flew from the United States to Brus­sels to ren­dezvous with Mr Rus­esabag­ina and his wife for the flight to Ki­gali. But only she was at the gate. Mr 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, Mr 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 Mr Kagame’s face, the pres­i­dent chuck­led.

A year later, in May 2006, Mr Kagame in­vited Chea­dle and his fam­ily to the pres­i­den­tial palace in Ki­gali. While the adults shared a tra­di­tional drink of fer­mented milk, their chil­dren played to­gether. About the film, Mr Kagame “only said that he was grate­ful for the at­ten­tion it brought to his coun­try,” Chea­dle re­called.

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

Af­ter Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush awarded Mr 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, Mr Kagame de­liv­ered his own broad­side. Rwanda had no need for “man­u­fac­tured” he­roes “made in Europe or Amer­ica,” he said.


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

Ad­mir­ing ar­ti­cles likened him to Oskar Schindler, the Ger­man busi­ness­man who saved 1,100 Jews from the Nazis. He trav­elled to Africa with a con­gres­sional delegation and estab­lished a non­profit, the Ho­tel Rwanda Rus­esabag­ina Foun­da­tion, that ac­crued $241,242 (7.5 mil­lion baht) from 2005-07, ac­cord­ing to tax fil­ings.

In 2006, he stood be­side Ge­orge Clooney and Holo­caust sur­vivor Elie Wiesel at a rally in Washington to warn of a new geno­cide in Dar­fur, in west­ern Su­dan.

“It is an­other Rwanda,” Mr Rus­esabag­ina said.

At home, the con­flict with Mr Kagame boiled over.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina pub­lished a mem­oir, An

Or­di­nary Man, that con­tained sharp crit­i­cisms of Mr 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.’”

In June 2007, Mr Rus­esabag­ina re­ported Mr Kagame to an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal on war crimes in Rwanda, for atroc­i­ties he said had been com­mit­ted by Mr Kagame’s troops dur­ing the geno­cide.

A bat­tle of nar­ra­tives erupted.

Over six months, the New Times pub­lished 21 ar­ti­cles with head­lines like “Rus­esabag­ina’s Mega­lo­ma­nia Has No Limit.” Sur­vivors from the Mille Collines came for­ward to ac­cuse Mr Rus­esabag­ina of ex­ag­ger­at­ing his role and even prof­it­ing from the geno­cide. A gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial pub­lished a book that pur­ported to tell Ho­tel

Rwanda’s “real story.”

Mr Rus­esabag­ina had some in­flu­en­tial back­ers. In early 2006 Ali­son Des Forges, a noted scholar on the geno­cide, con­ducted a re­view of An Or­di­nary Man for his pub­lisher, Pen­guin.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina’s ac­count was “true to what I have wit­nessed and ex­pe­ri­enced in this com­pli­cated so­ci­ety,” Des Forges wrote in a con­fi­den­tial let­ter seen by The Times.

The Rwan­dan gov­ern­ment in­ten­si­fied its cam­paign. In 2007, at a fo­rum in Chicago, Rwanda’s am­bas­sador to the United States ac­cused Mr Rus­esabag­ina of fi­nanc­ing rebel groups in east­ern Congo.

In Brus­sels, Mr Rus­esabag­ina be­gan to feel un­safe. In­trud­ers broke into his home twice, his chil­dren said, ri­fling draw­ers and steal­ing doc­u­ments. When a car drove him off the road, he took it as an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt, they said.

In 2009, Mr Rus­esabag­ina and his wife moved to a gated com­mu­nity in San An­to­nio, Texas, near the home of an ally — Bob Krueger, a for­mer US se­na­tor and am­bas­sador to Bu­rundi, whom he had be­friended.

Even then, Mr Kagame con­tin­ued to court the stars of Ho­tel Rwanda. In June 2010, he sent his he­li­copter to bring Chea­dle to north­ern Rwanda for a go­rilla-nam­ing cer­e­mony, part of a lauded con­ser­va­tion ef­fort.

At a din­ner af­ter­ward with the pres­i­dent, Chea­dle re­called, there was no men­tion of Mr Rus­esabag­ina.


The death of Patrick Karegeya, a for­mer Rwan­dan spy chief and critic of Mr Kagame found stran­gled in a South African ho­tel room on Jan 1, 2014, sig­naled yet again how far the pres­i­dent was pre­pared to go to quash dis­sent.

In at least six coun­tries, Rwan­dan ex­iles have been ha­rassed, as­saulted or killed as part of an ap­par­ent covert cam­paign tar­get­ing Mr Kagame’s most net­tle­some de­trac­tors. Some were ac­cused of hav­ing par­tic­i­pated in the geno­cide. Oth­ers, like Karegeya, had been con­fi­dants and even friends of Mr Kagame.

In Bel­gium, a fugi­tive politi­cian was found float­ing in a canal. In Kenya, a for­mer min­is­ter was shot dead in his car. In Bri­tain, po­lice warned two dis­si­dents they faced an “im­mi­nent threat” from Rwanda’s gov­ern­ment. In South Africa, a for­mer army chief was shot in the stom­ach but sur­vived.

West­ern of­fi­cials of­ten looked the other way. “They are im­mensely spe­cial be­cause of what hap­pened in the past,” An­drew Mitchell, a for­mer Bri­tish de­vel­op­ment min­is­ter, said in 2015. “It en­gen­ders cut­ting them more slack.”

Mr Kagame’s rep­u­ta­tion was fur­ther tar­nished by a 2010 re­port from the UN hu­man rights body that ac­cused Rwan­dan sol­diers and al­lied mili­tias of wide­spread rape, killings of tens of thou­sands of civil­ians, and re­cruit­ment of child sol­diers in east­ern Congo — charges that in­fu­ri­ated Mr Kagame but earned him an un­usu­ally pub­lic re­buke from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in 2012.

In 2010, a Rwan­dan pros­e­cu­tor re­peated the claim that Mr Rus­esabag­ina had wired funds to Congo-based rebels. The FBI and Bel­gian au­thor­i­ties ques­tioned him but took no ac­tion, his fam­ily said.

In the United States, Chea­dle met Mr Kagame at a din­ner party hosted by a mu­tual ac­quain­tance. The friend, whom Chea­dle de­clined to iden­tify, later pitched the ac­tor on a sec­ond Ho­tel Rwanda film, this time cast­ing Mr Rus­esabag­ina in an un­favourable light. Chea­dle was in­cred­u­lous.

“I said, ‘You want me to play the same char­ac­ter in a movie I was nom­i­nated for an Os­car for, to say that movie was horse­shit, and now I’m do­ing the real movie? I’m prob­a­bly not go­ing to do that.’”

In Jan­uary 2018, months af­ter Mr Kagame had been re­elected with 99% of the vote, Mr Rus­esabag­ina tried to en­list a sec­ond US pres­i­dent to his cause. “I re­quest your sup­port in lib­er­at­ing Rwan­dan peo­ple,” he wrote Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Since 1994, he said, “noth­ing has changed” in Rwanda.


In June and July 2018, gun­men car­ried out a spate of at­tacks on re­mote vil­lages in the Nyungwe for­est, in­side Rwanda’s southern bor­der with Bu­rundi.

The dead­li­est hit Nyabi­mata, a ham­let of steep slopes and ba­nana trees, on the night of June 19. Three peo­ple were killed, in­clud­ing Fidel Mun­yaneza, a pri­mary school teacher. His wife, Josephine, said he had been shot in the back.

The Rwan­dan au­thor­i­ties blamed the at­tack on the Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Forces — the armed wing of a Rwan­dan op­po­si­tion coali­tion that, at the time, was led by Paul Rus­esabag­ina.

Months later, Mr Rus­esabag­ina de­liv­ered the video ad­dress that spoke of change by “any means pos­si­ble,” which Rwanda’s gov­ern­ment calls proof of his guilt. From jail, he said he did not re­mem­ber mak­ing such a video.


When he boarded a flight from Chicago to Dubai on Aug 26, Mr 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. Mr 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.

In fact, the plane was op­er­ated by GainJet, a Greece-based char­ter com­pany fre­quently used by Mr Kagame. It landed just be­fore dawn on Aug 28 in Ki­gali, where Mr Rus­esabag­ina was promptly ar­rested.

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

If that op­er­a­tion was straight out of the Kagame play­book — dis­si­dents say a pri­vate jet flew an­other op­po­si­tion leader from the Co­moro Is­lands to Rwanda last year — the na­ture of the bait used to en­trap Rwanda’s lat­est vic­tim was un­clear.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina said he had been in­vited to Bu­rundi by a pas­tor, Con­stantin Niy­omwun­gere, who in­vited him to speak at his churches. Rwan­dan of­fi­cials say Mr Rus­esabag­ina’s true pur­pose was to co­or­di­nate with armed groups based in Bu­rundi and Congo.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina seemed de­ter­mined in the jail­house in­ter­view to main­tain his cus­tom­ary un­ruf­fled de­meanour. But he could be eva­sive and con­tra­dic­tory.

He spent the first three days of cap­tiv­ity at an un­known lo­ca­tion, blind­folded and bound, where he was in­ter­ro­gated “not much,” he said.

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


In Ho­tel Rwanda Mr 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 8 kilo­me­tres away, those are not op­tions.

Sup­port­ers, both in Hol­ly­wood and the Rwan­dan op­po­si­tion, ar­gue that he can­not re­ceive a fair trial.

“They will do ev­ery­thing to keep him in jail,” said Faustin Twa­gi­ra­mungu, a for­mer prime min­is­ter of Rwanda and po­lit­i­cal ally of Mr Rus­esabag­ina.

Mr Rus­esabag­ina, for his part, in­sisted that his group was “not a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion,” even if its com­po­nents in­clude an armed group.

Its ob­jec­tive, he said, was to high­light the plight of “mil­lions” of Rwan­dan refugees and ex­iles, like him, who re­main trapped out­side the coun­try, more than a quar­ter cen­tury af­ter the geno­cide.

“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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 ??  ?? Paul Rus­esabag­ina, hand­cuffed, dis­cusses his case with two lawyers he picked from a list supplied by the gov­ern­ment in Ki­gali.
Paul Rus­esabag­ina, hand­cuffed, dis­cusses his case with two lawyers he picked from a list supplied by the gov­ern­ment in Ki­gali.
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 ??  ?? LEFT Paul Rus­esabag­ina in his de­ten­tion cell. ABOVE Po­lice es­cort Paul Rus­esabag­ina into a van af­ter his pre-trial court ap­pear­ance in Ki­gali, Rwanda.
LEFT Paul Rus­esabag­ina in his de­ten­tion cell. ABOVE Po­lice es­cort Paul Rus­esabag­ina into a van af­ter his pre-trial court ap­pear­ance in Ki­gali, Rwanda.
 ??  ?? Josephine Mukashyaka, whose hus­band, Fidel Mun­yaneza, was shot to death in at­tacks by gun­men near Rwanda’s southern bor­der with Bu­rundi in 2018, out­side her home in Nyabamita, Rwanda.
Josephine Mukashyaka, whose hus­band, Fidel Mun­yaneza, was shot to death in at­tacks by gun­men near Rwanda’s southern bor­der with Bu­rundi in 2018, out­side her home in Nyabamita, Rwanda.

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