If the story told in the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, is true, then Paul Rusesabagina is a real-life hero of the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan genocide is a dark part of Rwanda’s history that saw the death of between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans in just 100 days.
Paul Rusesabagina was said to have faced down the rampaging militia at the time to protect the families who had sought shelter in the five-star Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali. In recent times, there have been contradictions in the accounts of what exactly happened and whether Paul Rusesabagina should indeed be considered a hero but first let us consider the happy ending version of events.
Paul Rusesabagina’s Biography
Paul Rusesabagina was born 15 June 1954 to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother. His parents sent him to school in a town near Gitwe owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By the age of 13, Paul could speak English and French fluently.
After marrying his first wife, Esther Sembeba, on September 8, 1967, they both moved to Cameroon where he resumed studies at a seminary.
He moved back to Rwanda in December 1978 to apply for an opening to work at the Mille Collines. He got the job and was sent to Switzerland and Brussels to study hotel management.
Hotel des Mille Collines had been owned by the Belgian company, Sabena at the time. Paul Rusesabagina had been working as a concierge at the time and he hid and protected 1,268 Hutu and Tutsi refugees from the Interahamwe militia during the Rwandan Genocide.
The soldiers of the then Hutu-led government and ethnic militia allies orchestrated the genocide. In the genocide which lasted 100 days, about 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered, hacked to death with machetes, burned alive or shot.
Paul reportedly saved the lives of about 1,268 Hutu’s and Tutsi’s as none of them were hurt or killed during the attacks.
The Other Story Of Paul Rusesabagina And Hotel Des Mille Collines
According to the contradicting accounts, the reason why the hotel being spared had nothing to do with Rusesabagina’s bravery was that the hotel had become the favourite of ex-patriots, and thus, a focus of western international press attention. The prime minister in the interim government, Jean Kambanda, was said to have described to his cabinet how unfortunate that the hotel was “in full view”
Jean Kambanda had apparently received a telegram from the US government asking for protection for the people sheltering there. The hotel was therefore spared to avoid unwanted international attention.
All this happened in the second week of April in 1994 and at the end of April, an agreement was reached between the interim government and the mayor of Kigali, Colonel Tharcisse Renzaho, to avoid, for the time being, any more large-scale massacres in or near the capital.
It was said that Rusesabagina allegedly extorted money from hotel guests for rooms and the cheques he accepted for rent were cashed in Gitarama, where the interim government had established its premises.
It was also alleged that Paul Rusesabagina charged guests exorbitant prices for scraps even after hotel management in Brussels sent a fax demanding that all food was free to the over 1,000 people trapped in no man’s land between life and death.
There were also claims that many days before the genocide started, he had been working elsewhere in Kigali, at the Hotel des Diplomates which was close to the army barracks and had become the favourite haunt of the military and Hutu leaders.
Many of his supporters claim that such slanderous allegations are part of a campaign by President Kagame’s regime in Rwanda to smear him especially since Rusesabinga has accused Kagame of human rights abuses.
No matter who is actually right on whether Paul Rusesabinga is hero or villain, he has received numerous accolades for his perceived role in the Rwandan Genocide. He has received the Lantos Human Rights Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former US president, George Bush.
He currently lives in the United States and runs the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF) to provide financial assistance to the women and children affected by the genocides in Rwanda and other African nations. He has been compared to Oskar Schindler and Gandhi and commands high fees as a speaker and for these reasons, we hope the more altruistic version of events is true.
Wife, Children, Family
Paul married his first wife Esther Sembeba, on September 8, 1967. The couple were together for almost 14 years before legally separating in 1981.
In 1987, he met Tatiana a Tutsi nurse in Ruhengeri. They were married two years later and she adopted his children, then the couple had a son together later. It is easy to see why Paul Rusesabagina is an accessible hero; His parentage is mixed Hutu and Tutsi and he married a Tutsi wife but as we mentioned before, not many people agree with the version of events that paints Rusesabagina as a hero.