If the story depicted in the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle and Sophia Okonedo is true, then Paul Rusesabagina is a real-life hero of the Rwandan genocide – a dark part of Rwanda’s history that saw the death of between eight hundred thousand and one million Rwandans in just 100 days.
Rusesabagina is said to have faced the rampaging Interahamwe militia as he protected families that sought shelter in the five-star Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali where he worked as a manager. In recent times, however, there have been contradictions in the accounts of what transpired, leaving many to wonder if the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient is worthy of being regarded as a hero.
Paul Rusesabagina Was Born to a Hutu Father and Tutsi Mother
Paul Rusesabagina was born on the 15th of June 1954. He was one of the people caught in between the Rwandan Civil War as his father was Hutu and his mother was Tutsi. He is one of their nine children.
Rusesabagina’s parents sent him to a school owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in a town near Gitwe. By the age of 13, the young boy had learned how to speak English and French fluently.
After marrying his first wife Esther Sembeba on September 8, 1967, the couple 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 Belgium to study hotel management.
He Married a Tutsi Nurse After His First Marriage Broke Down
Due to the demands of his job, Paul Rusesabagina and his first wife started having marital challenges which led to their decision to part ways in 1981. Following their legal separation after almost 14 years together, Rusesabagina was granted full custody of their three kids; Diane, Roger, and Lys.
A few years after his separation from his first wife, precisely in 1987, the hotel worker met Tatiana, a Tutsi nurse in Ruhengeri who would later become his second wife. The duo got married about two years later and Tatiana adopted his children. Paul and Tatiana would later welcome a son of their own together.
Based on the foregoing, it is easy to see why Paul Rusesabagina couldn’t take a side in the Rwandan Civil War. While his father is Hutu, his mother and second wife were Tutsi – two tribes that had a long-running dispute that led to the war.
Why Paul Rusesabagina is Regarded as a Hero
Hotel des Mille Collines was owned by the Belgian company Sabena at the time of the Rwandan genocide. Paul Rusesabagina was working as a concierge at the time and it is said that he hid and protected about 1,268 Hutu and Tutsi refugees from the Interahamwe militia of the then Hutu-led government and ethnic militia allies during the mass slaughter.
During the genocide which lasted for 100 days, about eight hundred thousand to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were either butchered and hacked to death with machetes, burned alive, or shot.
Rusesabagina had brought his family to the hotel for their safety when the crisis broke out. He subsequently secured a letter of appointment to act as the general manager of the hotel when other managers left. When the Hutu militia threatened to enter the hotel, Paul indiscriminately hid and protected 1,268 refugees from both tribes. It is said that none of them were killed or hurt during the crisis.
The same can’t be said for Tatiana’s family. She lost her father, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and four nieces and nephews to the genocide. It is said that her father even paid to be killed. According to reports, he paid the Hutu militia so that he can be killed in a manner that was not painful. Rusesabagina himself lost four of his eight siblings to the crisis.
Some People Think Rusesabagina is a Fraud
According to contradicting accounts, the reason why the hotel was spared had nothing to do with Rusesabagina’s bravery. It was rather because the hotel had become the favorite of expatriates and thus, a focus of the international press.
Jean Kambanda, who was the prime minister in the caretaker government of Rwanda from the start of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, had apparently received a telegram from the US government asking for protection for the people staying in Mille Collines. 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 the month, an agreement was reached between the interim government and the mayor of Kigali, Colonel Tharcisse Renzaho, to avoid any large-scale massacres in or near the capital.
It was also said that Paul Rusesabagina 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 has also been alleged that he charged guests exorbitant prices for scraps, even after hotel management in Brussels sent fax demanding that all food was free to the over 1,000 people trapped in the hotel.
Awards He Has Received For His Efforts
Regardless, Paul Rusesabinga 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.
Paul currently lives in the United States where he runs the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF) which provides 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.
Paul Kagame Doesn’t Think Highly of Rusesabagina
Many of Paul Rusesabagina’s supporters claim that the allegations against him as discussed above are slanderous and are part of a campaign by Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s regime to smear his name because the former hotel manager has accused Kagame of human rights abuses.
Sometime in April 2006, Kagame publicly asserted that the narratives of Rusesabagina being a hero is totally false and advised him to try building his life around something else instead of thriving in the falsehood of exemplary heroism.
It has also been claimed that Paul Rusesabagina funded terror activities in Rwanda. The country’s general prosecutor Martin Ngoga said he has evidence for this and even urged the United States to support the case and bring Paul to justice.
In an interview with CNN, Rusesabagina dismissed the allegations against him, insisting that Kagame is only trying to take people’s attention away from the atrocities of his government. According to him, Kagame has silenced all his critics and he is the only one remaining.