As the manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Paul Rusesabagina saved more than a thousand people from genocide in Rwanda. Now he’s on trial in the country on charges that he’s a member of a terrorist organization.
On the evening of August 27, 2020, Paul Rusesabagina landed at the international airport in Dubai on an Emirates flight from Chicago. He had planned to continue on to Burundi that same night to give a talk at the invitation of a Protestant pastor. That, at least, is what he later told investigators.
Trips like this are routine for Rusesabagina. He has been considered a human rights icon since he saved the lives of more than a thousand people as a hotel manager in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide conducted by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. His story served as the basis for the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda.” In 2005, then U.S. President George W. Bush awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honors bestowed on civilians in the United States.
Rusesabagina sent a text message to his wife Taciana: “I’m here, we’re at border control now.” Then he checked into the Ibis Styles Hotel in Dubai. This is according to a document from the United Arab Emirates. An acquaintance was already waiting for him: Constantin Niyomwungere, the pastor who first invited him to Burundi. Rusesabagina bathed before leaving for the Al Maktoum airport with the pastor, where the two friends boarded a private plane operated by GainJet, a charter airline frequently used by the Rwandan government. When the plane landed shortly before sunrise, Rusesabagina assumed he had arrived in Burundi.
But armed security forces confronted him on the tarmac, arresting him and dragging him into a car. It was then, at the latest, that Rusesabagina realized that he hadn’t landed in Burundi but in the Rwandan capital city of Kigali. He had fallen into a trap: His friend, the pastor, was working with the regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Rusesabagina is now considered a terrorist, and he is facing trial in Kigali.
It is a deep fall for a man who was once celebrated for his humanity and is now sitting in the dock as the accused. The story of Paul Rusesabagina is as tangled and epic as that of the entire country. Above all, though, it is the story of two men who were allies in a war and are now facing off against each other as bitter enemies.
Kagame and Rusesabagina used to be close. In 1994, Rusesabagina hid members of the Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus from Hutu militias in the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, while Kagame helped end the genocide as leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi rebel group.
These days, though, Rusesabagina refers to the Rwandan president as a dictator and is demanding he be overthrown. Kagame, for his part, regards Rusesabagina as a terrorist and a troublemaker. In recent years, Kagame has had a number of opposition figures arrested or killed, but Rusesabagina holds Belgian citizenship and an American green card. Living in exile in the United States, Rusesabagina thought he was out of Kagame’s reach.
That made the uproar even greater when the Rwandan government captured him last summer. Human Rights Watch described it as a “forced disappearance,” and the European Parliament has denounced the breach of law. Kagame, on the other hand, has praised it as a “flawless” intelligence operation.
At first glance, the roles in the power struggle between Kagame and Rusesabagina are clearly established. On the one side you have a dictator who doesn’t shy away from breaking the law to persecute his critics. On the other is a champion of democracy and human rights. But things aren’t that simple.
In recent weeks, DER SPIEGEL has evaluated court records and internal documents, spoken with officials in Rwanda, the U.S. and Europe, with Rusesabagina’s relatives and companions as well as those involved in the trial in Kigali. Kagame himself was not available for an interview and the authorities didn’t allow us to interview Rusesabagina at the prison in Kigali where he is being held.
The story surrounding Paul Rusesabagina goes all the way back to Rwanda’s darkest past. It is inextricably interwoven with the genocide and its aftermath. At the same time, it offers a lesson on the West’s partly colonial view of Africa, reflected in our projections about the place and errors we commonly make.
There is nothing at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali today to evoke the dramas that unfolded here 27 years ago. There’s no plaque to commemorate the victims of the genocide, and Rusesabagina’s name isn’t mentioned anywhere. Hotel employees remain sheepishly silent when asked about the famous former manager.
Rusesabagina was born in 1954 to a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. For centuries, ethnicity never played much of a role in Rwanda. It was the European occupiers – first Germany and then Belgium after World War I – who fomented ethnic conflict in order to tighten their hold on the country. Shortly before independence in 1962, the tensions increasingly erupted into violence. Thousands of Tutsis were murdered by Hutu extremists, and tens of thousands fled to neighboring countries, including Kagame’s family.
In April 1994, then Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed in a plane crash after the aircraft was struck by a missile. It is still unknown today whether the attack was launched by Tutsi or Hutu extremists.
The act sparked a horrific wave of violence. Within only a few weeks, Hutu extremists massacred up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers used machetes, axes and rifles. Women were raped in front of their children; men had their limbs chopped off before being burned alive. Europe and the U.S. stood on the sidelines as the killings happened, while France and others had rearmed the Hutu army just a short time before. Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the UN mission in Rwanda at the time, believes 5,000 soldiers would have been enough to prevent the genocide.
Instead, people were left to fend for themselves. Their survival depended on luck and the courage of individuals like Paul Rusesabagina.
“Paul saved the lives of me and my family,” says Odette Nyiramilimo, a doctor who later became social minister under Kagame. Nyiramilimo worked in the same hospital as Rusesabagina’s wife Taciana in the 1990s. The families were close friends. When the killings began, Rusesabagina brought Nyiramilimo, her husband and their four children to Mille Collines, in addition to his own wife and their four children. At one point, they all slept in the same room. A total of 1,268 people found shelter in the five-star hotel. “Paul didn’t turn anyone away,” Nyiramilimo says.
The refugees hunkered down in the Mille Collines for 11 weeks. When the water ran out, they drank from the pool. Rusesabagina bribed soldiers with whisky and cigars to protect his guests from the Hutu militia, and made phone calls to the U.S. government and to the UN.
At the same time, Paul Kagame and his troops advanced from Uganda into the capital city. Kagame had been trained in the Ugandan army and in the U.S., but he joined a rebel group fighting the Hutu army as young man. Following the victory over the regime, his hour had come: At the age of 37, he became defense minister, vice president and a few years later president of Rwanda.
The Kagame System
Kagame is now 63 years old, a gaunt man, almost frail. He has led Rwanda with an iron fist for more than two decades. People close to him describe him as disciplined, unyielding and meticulous. They say he gets up at 3 a.m. to study reports and files, and it has been reported that he has bodyguards beat employees who make mistakes.
Kagame had to rebuild Rwanda from the rubble of genocide, a task he has managed amazingly well, as even many of his critics are willing to admit.
Visitors to Kigali are often surprised by how orderly the city appears relative to other metropolises in Africa. The traffic in the city center flows smoothly, the glass facades of the office and commercial buildings gleam, and people everywhere can be seen wearing masks as a protection against the coronavirus.
Rwanda is a small, landlocked country with a population of more than 12 million people that is surrounded by larger neighbors. Its economy has nevertheless grown by up to 10 percent in recent years.
Kagame has pumped millions into infrastructure, opened schools and established one of Africa’s best health systems. There are more women in parliament than in any other country in the world. Kigali is now the second most important center for conferences in Africa after Johannesburg.
Few other countries have received as much development aid in proportion to their population as Rwanda. Kagame is a popular guest at international conferences such as the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We needed a success story after 1994,” says one European diplomat in Kigali, “and Paul Kagame has delivered it.”
What Kagame’s supporters in the West ignored for a long time, though, was how the former rebel leader was increasingly transforming his country into a dictatorship. He has brought the media and the judiciary into line, suppressed the opposition and arrested critics. During the 2017 presidential election, Kagame declared himself the winner with around 99 percent of the vote. One of the reasons the streets of Kigali are so clean is because the police lock up beggars in unofficial internment camps.
David Himbara, a former adviser to the president, is critical. He says quick success is the only thing that counts for Kagame. Himbara was allegedly commissioned by Kagame to manipulate the statistics in ways that would impress the West and claims his boss threatened him when he refused. Himbara moved to Canada. “Paul Kagame has never shed the war mentality,” he says over the phone. “He feels permanently persecuted.”
The president also apparently has his opponents hunted down abroad. In 2014, former Rwandan intelligence chief Patrick Karageya was found dead in a Johannesburg hotel room. Investigators proved direct links between the killers and the Kagame regime. In Kenya, a Rwandan minister was shot dead in his car, and in Belgium, authorities found a body in a canal that belonged to a Rwandan politician who had fled the country. The U.S. organization Freedom House claims that Rwanda’s government has had dissidents abducted or killed in at least seven countries since 2014. In a conversation with DER SPIEGEL, Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta dismissed the allegations as “baseless” and “politically motivated.”
By at least 2019, the Rwandan intelligence service also began targeting Kagame’s best-known critic: the hero of “Hotel Rwanda.”
The Power Struggle
Embassy buildings line the streets of northwestern Washington, D.C. – China and Pakistan have their missions here, as do Egypt, Nigeria and Austria. It’s an area of mansions and private schools – a quiet and well-secured part of the U.S. capital.
Anaïse Kanimba welcomes visitors a light-flooded house with a white facade. The home belongs to a friend of her parents. Here, in the northwest part of the city, she would be safe, the friend said.
Kanimba, 29, studied biology at university and worked as a development aid worker in Africa. These days, however, as has so often been the case in her life, everything revolves around her father, Paul Rusesabagina. Kanimba is not his biological daughter. She and her sister Carine are the children of Taciana’s brother, who, like his wife, died in the genocide. The Rusesabaginas adopted the girls.
Miraculously, Rusesabagina managed to ensure that all the refugees in the Mille Collines survived the genocide. But even after the fall of the Hutu government, he didn’t feel safe in Rwanda, his daughter tells us during an interview in Washington. The hotelier fled to Belgium via Uganda with his wife Taciana and their six children.
Rusesabagina applied for asylum, drove a taxi and bought a house in a suburb of Brussels. Every now and then, he told his ipassengers about his experiences in Rwanda, which is how director Terry George learned about the Mille Collines in 2002. George was fascinated by the story and asked Rusesabagina to accompany him to Rwanda on a research trip. Two years later, “Hotel Rwanda” was released in the theaters.
Rusesabagina’s life was turned upside down overnight and he went from driving a taxi to being a celebrity.
Movie critics loved the film. The lead actor who played Rusesabagina received an Oscar nomination for his role. And it completely changed Rusesabagina’s life. Overnight, he went from driving a taxi to being a celebrity. At the Los Angeles premiere, he walked down the red carpet with Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon.
Initially, at least, the film was also well received in Rwanda. At a 2005 screening in Kigali, Paul Kagame sat next to director Terry George and the president later confided to actor Don Cheadle that he was grateful for the attention the film brought to his country.
Rusesabagina used the sudden fame to launch a career traveling around the world as a human rights icon. He has appeared at peace rallies with celebrities like George Clooney and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, while journalists have compared him to Oskar Schindler, the businessman who saved more than a thousand Jews from the Nazis.
At first, Rusesabagina appreciated Kagame. He credits the president with liberating the country from the terror of the Interahamwe militia. But the more he came into contact with exiled Rwandans abroad, the more his view of his homeland seemed to change. In his memoir “An Ordinary Man,” he criticizes Kagame as being a potentate. “A nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis,” he wrote.
If he hadn’t already been one, the book definitively made him an enemy of the state. Kagame said angrily that Rwanda had no need for “manufactured heroes … made in Europe or America.” His government presented witnesses from the Mille Collines who questioned the role played by Rusesabagina during the genocide. Former Rwandan Prime Minister Bernard Makuza, a Kagame loyalist who also hid in the Mille Collines in 1994, also alleged to DER SPIEGEL that Rusesabagina didn’t save the Tutsis, but merely squeezed money out of them.
Odette Nyiramilimo, a friend of Rusesabagina’s for many years, says she saw nothing of the kind at the time. “Paul really cared about people,” she says. However, she says she observed how her friend became increasingly less grounded after the film’s release.
She relates that Rusesabagina jetted first class around the world and that his wife went shopping with stars like Angelina Jolie. After President Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2005, he asked her: “Odette, why am I not president of Rwanda by now?” She replied: “Paul, please don’t confuse reality with film.” Rusesabagina’s daughter Anaïse denies this depiction of events. “My father never wanted to be president of Rwanda,” she says, adding that he’s a Belgian citizen, a permanent resident of the U.S. and hadn’t been to Rwanda for many years.
Rusesabagina forged ahead with his political career. He founded the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, which provides support for orphans and widows in the country, and also helped launch the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (RMDC), a coalition of opposition groups that includes the National Liberation Front (FLN), the armed wing.
In an interview with the New York Times, he says: “The FLN is not a terrorist organization. They are people who are really tired to live outside the country in refugee camps …. Those people, they need attention. And our main objective was to attract attention.”
In 2009, unidentified assailants broke into Rusesabagina’s home in Brussels. After that he was forced off the road in his car. Rusesabagina feared for the safety of the family, says his daughter Anaïse Kanimba. He moved with his wife from Belgium to Texas.
Rwanda has done a lot to come to terms with the genocide. To this day, accomplices are still being held accountable in local courts, and a memorial in Kigali commemorates the victims of the genocide.
Critics complain, however, that the Kagame government is promoting a one-sided reading of history, with victims being exclusively Tutsi and the perpetrators Hutu. Anyone who questions this doctrine faces punishment. In February 2020, a well-known Rwandan gospel singer was found dead in his prison cell. He had commemorated the Hutu victims of the 1994 massacres in a song and had been imprisoned for it.
Rusesabagina became the voice of exiled Hutu who wanted to get rid of Kagame. For years, he had espoused non-violence and tolerance, but now, he radicalized, according to a confidential dossier written by European diplomats in Kigali that has been viewed by DER SPIEGEL. Rusesabagina unapologetically admits to having initiating armed struggle in Rwanda in 2018, the paper says.
In an interview with a journalist, Rusesabagina once insinuated that Kagame himself had had President Habyarimana’s plane shot down in 1994 in order to destabilize the country. Kagame, he said, “is the one responsible for the death of a million people.”
The Rwandan government claims that the FLN killed three people in the border area between Rwanda and Burundi in the summer of 2018. A few months later, Rusesabagina nevertheless declared his “unreserved support” for the militia in a YouTube video a few months later. In it, he says that political means in Rwanda have failed. “The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda.” Anaïse Kanimba claims that her father’s words were taken out of context by the Rwandan authorities. According to her, his sole aim was to draw attention to the plight of Rwandans in exile and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Soldiers with machine guns are standing guard outside the High Court in Kigali. Police officers search visitors’ bags for explosives. Paul Rusesabagina, along with 20 other prisoners, is led through a line of journalists into the courtroom on a Friday morning in March, wearing handcuffs and a mask.
He stands accused by the Kagame regime of membership in a terrorist organization, murder and robbery. The trial is to be broadcast live on YouTube. “We owe justice to the victims of FLN terror,” says Foreign Minister Biruta.
Constantin Niyomwungere, the pastor from Burundi who lured Rusesabagina to Rwanda, is one of the key witnesses. Niyomwungere was also arrested early last year for allegedly supporting terrorism. He agreed to lure Rusesabagina to Rwanda in exchange for being spared a prison sentence. Foreign Minister Biruta has confirmed that his government paid for the private jet.
Rusesabagina claims that he only wanted to address the faithful in Burundi. But that account isn’t totally plausible. First of all, he didn’t even visit family members during the pandemic. Second, it must have been clear to him that it would be hard to find a church in impoverished Burundi that would have the resources to fly in a guest speaker by private jet.
Rwanda’s government considers Rusesabagina to be a leader of the FLN. And it accuses him of collecting funds for the militia. Investigators also appear to be relying on evidence that was provided to them from Belgium. Police in that country opened separate proceedings against Rusesabagina after the 2018 FLN attacks. In a press release found on his computer by investigators, he calls the FLN rebels “our young men and women who are leading the armed struggle against the government forces.” Rusesabagina insists that his role was exclusively that of a diplomat.
“I am here as a hostage,” he says inside the courtroom. “I was kidnapped.”
It is unlikely that Rusesabagina will get a fair trial in Kigali. Kagame seems determined to silence his main critic. Rusesabagina is 66 years old. If convicted, it’s possible he will never leave prison alive.