Want to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan Genocide? @FreetheHero (Paul Rusesabagina)
Twenty-seven years ago today, President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as he returned from peace talks in Tanzania with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This event sparked the genocide where at least 800,000 people were butchered by people they had known all of their lives. People picked up machetes and killed friends, family, and coworkers.
Paul Rusesabagina was a hotel manager for the Sabine Hotel franchise and worked at the Hotel des Milles Collines. He didn’t set out to be a hero. He has said that the question shouldn’t be why he acted the way he did but why did others not? As a result of his actions, depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda where he was played by Don Cheadle, 1,268 people survived that 10 horrible weeks in 1994. If that does not make him a hero, what does?
Today, as President Paul Kagame oversees the genocide reenactments that are held every year, Rusesabagina is not sitting alongside his country-mate. He sits in a jail on trumped-up charges. His real crime is criticizing Kagame. Today, criticizing Kagame or other high-level government officials is a crime. A guilty verdict carries a sentence of five years in prison. Kagame critics don’t often see the inside of a court. More than a few have died under suspicious circumstances.
In 1996, Rusesabagina feared for his life. His home had been raided and at least one attempt had been made on his life. He gave up his Rwandan citizenship and became a Belgian. When it looked like his new country wasn’t much safer than his old one, he moved to the United States. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a permanent U.S. resident. When he returned to Rwanda for the premiere of the film, he needed to get a visa because he was no longer a Rwandan.
In the years since Rusesabagina brought his family to the U.S., he has spoken out against genocide and been a champion for human rights and democracy. In 2005, then-President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2011, he was awarded the Human Rights Prize by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
All the while, Rusesabagina has called out the autocratic Kagame regime. As Kagame dislikes few things more than being called out, in 2010, he approached both the American and Belgian governments with the very same charges he brought late last year. Both nations found the “evidence” against Rusesabagina to lack merit and refused to extradite him. The U.S. government has a proven track record of sending back to Rwanda people against whom Kagame had actual evidence.
On August 27, 2020, Rusesabagina was lured to Dubai with the invitation to speak out about human rights issues in Burundi. When he boarded the private jet that night, he had no idea he was actually headed for Kigali. The pastor who did the luring admitted this in court. Kagame himself has bragged about how well the operation went.
Rusesabagina was blindfolded and tied up. He stayed like that for three days. Since the restraints were removed, he has sat in solitary confinement. He has been denied access to the medication he needs (he is a cancer survivor and suffers from hypertension), his family (he gets one five minute call a week — should he talk to his family or lawyer), the lawyers of his choosing (he can talk to one but there are more on his team), and has been given little to eat (he has lost about 50 pounds). Any legal documents his lawyers do get to him being confiscated. The Rwandan government says he has what he needs because he has a chair and a desk with a shelf. The power to his cell is cut every night at 6:00 pm.
Multiple international, human rights organizations have said Rusesabagina was kidnapped or “forcibly disappeared.” No one thinks the trial can be fair. When Kagame saw Belgium helping the Rusesabagina family, he responded by saying that if the assistance continued, “it will have a negative impact on the relationship between the two nations.”
The world has a nasty habit of looking at a genocide, wringing its hands and saying, “never again” but avoiding any actual evidence when it happens again. When faced with genocide, Rusesabagina did not look the other way. He helped the people he could.
We need more people to act like Paul Rusesabagina. The west looked the other way in 1994, it cannot make the same mistake here. We need to bring him home.