Paul Rusesabagina (Kinyarwanda: [ɾusesɑβaɟinɑ]; born 10 June 1952) is a Rwandan humanitarian who, while working as a hotel manager at the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, hid and protected 1,268 Hutu and Tutsi refugees from the interahamwe militia during the Rwandan Genocide. None of those refugees were hurt or killed during the attacks.
Rusesabagina's efforts were the basis of the Academy Award-nominated film Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which he was portrayed by American actor Don Cheadle. He currently lives in Brussels, Belgium, with his wife, four children, and two adopted nieces. Rusesabagina founded the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation to fight for global human rights.
Birth and career
Rusesabagina was one of nine children born to a Hutu father and Tutsi mother in Murama, Rwanda. Rusesabagina's parents sent him to school in a town near Gitwe run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By age 13, he was fluent in English and French. He married his first wife, Esther Sembeba, on September 8, 1967. By the end of his adolescence, Rusesabagina had decided to become a minister. He and his wife moved to Cameroon where he studied at seminary.
In December 1978, he, his wife, and two children moved to Kigali. While there, a childhood friend, Isaac Mulihano, invited Rusesabagina to apply for an opening to work at the Mille Collines. He was offered a position and was later sent to Switzerland and Brussels to study hotel management. Due to distance and his commitment to work, he and Esther legally separated in 1981. Rusesabgina was granted full custody of their three children: Diane, Lys, and Roger.
In 1987, he was invited to a wedding where he met Tatiana, the maid of honor and a Tutsi nurse in Ruhengeri. Rusesabagina obtained a favor from a frequent customer of the Mille Collines, a Minister of Health, to transfer Tatiana to a job at Central Hospital in Kigali. Tatiana and Paul married two years later and she adopted his children. Later, they had a son, Trésor.
In 1992, Paul Rusesabagina was promoted to assistant general manager of the Diplomates Hotel, an affiliate of the Mille Collines.
The Rwandan Genocide
In Rwanda, while Paul was receiving education in Nairobi, Switzerland, and Brussels, the Hutu-dominated government of President Juvénal Habyarimana faced pressure from a Tutsi-led rebel force as they tried to maintain their power. Machetes were ordered and brought to the capital and given to the Interahamwe; while Tutsi were being discriminated against, a rumour brought on by a radio station RTLM explained that the Tutsi wanted to kill all the Hutus.
On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana's plane was shot down by surface-to-air missiles as it approached the Kigali Airport for landing. On board the plane with Habyarimana were the President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Rwandan Army Chief of Staff Déogratias Nsabimana, and Colonel Elie Sagatwa, the head of presidential security. The wreckage landed in the garden of the presidential palace and all on board were killed. The Rwandan Genocide started on April 6, 1994. On April 7, 1994, the Presidential Guard assassinated Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana along with many other ministers, mainly those from political parties different from that of the assassinated Habyarimana and those slated to play important roles in the transitional government that had been planned to be instated on April 8. Ten Belgian UN peacekeepers were also killed. Interahamwe hunted down Tutsi and began killing them at the start of the genocide. Though Rusesabagina was Hutu (his father was Hutu and his mother Tutsi), his wife Tatiana was a Tutsi and his children considered mixed. Due to this, he was unable to escape from the war zone with his family.
When the violence broke out, Rusesabagina brought his family to the Hôtel des Mille Collines for safety. As other managers departed, Rusesabagina phoned the hotel's corporate owners, Sabena, and secured a letter appointing him the acting general manager of the Mille Collines.
When a murderous Hutu militia threatened to enter the Mille Collines, Rusesabagina ensured that his wife and children fled safely in a truck past the militia's roadblocks. The truck set out for Kigali airport so they could flee to another country. He remained in the hotel to tend to the refugees. Tatiana and her children were specifically targeted within the convoy by radio messages, and returned to the hotel after being attacked.
Tatiana's family faced extreme tragedy. Her mother, brother and sister-in-law, and four nieces and nephews died in the genocide. Her father paid Hutu militia to be executed so he would not die a more painful death:
We all knew we would die, no question. The only question was how. Would they chop us in pieces? With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That's what her [Tatiana's] father did.— Paul Rusesabagina in Humo, nr. 3365, March 1, 2005
The Interahamwe left nearly 1 million corpses behind. Tutsi rebels pushed the Hutu militia into the Congo in July 1994, after over half of the Tutsis in Rwanda had been murdered. Rusesabagina took orphans from the camp behind Tutsi rebel lines with him to Tanzania, to keep them safe and away from Rwanda. By the end of the massacre, four of his eight siblings remained alive. He comments in his autobiography that "For a Rwandan family, this is a comparatively lucky outcome".
Rusesabagina, his wife and children, and the refugees eventually managed to escape to Tanzania, thanks to the Rwandan Patriotic Front. After staying in Rwanda for two more years, Rusesabagina applied for asylum in Belgium and moved to Brussels with his wife, children, and his two nieces in 1996 after receiving credible threats on his life.
- 2000 – Receives Immortal Chaplains Prize for Humanity.
- 2005 – Receives Wallenberg Medal of the University of Michigan
- 2005 – Receives National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award
- 2005 – Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom
- 2007 – Receives Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Guelph
- 2008 – Receives Honorary Degree from Gustavus Adolphus College
- 2009 – Receives Honorary Degree from Loyola University Chicago, at the Bachelor of Arts Commencement
- 2011 – Receives the 2011 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize from The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice
His story was first told in Philip Gourevitch's book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, which was published in 1998.
His autobiography An Ordinary Man (written with Tom Zoellner ISBN 0-670-03752-4) was published by Zach Bell in April 2006.
Paul's work in the genocide is dramatized in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda in which he is played by Don Cheadle. Cheadle's performance was met with critical acclaim and the actor was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama and Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.
Feud with Paul Kagame
Rusesabagina and Rwandan president and former head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) Paul Kagame have become public enemies of each other. In his autobiography, Rusesabagina alleges, "Rwanda is today a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis...Those few Hutus who have been elevated to high-ranking posts are usually empty suits without any real authority of their own. They are known locally as Hutus de service or Hutus for hire." He has also criticized Kagame's election to president.
On April 6, 2006, Kagame suggested, "[Rusesabagina] should try his talents elsewhere and not climb on the falsehood of being a hero, because it's totally false." Despite this, Rusesabagina stated in a public lecture at the University of Michigan on March 27, 2014, that he has chosen to forgive Kagame, as this is the only way that Rwanda can move past the genocide. Francois Xavier Ngarambe, the president of Ibuka, the umbrella body of survivors' associations for the genocide, said of Rusesabagina, "he has hijacked heroism. He is trading with the genocide. He should be charged." Terry George, the director of Hotel Rwanda, characterized the comment as part of a smear campaign.
In 2008, the book Hotel Rwanda or the Tutsi Genocide as seen by Hollywood, by Alfred Ndahiro, a public relations advisor to Kagame and journalist Privat Rutazibwa, was published. It provides an alternative take to the portrayal of Rusesabagina's actions as seen in Hotel Rwanda.
Rusesabagina has consistently denied allegations put forward by the Rwandan government accusing Rusesabagina of helping the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan rebel group. In a 2010 interview with CNN, Rusesabagina said :"I have sent no money to terrorists ... He [the prosecutor] is not only lying, but lying with bad logic.....This is pure and simple fabrication from Kigali."
Some of those who survived the 1994 genocide in the Hôtel des Mille Collines, including Edouard Kayihura, a lawyer and former prosecutor for those accused of genocide in Rwanda, and Odette Nyiramilimo, a Rwandan doctor who later became a senator and minister within the Rwandan government, question Rusesabagina's humanitarian endeavours. In a letter to Terry George, the director of the film Hotel Rwanda, Odette wrote that "People thank [Rusesabagina] on how he was taking care of orphans in the hotel, and he agrees! Terry, there has never been orphans! Who would have brought them? Some people even call me or send nice messages to me thanking me to have been taking care of the orphans at that tragic period. Of course I explain it did not happen like that! But it has happened maybe somewhere else". Kayihura's book "Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story and Why It Matters Today" (Benbella Books, 2014) illustrates conflicting statements made by Rusesabagina himself since the 1994 genocide, such as how he charged people for food and drink during the genocide and threatened to kick out Christophe Shamukiga, an occupant of the Hôtel des Mille Collines, for distributing soft drinks, boiled water, and cookies to other hotel guests found in a basement cache without paying for them. Rusesabagina denies these allegations.
Rusesabagina has also claimed that the RPF rebels committed genocide during the conflict. Such a claim contradicts work by historians such as Alison Des Forges (Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda), although according to other historians such as Gérard Prunier (Africa's World War), the RPF did, in coming to power, murder large numbers of both Hutus and Tutsis, for the most part indiscriminately, as an instrument of political control. See also Rwandan Genocide denial.