Who is Rwanda’s Real Hero? Paul Kagame or Paul Rusesabagina?

Paul Kagame and Paul Rusesabagina
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Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life protagonist whose heroic story is the basis of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” is now imprisoned and on trial in Rwanda for a long list of preposterous “terrorism” charges. Rwandan operatives kidnapped him in Dubai at the beginning of September and forcibly extradited him to Rwanda on the orders of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was for many years celebrated as Rwanda’s savior, the general who stopped the genocide. A long list of investigative works, most recently Judi Rever’s “In Praise of Blood, Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front,” and decades of UN reports detailing the Rwandan army’s atrocities in both Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have belied that tale, but US and other NATO nations’ support for the president continues.

Rusesabagina is a longtime critic of Kagame’s regime and its catastrophic war on the Congolese people and the Rwandan refugee population who crossed the Rwandan/Congolese border to escape his advancing army in 1994. I have spoken to him several times for Pacifica’s KPFA Radio and the San Francisco Bay View about Rwanda and DRC, and for Counterpunch “On Invoking Rwanda to Attack Syria.” I read his book “An Ordinary Man,” and I’ve followed his activism on behalf of peace in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the wider African Great Lakes Region for over ten years. I trust and admire his commitments and hope to see him released soon.

Hotel Rwanda, Saving Darfur, and Humanitarian War

That said, I reacted negatively to “Hotel Rwanda,” the Hollywood movie based on Rusesabagina’s heroism in protecting more than a thousand people who took shelter in the hotel he managed during the 100 days of massacres that began on April 6, 1994. Rusesabagina himself has said that he was happy with the movie as the story of a man, himself, taking a moral stand amidst a bloodbath and near complete collapse of social order, but that the movie is at the same time a simplification with a Hollywood ending. I recommend Dan Kovalik’s Hotel Rwanda Revisited: an Interview with Paul Rusesabagina for more of his thoughts on the movie and on realities in post-genocide Rwanda and DRC.

I reacted negatively to the movie in part because I didn’t see it until 2008, four years after its release and 14 years after the Rwandan Genocide. The copy I rented at that time opened not on scenes in Rwanda’s capital, but on Don Cheadle, the actor who played Rusesabagina, proselytizing the movie audience. The tragic story we were about to see, he said, was being replayed now, north of Rwanda, in Darfur, where Arab militias commanded by then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir were committing genocide against the native African peoples of Southern Sudan, who were neither Arab nor Muslim.

It would be hard to find a more perfect marriage of Hollywood and US foreign policy propaganda talking points. The Save Darfur movement was then in full swing, and China, the US’s competitor in Africa, was under attack for supporting the government of then Sudanese President al-Bashir.

A year earlier, “Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond” had been published with Cheadle and John Prendergast credited as co-authors. Prendergast is a career intelligence professional and humanitarian war propagandist often photographed with Cheadle and other movie stars whom he persuaded to join his campaigns, most notably George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Mia Farrow. In the 2009 “Darfur Debate” at Columbia University, Ugandan academic and author Mahmood Mamdani aptly identified him as “a Zionist who wants to recolonize Africa.”

Students Taking Action Now: Darfur (STAND) was formed at Georgetown University in 2004, the same year that “Hotel Rwanda” was released, and South Sudan was successfully separated from Sudan in 2011. Omar al-Bashir was finally taken down in a 2019 coup, and STAND at some point broadened its identity to become the student-led movement to end genocide mass atrocities.”It eventually merged with Aegis Trust, the British-based NGO umbrella group that professes the same mission.

The copy of “Hotel Rwanda” that I rented this week no longer begins with Don Cheadle’s stumping for the Save Darfur movement. That’s over, and the speech has been mercifully cut. However, the Rwandan Genocide continues to be a touchstone of arguments for humanitarian intervention, aka the white man’s burden. The Aegis Trust promotes “From Hate to Humanity: September webcast series,” featuring General Romeo Dallaire, Linda Melvern, and other prominent proponents of Kagame as Rwanda’s savior and his regime’s faux reconciliation and “remarkable road to recovery.” Paul Rusesabagina was not on the list of speakers for obvious reasons, although it seems unlikely that Aegis knew he’d be in prison in Rwanda by the time the webinars began, and they have not released a statement on his kidnapping and imprisonment.

So who is Rwanda’s real hero and who will stand up for him or her?

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and billionaire businessman Howard Buffett, son of Warren, have heaped tireless praise on Paul Kagame as “Rwanda’s savior,” even as all the evidence to the contrary piled up. Rusesabagina they conveniently ignore, and none of them have spoken to his current plight. The Hotel Rwanda/Paul Rusesabagina Foundation says that neither Clinton nor Blair have returned their calls.

However, longtime critics of the Kagame regime and its war and occupation of DRC are not the only ones who have come to Paul Rusesabagina’s defense. So have some of the genocide prevention campaigners and instruments of American soft power who cite the Rwandan Genocide as a reason for US intervention in Libya, Syria, and earlier, Sudan.

The New York Times, which typically adheres to the standard homilies about Rwanda and the responsibility to protect, has written a series of sympathetic articles about Rusesabagina’s plight.

The George and Amal Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) has joined theAmerican Bar Association Center for Human Rights to announce that it “intends to monitor the upcoming trial of Paul Rusesabagina in Rwanda as part of CFJ’s TrialWatch initiative.”

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Virginia Senator Tim 
Kaine, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, published a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him to demand a fair trial for the Hotel Rwanda hero. 

I suspect that soft power is chiming in on Rusesabagina’s behalf because what Kagame 
has done to him embarrasses the foreign policy establishment that has lionized and covered for him and his brutal regime for so long. The hugely successful “Hotel Rwanda” and Rusesabagina’s subsequent advocacy for human rights in Rwanda and DRC has made him world renowned, better known than, for example, embattled opposition leader Victoire Ingabire or gospel singer Kizito Mihigo, who died in Rwandan police custody in 2019 and was just posthumously awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent.

Whatever the US foreign policy establishment decides to do, Paul Rusesabagina, not Paul Kagame, is Rwanda’s real hero, and he’s also a hero to the Congolese for speaking out against Kagame’s ongoing war and occupation of DRC.


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