There is a yawning chasm between the oft repeated assertions about Rwanda, and the country as it really is. Few events could have been better designed to expose this distance between perception and reality, than the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina, hailed as a hero by much of the world’s media, but well known by Rwandans themselves, to be something quite different.
We are yet to know the exact details of Rusesabagina’s arrest, other than that it surprised almost everyone, including the accused himself, and seems to have gone off like clockwork.
After understandably being caught somewhat on the hop, the tireless, organised, highly committed army of Rwanda’s detractors have been quick to regroup.
With a keen understanding of what plays well to Western ears, the media especially, they have lost little time in trotting out the tried and tested narratives against Rwanda.
“Paul Rusesabagina, kidnapped in Dubai and brought to Rwanda has been denied access to lawyer, consular visits…”
We are constantly reminded that Rusesabagina is a “Humanitarian” who allegedly saved exactly, 1,200 people at Hotel des Milles Collines. “Humanitarian” is now a title for Rusesabagina, which he has used to sign off letters written denouncing the Rwanda government, to among others, the Pentagon.
His “International Counsel” has written to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”
It is not clear if they are alleging that these cruel and inhuman acts are being meted out on Rusesabagina, but that does not seem to matter much. The point is to condemn and depict Rwanda, always referred to as Kagame, as being capable of such crimes. The truth of it, or otherwise, a mere detail.
Mr Rusesabagina, the appeal to the special rapporteur inform us, was “abducted, disappeared, and subjected to extraordinary rendition…”
Only a few days since his arrest, and we are already in the parallel world of what psychologists term “the illusion of truth” or more crudely, courtesy of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, “repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth.”
There are some certainties in this evolving scenario. One is that like many before him, who have been extradited to Rwanda, Rusesabagina can be assured of all his legal rights, beginning with the right to choose his own counsel, and if he wishes, consular visits from the Belgian Embassy in Kigali.
Following the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, every institution had at best to be rebuilt, or established from scratch. Few sectors have had more time, energy and resources lavished on them, than the institution of justice.
Every necessary reform to bring it to international standards has either been accomplished, or is being implemented.
The transformation has been enough to instil confidence in Rwanda’s justice system, from every country in the world, including Scandinavian countries which most pride themselves on the most strict observance of human rights, that they can extradite suspects to the country.
Hyperbolic claims of denial of access to lawyers, torture, and most sinister of all, “disappearances” will ring hollow to anyone who cares to properly scrutinise the system that is now entertaining Rusesabagina.
And indications are that talk of abductions are also wide of the mark. When during a Rwanda Television interview, he was asked how Rusesabagina came to be arrested, President Kagame observed wryly, that when the story is eventually fully aired, it will become clear that Rusesabagina travelled to Rwanda of his own accord.
Hinting at some subterfuge, he said Rusesabagina came voluntarily, willingly, although he may have been under the impression, he was heading to a destination other than his native land.
“There was no wrong doing involved, he came of his own volition…except perhaps telling a fib, that might be the only wrong doing…”
Far from being abducted or rendered, by all accounts, Rusesabagina had a particularly pleasant trip. He enjoyed the kind of inflight service most of us who travel economy class, only ever imagine. What intrigues, is where in Africa he believed he was going, and why?
Either way, he disembarked refreshed, and no doubt expecting a VIP reception. It is not too fanciful to imagine that at first, he may have thought the police waiting on the tarmac part of his escort, to yet another luxury hotel. They were there to accompany him of course, but not as he had anticipated.
A comfortable if not luxurious journey, ending with him in handcuffs. Not all that begins well, ends as it began.
The gratuitously, ostentatious chorus of Rusesabagina as a Humanitarian is also likely to quickly wither under the first light shone on it. How he became celebrated as a humanitarian hero, may be a story more worthy of Hollywood than the one that brought him fame, and no little fortune.
It is above all as egregious an example as any, of the scorn in which Africa, in general, and in this case, Rwanda in particular, is held in the West.
The most cursory of research would have rang alarm bells, before a Hollywood director ever called, camera, action. But Rwandans it seemed did not matter enough to be consulted in anyway other than as nodding heads to what had already been decided.
Yolande Mukagasana was one of the survivors who was sheltered at the hotel, before being transferred to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) controlled zone. She had known Rusesabagina well enough to be present when he went to ask for his wife’s hand in marriage.
After the marriage, she and Rusesabagina’s wife would develop a close friendship. Both nurses, they also worked together, and it was Mukagasana who comforted her friend through a miscarriage.
She remembers a man who was deeply involved in the politics of the time. The friendship would come under some strain in 1993, when Mukagasana’s husband, Joseph Murekezi, asked his wife to exclude him from visits to the Rusesabagina home, because of the latter’s increasingly strident extremism.
The two women continued to be close, however, and it was Rusesabagina’s wife, who arranged for Mukagasana who was being hunted, to be allowed to take refuge at the Mille Collines hotel.
By then, as she recounts in her book, Not My Time To Die, she was all that was left of her family. Her husband, Murekezi had been murdered before her eyes, and she would later learn that so too had been her children.
Hotel de Mille Collines had become a world in of itself. It was the base from where the UNAMIR (UN Mission in Rwanda) force commander, lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, tried to do what he could to fulfil what was left of his mission, after he had been effectively abandoned by his superiors in the Security Council.
It was where any Western foreigner who had not been evacuated from Rwanda could be found, where Captain Diagne Mbaye of the UN Senegalise contingent, under Romeo Dallaire, was quietly, without fuss or fanfare, going about his heroics, saving as many people as he could. Captain Mbaye would sadly be targeted by the Rwandan army, and killed.
It was the place where many desperate people, Yolande Mukagasana among them, took refuge. Dallaire had begun to negotiate safe passage for refugees to go into the RPF controlled zone, and to safety.
Inevitably, it became a place of great interest to what there was of international media. So much so that Jean Kambanda, the Prime minister, would complain fretfully, that the hotel was too exposed to international gaze.
The genocidal establishment still believed it could conceal the crime from the world’s eyes. It is because of this, as much as anything else, that the order was given for no murders to be committed at the hotel, for the time being.
In the meantime, however, something had to be done, to bring more under government control. The Belgian management had left Rwanda, leaving the way clear for the genocidal government to install their own man.
Rusesabagina was sent from the Hotel Diplomate which he managed, and which had become the headquarters for the genocidal government, to go and keep an eye on things at the Mille Collines.
It is barely a five minute drive from what was Hotel Diplomate to Mille Collines, five minutes during which Rusesabagina would go from just another cog in the genocidal machine, to world fame, or infamy, depending on whether you view him from Hollywood, or Rwanda.
The new man quickly established his own fiefdom at the four star hotel. First order of business was to disconnect all the telephones, which had been a link to the outside world, for the refugees especially.
Now the only telephone left was at the top of the hotel, in what became a communications centre, accessible only to the authorities, including the leadership of the Interahamwe, and anyone else Rusesabagina chose to grant permission.
According to Mukagasana, and other survivors, he also set about enriching himself. Sabena, the Belgian management company, had left instructions that no one was to be charged to stay at the hotel, but it was now under new management. Everything, from shelter, water and food was to be at a cost.
If you ran out of cash as many did, you wrote cheques, Tacian Ndorimana, signed several. He now lives in Belgium, and has watched, aghast, as the man who extorted every last cent he had, was hailed a humanitarian hero.
If you had no cash, and had fled to the hotel without stopping to grab your chequebook, as many did, you ended up drinking chlorinated water, from the hotel swimming pool, as many did.
In the film, Hotel Rwanda, much is made of supposed negotiations between Rusesabagina and the Interahamwe. As every survivor, and even the UN peacekeepers would have informed any researcher, had they asked, there were no such negotiations, except perhaps, about how to share the loot.
Perhaps the most grotesque claim of all, was depicting Rusesabagina as “Africa’s Schindler.”
It is easy to see why Hollywood latched on to this. The accepted norm is that no African story is viable, unless it has a Western perspective. Here was a story with not only such a perspective, but the symmetry too was uncanny.
Oscar Schindler is said to have saved 1,200 Jews from the Nazis, and lo and behold, Rusesabagina manages to save 1,200 Tutsi from the Interahamwe. What fortuitous coincidence, the film gods must have been smiling.
The truth, however, was grimacing. Oscar Schindler was a complex, extraordinary man. A German industrialist in Nazi occupied Poland, he begun by insisting to the Nazis that his Jewish workers must be spared, because they were essential to the war effort, and ended up recruiting more Jewish people, not because he needed them, but because they needed him.
Although a member of the Nazi party, it was nevertheless a dangerous game to play. He managed to maintain the fiction, by a combination of charm, guile and a lot of bribery. His story, Schindler’s list, was told in a film by Stephen Spielberg.
In fairness to Hollywood, there is a point of comparison. Just as Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, Rusesabagina was also member of the extremist National Republican Movement for Development and Democracy (MRND), but there, dear film buffs, ends the similarities.
Oscar Schindler risked his life and fortune to save the lives he did, and was a poorer man by the time the Nazis were defeated. Rusesabagina more than vindicated the trust put in him by the genocidal government, and was an infinitely richer man, by the time the genocidal forces were defeated. So much richer in fact, that he would be able to purchase at least two properties in Brussels, almost immediately after leaving Rwanda.
One used his fortune to buy time for desperate people facing a genocide, the other extorted money from the victims, and would not even offer them water, unless he was paid.
“The Rwandan government accuses Rusesabagina of falsely claiming to have saved people…” is a line repeated in almost every Western newspaper that has published a story on the subject.
In fact, the Rwanda government has said precious little on the subject. It is the survivors of the genocide, like Mukagasana, Ndorimana, and others, who have consistently voiced their shock, and some distress at what they see as perverting the truth.
And yet, none of this, is what would land Rusesabagina in the dock. He is primarily a victim of his own hubris.
An image of him had been constructed, and he could not resist the temptation to inhabit it.
Looked up to by the anti Rwanda forces because of his fame, he seems to have come to believe that he must be the man destined to lead them.
The moment the armed groups he is accused of financing, and which he himself has admitted to head, crossed over into Rwanda, to murder unarmed civilians, was the moment he invited Rwanda’s security services to take a close interest in him.
That interest has now led to a home coming he had neither wanted nor anticipated.