Before history began to be rewritten, the hotel manager and the rebel leader were hailed as heroes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Paul Rusesabagina, whose story of sheltering Tutsis from machete-wielding Hutu militiamen was turned into the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, visited the White House to receive the US presidential medal of freedom from George W Bush.
Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels who overthrew the Hutu extremist regime that led the killing of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, has been feted by prime ministers and presidents for ending the slaughter and rebuilding Rwanda. Bill Clinton called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time”.
But more than quarter of century after the genocide, Rusesabagina is in a Kigali prison awaiting the verdict on 20 August in his trial on charges of terrorism, murder and founding an armed group intent on overthrowing Kagame.
Rusesabagina’s supporters have little doubt he will be convicted after the Rwandan authorities went to elaborate lengths to lure him from the US to Dubai and then on to a plane that the former hotel manager thought was taking him to Burundi. It landed in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, where he was arrested and put on trial – not, Rusesabagina’s family say, because he has committed any real crime but because he stood up to Kagame.
Underpinning the case are accusations by the two men that the other is a fraud with blood on his hands. But beyond the personal dispute, the confrontation reflects an increasingly bitter divide over Rwanda’s recent history and the legitimacy of Kagame’s 27-year rule.
Rusesabagina, who faces up to life in prison if convicted, is not alone in questioning the narrative of Kagame as his country’s saviour, but he went further in alleging that, far from putting an end to the genocide, the RPF leader had a hand in causing it.
From exile in Belgium and the US, Rusesabagina denounced the Rwandan president’s increasingly repressive rule, including the assassination of opponents at home and abroad. He also lent his voice to accusations that the RPF is guilty of its own genocide in slaughtering Hutus in Rwanda and neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRK).
The charge of a “double genocide” – the organised mass murder by Hutu extremists of Tutsis in 1994 and a parallel massacre of Hutus in Rwanda and DRC over the following years by Kagame’s forces – infuriates the president, in part because it is widely touted by exiled Hutus to downplay their own crimes.
But Rusesabagina goes further with the unusual allegation that Kagame bears responsibility for the original massacre of the Tutsis by claiming that his forces infiltrated the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, to encourage killings during the genocide and so justify the RPF seizing power.
He has also promoted the highly contested claim that the RPF shot down the plane carrying then president Juvénal Habyarimana, the event that precipitated the massacres. “Who benefited from Habyarimana’s death? It is Kagame and his people,” Rusesabagina said.
The claims of a double genocide have found support among some writers and academics outside of Rwanda amid accusations that they are an attempt to diminish and even deny the murder of Tutsis for which a string of senior officials in the former regime were convicted by an international tribunal.
General Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations commander in Rwanda during the genocide, has called such claims a “wilful deception”. “These duped academics, journalists and other ‘experts’ continue to propagate self-serving lies on to the victims, aiming to wreak damage as repugnant as that of the earliest colonialists,” he wrote in the Globe and Mail laas jaar.
Kagame responded to Rusesabagina’s accusations by using a genocide memorial day speech in 2007 to denounce him as a “swindler” and “gangster”. Na dit, the Rwandan press questioned the former manager’s account of events at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, calling him a fraud and claiming he was only able to prevent attacks because he was close friends with one of the most notorious engineers of the genocide.
Some survivors who sheltered in the hotel claimed Rusesabagina overstated his role or extorted money to protect people, although it’s not clear if they came under political pressure to denounce him.
What is not in doubt is that Rusesabagina decided to do more than just accuse Kagame. In 2006, he co-founded a political party in exile, PDR-Ihumure, along with its armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Three years ago, Rusesabagina posted a YouTube video backing an armed assault on Kagame’s government by the FLN.
“The time has come for us to use any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed,” hy het gesê.
Rusesabagina told a Kigali court in a pre-trial hearing last year that the FLN intended to “liberate” Rwanda from Kagame, but he denied responsibility for its attacks, including one on a bus in which two people were killed and others wounded.
“We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution keeps saying. The aim was to draw the government to the attention of the plight of refugees. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy,” he told the court.
PDR-Ihumure joined a coalition of opposition parties under the umbrella of the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (RMDC) that has used the double genocide accusation to distract from its ties to Hutu extremists and the 1994 massacres. Rusesabagina became the RMDC’s president. For Kagame, that was enough to place him firmly in the same camp as the genocidaire.
Others who have crossed Rwanda’s president have met a brutal end. Kagame is widely held responsible for the murder of his former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in a Johannesburg hotel room nearly eight years ago). Other critics have been assassinated on the streets of Kenya or disappeared inside Rwanda.
Rusesabagina’s arrest and trial suggests that Kagame is more interested in publicly discrediting one of the few Rwandans with name recognition globally, and the credibility to make his criticisms stick. The question now is whether this week’s verdict will do most damage to Rusesabagina’s reputation or to Kagame’s.