Hotel Rwanda Revisited: an Interview with Paul Rusesabagina


With the takeover of the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“Congo”) last year by M23 rebels, and with Rwanda receiving a seat on the UN Security Council last year as well, I wanted to talk to Rwanda’s most famous son, Paul Rusesabagina, about Rwanda’s role in supporting the M23 militia.   Paul Rusesabagina was famously portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda by Don Cheadle.

My first question to Paul was about the criminal charges brought against him in 2010 by the Rwandan government for his questioning the role of Paul Kagame (now Rwandan President) and his RPF forces in the Rwandan civil war and in the Congo.   The government accused him of allegedly advocating a “double genocide” theory.  

PR:  This is what happens to any person who has really been advocating about the genocide that happened in 1994.   I was on the inside and I sensitized the whole world.  I called for help. I tried to help people during that period of time.  And afterward, I still fought for the truth to come out until I noticed that that was not what the Rwandan government wanted to do.  They wanted power — not shared — and they wanted to demonize the rest of the population so that the army appeared to be the only nice people.  For that I was not considered a nice guy.  I had no choice but to go into exile.  In exile, I was the one who spoke real loudly about the Rwanda genocide—the Rwandan genocide; not two genocides.  . . .  If we Rwandans don’t reconcile, and sit down honestly and talk, then we might see history repeating itself because the Rwandan government as of now also has been involved in many massacres.  This is what I talk about.  The Tutsi government has been involved in many massacres.  And they are still doing it.  So that’s what they have been doing in the Congo.  If you look at the situation as it has been analyzed, for example, in the Mapping Report which you may be aware of.  People analyzing that are recording a genocide. (1)

DK:  I think that is right.  You are referring to the United Nations Mapping Report which shows that in fact huge amounts of fatalities in terms of where Rwanda had invaded and also where they are supporting the M23 rebels if I’m not mistaken.  And I see numbers of close to 6 million dead as a result of that activity.

PR:  Actually M23 is not the first militia proxy army to be helped and funded by the Rwandan government; it is one among many others.  Since 1996 when the Rwandan army invaded the Congo, they have killed more than 300,000 refugees — Hutu refugees.  And they killed them because they were Hutu refugees.  And also, they have killed millions of Congolese.  . . .  Rwanda has provided these proxy armies, including now the M23, with munitions, arms and uniforms.   And the result of this is that more than 6 or 7 million people have been killed.  Hundreds of thousands of women have been raped.  Babies have been butchered.  This has been done by [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame in the fields by proxy militas.

DK:  And what is the US role in all of this? 

PR:  Well, all I can say is that Paul Kagame was, how do I say it, “our guy” if you can say it that way.  He was trained in intelligence here in the United States in Fort Levenworth [in 1990 before the genocide], and he became an ally to the United States. (2)

DK:  Did the U.S. approve of his invasion into the Congo in 1996?

PR:  I can’t say they approved, but still no one disapproved.

DK:  And, they knew he was going to do it, because he told the world he was going to invade. 

PR:  Yes, since 1996 through 2012, for more than 15 years, no one has disapproved, so they have approved.

Dan:  Was placing Rwanda on the Security Council (“SC”) last year ratification of their conduct?

PR:  Let’s say that this is upsetting.   This is upsetting for the cause of human rights.   I can’t say what all human rights organizations would say, but I can tell you, someone who has been invading neighbors as Rwanda has, and who has been raping the women of their neighbors, I don’t see Rwanda as teaching any lessons of conflict resolution.   If you go on line and see how many babies are being butchered, if you see how women are being raped, if you see how many young boys are being killed, this [placing Rwanda on the SC] is like a lion guarding the cattle.

[Paul talks at length about his work on fighting inequality in Rwanda (3), and then stuns me with the following statement:] 

PR:  And, the governing elite has a special program of sterilizing men so that they don’t produce.

Dan:  Excuse me, did you say sterilizing men? 

PR:   Yes, sterilizing Hutu men.  Yes, and what did you call this?  Is this not a genocide?   This is not the people’s choice; it is the government’s choice.

DK:  I read somewhere that you think there needs to be a new truth tribunal in Rwanda.  And, why is this, what was wrong with the first international criminal tribunal on Rwanda?  What were the shortcomings there? 

PR:  This is the problem.  In 1990, the RPF, consisting mostly of Tutsis living in exile, invaded Rwanda from Uganda.   So, when they invaded Rwanda, there was a civil war for 4 years.  In that civil war, that army, those rebels, we called them rebels at that time, were killing each and every person, every Hutu on their way.   People fled their homes.  They were occupying slowly.   And, by 1993, early 1994, before the genocide, we had about 1.2 million displaced people who were surrounding Kigali the capital city, having to bathe in town, going to sleep in the open air in camps, dying every day, hungry.  So, in 1994, these rebels, who had already signed a peace accord with the government, killed the President.   That is a fact which almost everyone knows.  So, when they killed him, the genocide broke out.  Now, we were in a civil war where civilians were being killed by both sides.  The civil war never stopped.  The genocide happened within a civil war.   Both sides killed, and now, afterwards, in July 1994, when the period of the genocide ended, after 3 months, 90 days, the Tutsi rebels took power.   They took power in blood from both sides.  And, the international community gathered the United Nations, and they decided to put up a tribunal for Rwanda.   That tribunal was supposed to try and convict Rwandans who killed Rwandans for a period of time from January 1 through December 31 of that year [1994].   From January 1 through December 31 of that year, I saw myself with my own eyes, this [RPF] army tying people with their hands behind their backs and beating their chests, breaking it, throwing them into containers, burning their bodies, and spraying their ashes into the national game preserve.  I am a witness to this.  But, because the Hutus lost the war, they are the only ones being tried and convicted.   So, the international tribunal, the international criminal court for Rwanda, is a court for the losers.  But, both have been killing civilians.  They say that the Hutus committed the genocide, but the Tutsis also committed war crimes, crimes against humanity.

DK:   I’ve seen a couple of reports saying that more Hutus were killed during that period than Tutsis, is that possible?  

PR:  Yes.  That is correct.  Because Hutus killed Hutus, and Hutus killed Tutsis, and Tutsis killed Hutus exclusively.  But the killing of Hutus never ended.   I’ll give you an example.   On April 17, 18, 19 & 20, 1995, the new army, the Tutsi army that took power in 1994, killed, destroyed actually, a displaced camp within the country by bombardment, helicopter bombardment,  and, machine guns on the ground.  At that time, in that camp, we had 8,500 people, Hutus only.    So, of those people, how many were killed, how many escaped?  That is the problem.  So, the killing never stopped.  And, what took place in the Congo was something else.

DK:  What you’re saying, Paul, jives with things that I’ve read as well.  So, it is interesting that at the end of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” it really leaves the impression, and really more than that, it really says that once the Tutsis took power, everything was fine, the genocide ends.  I would think you would have some disagreement with the end of that movie. 

PR:  Well, the movie is something different.  And, I would tell you that I did not want to portray the genocide as such, but I wanted to teach a lesson.   And, this lesson was to young people on how to make a difference.  That was my mission.   Many companies like HBO wanted to portray my story, but we could not agree on how to make it.   So, the movie had to have, had to show, a kind of small island of peace in a kind of sea of fire, so that people can see something that was supposed to be better, nicer.  This is why you see it that way.  The ending was supposed to be a happy ending.  And, I did not leave Rwanda, as you see in the movie, with the Canadian general telling me to go to Tanzania.  I did not leave the country, but the movie had to end somewhere anyway.  I did not leave the country until September 6, 1996 when I was almost assassinated myself.  When I was almost assassinated myself, I said that is enough, I’ve had enough, and I decided to leave the country in exile.

DK:  So, it’s a Hollywood movie and it needed a Hollywood ending. 

PR:  Well, I think that the Hollywood ending is a better message to the world than that the massacres went on and on and on.

DK:  That is your perception — that they did go on and on and on, really? 

PR:  If we see what is going on in the Congo, what do we think they are doing within their own country?  Their main objective has always been to take the international community’s attention from the real target which is Rwanda to a different place.   That does not mean that Rwanda is safe; that does not mean that the killings have ended in the country.

DK:  I will say, Paul, that from a quick google search, it appears that your willingness to say these things has drawn a lot of fire for you.  I mean you could have retired with that academy award nomination for Don Cheadle and been a happy guy but you’ve, you know, the things you are saying are good, you speak the truth, but it’s very controversial, and I’m sure it has not been easy for you.

PR:  I know when I started talking out it was around 2004, the Rwandan Patriotic propaganda campaign was so powerful that they have convinced each and everyone, listen guys, we are the good guys, and everyone else are the bad guys.  They have travelled all over the world to convince the world of that.  So to get people from the international community on my side took a while and a lot of energy you can imagine.

During the genocide, there were 10,000 people being killed every day.   You can imagine what happens after 3 months, almost 15% of the population were already dead.  No one can understand that.

DK:  You really could have rested on your laurels.  You could have gone around high-fiving everyone, but instead you’ve continued the work, really treading some controversial waters, and I really applaud you for doing that. 

PR:  If I had been willing to sit down and shut up, yes, I would maybe be a better-off man.   But, I would still have my conscience which would tell me otherwise.  My conscience would not agree.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.  He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.


(1)    See UN Mapping Report at:  http://friendsofthecongo.org/pdf/mapping_report_en.pdf

(2)    For further discussion on how Paul Kagame is “our guy,” go to:  http://www.zcommunications.org/paul-kagame-our-kind-of-guy-by-edward-herman-1

(3)   See, http://www.prlog.org/11950892-rwandan-inequality-intensifies-new-report-shows-growing-healthcare-gaps.html


Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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