Saturday, April 25, 2015

What Really Happened Inside Hotel Rwanda?

Uncommon Journalism speaks with a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, who claims the actions of Paul Rusesabagina were anything but heroic. 

Edouard Kayihura was one of the 1,200 plus refugees who sought safety inside the Hotel des Mille Collines during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The 2004 film "Hotel Rwanda," he said, is rife with inaccuracies, including its gallant depiction of Paul Rusesabagina. 

By: James Swift

As soon as he received the news, Edouard Kayihura was terrified.

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were assassinated. Rwanda's Tutsi minority was immediately blamed for the Hutu leaders’ deaths -- militia extremists would soon take to the airwaves, demanding vengeance.

“When the plane got shot down, we knew the Tutsis were going to be killed,” he recollected. “The whole night, I didn’t sleep … I was trying to destroy all the newspapers I had in my house.”

Born in what is today Rwanda‘s Karongi District, Kayihura had long experienced intense persecution. When he was a young child, his parents’ home was destroyed by Hutus, forcing him and his six siblings to spend weeks living in the wilderness.

Hostilities between the Hutus and Tutsis had been boiling over for decades. As was the case in 1959, 1963 and 1967, Kayihura knew bloodshed was imminent.

Over the next three months, one-fifth of the nation’s population would die. His brothers and sisters would be among the hundreds of thousands killed.

“All of the villages were completely eliminated,” he said. “No one had lived.”

The Roots of Genocide

Despite sharing a common language and virtually identical genetics, relations between the Hutus and Tutsis have long been contentious. Prior to German colonization in the late 1800s, Rwanda was governed by a Tutsi king; Belgian colonists would then cede power to the Hutus after the nation achieved independence in 1962.

Decades afterward, the Tutsis were relegated to second-class citizens.

“From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Tutsis living in the country did not have access to education and they were discriminated in employment,” Kayihura said.

Under Habyarimana’s National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND), Tutsis were restricted to just 9 percent of the nation’s public sector jobs.

Kayihura, however, was among the few Tutsis to rise to a high-level government position.

After graduating from seminary school, he moved to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. At the time of the genocide, he was working as a prosecutor.

A Narrow Escape

The morning of April 7, 1994, Kayihura looked outside the window of his bedroom. He saw one of his neighbors going door to door, urging other Hutus to join him on a killing spree.

Kayihura initially sought refuge in the home of a Hutu friend. He would spend hours tucked inside his wall space, with only a dresser standing between him and certain death.

Fearing Hutu militants were closing in, however, Kayihura decided to seek sanctuary elsewhere. He destroyed his national identification card and began a treacherous trek towards the Hotel des Mille Collines, which was guarded by United Nations troops.

Escorted by his friend, he crossed three roadblocks en route to the hotel. Despite having guns drawn on him several times, he managed to enter the facility unharmed on April 11.

Shortly thereafter, another person entered the building. Accompanied by soldiers, he produced a fax allegedly from the Belgian company that owned the hotel, demanding that the facility be turned over to his supervision.

The man was the manager of the nearby Hotel des Diplomates, a known hotspot for Hutu extremists.

His name was Paul Rusesabagina.

Inside Hotel Rwanda

When Kayihura entered the Hotel des Mille Collines, both food and drinks were free. After Rusesabagina’s arrival, however, he said things quickly changed.

“He started charging for the rooms,” he said. “Those who didn’t have money were removed and forced to sleep on the hotel yards.”

By late April, Kayihura said as many as 20 people were cramming themselves inside hotel rooms. The free food and water also became a thing of the past.

Red Cross rations, he said, were intercepted by hotel cooks. Many refugees, he said, resorted to drinking out of the hotel’s swimming pool.

The phone lines soon went down. A fax machine in Rusesabagina’s office was the lone connection to the outside world; refugees were only allowed to use it under strict supervision.

According to Kayihura, some of the money collected by Rusesabagina was used to purchase beers from Georges Rutoganda, the vice president of the Hutu militia group Interahamwe. He was not the only high-ranking Hutu leader seen inside the building -- Kayihura also said Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) Colonel Theoneste Bagosoro, FAR General Augustin Bizimungu and Froduald Karamira, vice president of the anti-Tutsi Rwandan Republican Democratic Movement (MDR), all paid visits to Rusesabagina.


In late May, United Nations trucks began transporting survivors out of the hotel. Refugees were taken to territories overseen by either FAR or the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi resistance militia.

Others, however, chose to stay. On June 17, the building was raided by Interahamwe militants, who attempted to drag Tutsi refugees out of the hotel. The attackers were thwarted by UN peacekeepers, with no fatalities reported.

Refugees in other supposed "safe zones" faced grimmer outcomes. The same day Kayihura entered the Hotel des Mille Collines, more than 2,000 Tutsis were massacred at the Ecole Technique Officielle secondary school in Kigali. Throughout the genocide, thousands more are believed to have been executed at the nearby Sainte-Famille Church

The tides turned on July 7, when RPF forces took Kigali. With Rwanda’s capital wrested from the hands of Hutu militants, the long, bloody conflict came to an end on July 18, roughly 100 days after Habyarimana’s assassination.

According to United Nations estimates, at least 800,000 people died during the genocide, while the Rwandan government today tabulates more than 1 million fatalities. Over the three month period, approximately three out of every four Tutsis in the nation had perished.

That September, Kayihura  visited his childhood hometown in the Kibuye Prefecture. Where his family’s home once stood was a vacant yard. In the bushes, dogs fought over human bones.

All reminders of his past, Kayihura said, were gone -- not even photographs of his families remained.

"After the genocide, the country was completely destroyed," he recollected. "There was nothing left and we weren’t even hoping to have a normal life."

The Rebuilding Process

An interim Rwandan government was formed that summer. Pasteur Bizimungu was named president, with Faustin Twagiramunau becoming prime minister. Appointed major general of the new national army was Paul Kagame -- the same man who, just four years earlier, had launched an RPF invasion of northern Rwanda from Uganda.

Shortly thereafter, Kayihura was appointed to the new government's Ministry of Justice. He served as a deputy prosecutor under the newly formed Public Prosecution Department.

"It was very hard," he said. "We had almost 160,000 people in jail and had no ways to investigate the cases."

Although a United Nations tribunal was set up in November 1994, it would be almost three years before the first crimes against humanity trial took place in Kigali.

The defendant was Froduald Karamira, former vice president of the MDR. During the trial, Kayihura served as the prosecutor.

On February 14, 1997 Karamira was convicted of hundreds of murders. A year later, he was among 22 killed by a firing squad at a public execution held at Nyamirambo Stadium in Kigali.

In 1999, Kayihura prosecuted Augustin Misago, a bishop of the Diocese of Ginkorgoro. Facing execution for aiding and abetting Hutu extremists during the 1994 genocide, the trial drew criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, with Pope John Paul II demanding Misago be freed.

The highly-publicized trial would be one of the last for Kayihura. After all of the charges against Misago were dropped, he made plans to leave Rwanda behind.

In 2000, he and his future wife arrived in the United States.

The Hollywood Version

When Kayihura first heard about the film “Hotel Rwanda,” he was ecstatic.

“We were so glad the movie was made, because most Americans had no knowledge of what happened,” he said.

When the 2004 movie came out, however, Kayihura said he was shocked. Instead of depicting Rusesabagina as an opportunist chummy with Hutu military leaders, the film portrayed him as an Oskar Schindler-like savior antagonistic with FAR forces.

“There are so many inaccuracies,” he said. “You will see him helping the people inside the Hotel Rwanda, when he was taking advantage of the people to help himself."

In the film, Rusesabagina, played by Don Cheadle, rescued child survivors and handed out fake bills to hotel refugees. That's pure fiction, Kayihura said -- there were no young orphans at all in the Hotel des Mille Collines, and Rusesabagina's demands for money were anything but phony.

Before "Hotel Rwanda" went into production, Kayihura said Rusesabagina turned an interview with the filmmakers into an opportunity to "deify" himself on the silver screen. With Rusesabagina's recollections serving as the backbone of the film, Kayihura said director Terry George and screenwriter Keir Pearson transformed the Rwandan genocide into "Die Hard in the Sub-Sahara."

Furthermore, he said the movie downplays the role United Nations troops had in saving the lives of hotel refugees.

Romeo Dallaire, the UN general who oversaw troops at the Hotel des Mille Collines, is not a fan of the film's depiction of Rusesabagina either. In 2011, he slammed "Hotel Rwanda," describing it as ill-researched "junk" with a skewed story.

Nor is Kayihura the only Hotel des Mille Collines survivor to publicly criticize the film. Many other refugees have came forward with similar stories about their experiences, including receptionist Pasa Mwenenganucye,

"All the people who survived inside the Hotel des Mille Collines during the genocide knew Paul Rusesabagina [and] no one among us has ever though of him as altruistic, let alone heroic," Kayihura said. "On the contrary, of all of the people who were within the hotel during the genocide, he would quite possibly be considered the furthest from a hero any of us could imagine."

Correcting History

Following the film's release, Rusesabagina was showered with humanitarian honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize -- the latter an award bestowed upon him a year after Rwandan officials accused him of funding the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu nationalist militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In 2014, BenBella Books released "Inside the Hotel Rwanda," a book penned by
Edouard  Kayihura and co-authored by Kerry Zukus recounting the 1994
Rwandan Genocide. 
After a brief discussion with Rusesabagina at a speaking engagement at Ohio State University, Kayihura decided to pen his own rejoinder to "Hotel Rwanda."

Co-authored alongside Kerry Zukus, "Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story ... and Why it Matters Today" was released in 2014 by BenBella Books. Its launch coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.

“I decided to tell the real story behind the movie,” Kayihura said. “You’ll see [Rusesabagina] saying he’s a humanitarian, but he was an official member of the Hutu Power movement, which was the cause of the genocide.”

In the book, Kayihura questions not only the depiction of events inside the hotel during the genocide, but Rusesabagina's actions before and after the film's release.

In his 2006 autobiography, "An Ordinary Man," Rusesabagina describes being confronted by a Tutsi army captain, who allegedly ordered him to gun down his own family. He recounted the incident in an interview with O Magazine that same year.

Not only are there no eyewitnesses to corroborate the event ever happening inside the hotel, Kayihura said the entire scenario itself is ludicrous.

"Would someone please explain how a Tutsi was a captain in the army of the Hutu Power government that took over on April 9, 1994?" he said. "This is like claiming a black slave was captain in the Confederate Army during the U.S. Civil War."

He is especially critical of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation (HRRF), a nonprofit organization set up to aide and assist children orphaned during the genocide. Kayihura said he wonders how the outfit is able to do so, without having any branches in Rwanda whatsoever.

The same criticism has been lobbed by other survivors organizations, including the Survivors Fund, IBUKA and the Association of the Widows of the Genocide -- all of whom state they are not aware "of a single beneficiary" of the HRRF in Rwanda.

"Rusesabagina places himself upon a humanitarian pedestal by stating his foundation helps 'thousands' of Rwandans," he said, "yet in the next breath he says he has not sent any money to Rwanda since before his movie came out and his foundation was created -- and even then, it was to his brother, for his own personal use."

Kayihura said Terry George turned down a request to be interviewed for his book. After the release of "Inside the Hotel Rwanda," however, George penned an article critical of the memoir, decrying it as propaganda for Rwanda's current political regime. 

"What's funny, if it wasn't sad, is that many of the 'accusations' against Paul in the book are documented in the film," he stated in a Huffington Post response. "He did indeed charge some people for their rooms. He did drink with genocide perpetrators and barter with them for food. He tried to help his wife escape. Who wouldn't?"

Changing Perspectives

Kayihura, who speaks English as a fourth language, told coauthor Zukus he wanted him to help him write the book because of his "Western perspective."

During their first meeting, Kayihura asked Zukus if he had seen "Hotel Rwanda." 

"Like most Westerners, that film was literally my only source of information about the genocide," Zukus said. "Even the poster for the movie said 'a true story,' no equivocation ... I took the filmmakers at their word [and] I felt naive and betrayed."

He said he immediately sought corroboration of Kayihura's claims. After Kayihura provided him testimonies from other refugees, Zukus sought out his own interviews with survivors.

"Patterns began to emerge," he said. "Seems no one, no one at all, supported Paul Rusesabagina's claim that he 'single-handedly saved everyone' at the Hotel des Mille Collines."

Work on the book, Zukus said, began more than seven years ago. "Interesting a publisher was difficult," he said. "All the cliches about Western attitudes about Africa proved to be correct -- the West, for the most part, does not care."

The inability to find a publisher, however, proved a blessing in disguise. Zukus said the downtime gave him and Kayihura more opportunities to conduct research, add material and polish up the final product. 

The response to "Inside the Hotel Rwanda," Zukus said, has been very positive. 

"As to the different take on Rusesabagina, readers seem open to learning new information," he said. "They are shocked, but also a bit embarrassed because they bought into a Hollywood narrative without ever questioning it before we brought it to their attention."

Rwanda, 20 Years Later

Today, the crown jewel of Rwanda's capital city is not the Hotel Mille des Collines. Rather, it is the Kigali City Tower, a 20-story office and retail building completed in 2011.

Located in the city's central business district -- and built upon the same soil where two decades ago, thousands were beaten, bludgeoned and butchered -- the bright azure structure seems to symbolize Rwanda's long journey to economic modernization.

Since 2001, Rwanda's gross domestic product has grown at an average annual rate of 9 percent. In 2014, the World Bank Group ranked Rwanda 46th on a list of the best countries to conduct business -- a higher placement than Brazil, China, India or Russia. The same year, consulting firm A.T. Kearney named Rwanda the best retailer market in all of Sub-Saharan Africa

While still a largely agrarian nation, the Rwandan government is making great strides to transform the country into Eastern Africa's technological mecca. In 2013, a deal was inked to build a 4G network spanning nearly 95 percent of the country. Today, more than 1,000 miles of fiber optics cables snake their way throughout the nation.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Rwanda has had the tenth fastest growing economy in the world since 2000. The number of Rwandans living in poverty has also declined, from 59 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2011.

Both literacy and life expectancy rates have increased dramatically over the last 20 years. Over the same timeframe, deaths due to HIV, tuberculosis and malaria have plummeted by 80 percent.

Hutu and Tutsi relations have likewise recovered. Since 1996, Rwanda's national identification cards no longer require citizens and residents to list their ethnicity. Furthermore, the public employment and education quotas Kayihura grew up with have long since been eliminated.

"There has been much progress," he said. "Students are no longer allowed in school based only on their ethnicity ... we don't have that kind of ideological discrimination anymore."

Controversy remains, however, regarding current Rwandan President Paul Kagame. In 2012, The United Nations accused the RPF leader, who has been in charge of the country since 2000, of supporting the rebel M23 faction in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The report resulted in sanctions from Belgium and the United Kingdom, as well as a stern warning from United States President Barack Obama.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have also been critical of Kagame's regime, accusing the RPF of intimidating, arbitrarily arresting and even slaying political rivals for nearly two decades.

"There is a small cadre of people who hate Rwandan President Paul Kagame and despise any narrative that does not villainize him," Zukus said. "Our book does not really weigh in on Kagame, but in absence of criticism of him, those people have attacked our book. In truth, what they are supporting is a return to the old Hutu Power regime, which we most certainly do not support."

Regarding media restrictions in modern Rwanda -- particularly, a law against genocide denial that stipulates a maximum 25-year prison sentence -- Kayihura said certain safeguards are needed.

The mass killings of 1994, he said, were sparked by vitriolic, anti-Tutsi propaganda from the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, a private station that stoked ethnic embers and called for Hutu listeners to "exterminate the cockroaches" in the wake of President Habyarimana's assassination -- which a 2010 investigation revealed was most likely the handiwork of Hutu extremists themselves at the Kanombe military barracks.

"Yes, there are some limitations on the media," Kayihura said, "but everyone knows how the media was used to commit the genocide."

Reflecting on Tragedy

After graduating from the Mortiz College of Law, Kayihura has spent much of the last year focused on promotional tours for "Inside the Hotel Rwanda." He currently resides in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio -- about 1,300 miles away from the San Antonio, Texas home of fellow Rwandan expat, Paul Rusesabagina.

When Kayihura speaks about the genocide, Zukus said, he does so with an unexpected casualness. He said it is a common trait shared by many Rwandan genocide survivors.

"They would tell you they'd lost their entire family, but their words would come out flat and emotionless," he said. "I suppose that's one of the only ways to cope. As an American, I'm used to people breaking down and crying about the loss of a loved one to something fairly common and banal ... here were people who lost everyone to grotesque human slaughter, which some of them even watched, yet they spoke matter of factly." 

Writing "Inside the Hotel Rwanda," Zukus said he became "ashamed" of his prior attitudes toward the struggles faced by those living in countries such as Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan.

"We hear about genocide and somehow come to think, 'these people are not at all like us. They are backward. Once they come into the same century as us, this will stop,'" he said. "Once I came to know many of these people, I discovered they are exactly like us in every way ... they never appeared to me to be seeking pity from rich, Western nations such as the U.S., but respect, compassion and understanding."

Still, the auger of genocide looms large throughout many regions of the world. In the Central African Republic, counterinsurgency offenses have displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens. Since 1962, more than a half million ethnic minorities in Burma have had their homes destroyed. An eerie echoing of the 1994 genocide, more than 5,000 Burundians have flooded into Rwanda in April 2015 alone, with Tutsi refugees citing violence and intimidation from the Imbonerakure, a Hutu youth militia.

"After the holocaust, they were all saying ‘never again,’ but in 1994, the genocide against the Tutsis happened when the international community was watching," Kayihura said. "In Africa, people are dying. In Syria, people are dying. Instead of preventing, the world is reacting."

The battle against hate and injustice, Zukus said, is war all of humanity must wage together.

"We are all charged with helping to end it wherever it appears, be it in our own backyard or halfway across the planet," he said. "It is everywhere."

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Not surprising. Hollywood has made a martyr out of many liars and con men. The mainstream establishment, hollywood included, has been proven to jump on-board any trendy narrative, no matter how false or morally repugnant.