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The Continuing Travails of Paul Rusesabagina: Hero or Villain?


June 28, 2007
(Published in the Guelph Mercury on July 3, 2007)

Umberto Eco says a real hero is always a hero by mistake, that he dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else. It’s an aphorism that Paul Rusesabagina may soon take to heart. Heroism for the world’s most high-profile Rwandan is fast becoming a burden, with every humanitarian medal he receives, and with every lecture he gives.

In his book An Ordinary Man, and in the film Hotel Rwanda, Rusesabagina is portrayed as the man instrumental in saving more than 1200 lives during the 1994 genocide. The son of a Hutu man and a Tutsi woman, and the manager of Kigali’s top hotel, Rusesabagina was in a unique position to help people who flocked to the hotel looking for refuge from the machetes.

However, today, 13 years later, Rusesabagina is being called an opportunist, a liar, an imposter, a revisionist, a negationist, a traitor, a defender of mass murderers, a man profiting from the blood of a million victims. He lives in self-imposed exile in Belgium. He says he’s survived at least one assassination attempt. And he’s vilified every time he stands up to make a public pronouncement on Rwandan affairs.

He has his defenders, of course, people like Thomas Kamilindi, a well-known Rwandan journalist now living in the U.S. who insists that Rusesabagina helped save his life. George Bush gave Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a number of other humanitarian groups followed suit. But the groundswell of innuendo and animosity against him—a campaign led and fed by the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame—threatens to blacken his reputation.

Rusesabagina’s offense has been to speak up, loudly and sometimes rashly, on behalf of the majority Hutus who, he claims, have been disempowered in the modern Rwanda. He says Hutus are being killed today, and their killers are not being held accountable. “The failure of justice is critical,” Rusesabagina writes, “for it leaves our nation still in pieces and in danger of exploding again before long.” He believes Kagame to be something of a tyrant. He has even talked—mistakenly, I think—about a “second genocide.”

I’ve spoken to Rusesabagina at length, researched his story, and talked to many people about him and his allegations. I’ve heard enough to believe he’s sincere: I haven’t heard enough to say whether his most serious allegations are true or not.

Still, after a five-week visit to Rwanda this past spring, it’s my belief that the Kagame regime is exploiting this controversy over Rusesabagina to deflect attention from its own political failings and excesses. Rwanda remains desperately poor. Its prisons are full. Many genocide survivors are destitute. Kagame, an English-speaking Tutsi raised in Uganda, has passed draconian laws to enforce his version of why the genocide happened, and his vision of a society without ethnic divisions. Indeed, many Rwandans are afraid even to utter the words “Hutu” and “Tutsi.”

Reconciliation is the absolute orthodoxy; for the Tutsi victims to forgive their Hutu victimizers is now seen almost as a patriotic duty. (In his autobiography, Rusesabagina asks: “ . . . How in God’s name can a man “reconcile” with people he has raped, tortured and murdered? How can things ever be put right with the parents of a baby who has been ripped limb from limb?”)

Meanwhile, there is a virtual absence of political opposition, and the media is intimidated. In April, newspaper editor Agn├Ęs Nkusi Uwimana was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $6500. Her crime was to publish a letter-to-the-editor that complained that Tutsis were not being prosecuted for killing Hutus. Many Western human rights groups say the same thing. Paul Rusesabagina says the same thing. But to say it on the hills and on the streets of Rwanda is today a crime—a crime of ideology. A thought crime.

The main newspaper, the New Times, censors stories of ethnic killings because it doesn’t want to “enflame” the public. The principle seems to be: Better an ignorant public, than a fearful one.

While in Kigali, I was punished for writing a personal blog that characterized a public appearance by Kagame in an unflattering way. After the Intelligence Service read my blog, I was refused access to the state TV network where I was scheduled to do media training. I learned that the “watchers” also investigated another Canadian journalist, Gil Courtemanche, after a critical column he wrote for Montreal Le Devoir.

The Rwandan government and its defenders say, with some justification, that strong measures are needed to restore stability to a society that was shattered, root and stem, in 1994. There is zero tolerance for disagreement on issues of ethnicity.

But to smother dissent, to impose orthodoxy and to excoriate people like Paul Rusesabagina for what they say--or for their personal fame or success--can only lead to authoritarianism. Rwanda has been down that road before. What it needs now is a strong civil society, complete with earnest voices, disagreeable or otherwise.

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Rusesabagina has more than the Rwandan state to contend with. Now the world Anglican Church is putting his feet to the fire. Here's an article in a recent online edition of ChristianityToday. The "kicker" in this story is in the fifth paragraph from the end.

Rwandan Politics Intrudes on American Church
Archbishop told Anglican congregation to cancel talk by Hotel Rwanda subject Paul Rusesabagina.
Sarah Pulliam | posted 9/10/2007 11:29AM

A suburban Chicago church sought leadership from Rwanda amid theological disputes with the Episcopal Church. This week, it found itself in conflict with its leaders over Rwandan politics.

All Souls Anglican Church had scheduled Paul Rusesabagina, whose life was featured in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda, to speak during Sunday morning services. The Wheaton, Illinois, church, a member of the Rwandan-led Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), had advertised Rusesabagina's appearance as part of a fundraiser to build a school in Gashirabwoba, Rwanda.

On Thursday, however, All Soul's pastor J. Martin Johnson received a message from AMiA President Canon Ellis Brust that Emmanuel Kolini, the Anglican archbishop of Rwanda, requested that the church not have Rusesabagina speak.

Rusesabagina has been at odds with the president of Rwanda. The archbishop feared that the event could create a strain in the relationship between the Anglican Church of Rwanda and the government.

"Truly I am horrified that we could have such a negative impact without meaning to," Johnson told Christianity Today. "I had no idea this was a controversial issue."

Rwandan president Paul Kagame has criticized the Oscar-nominated movie Hotel Rwanda for inaccurately portraying the country's 1994 genocide.

Hotel Rwanda highlights Paul Rusesabagina's role as a hotel manager who saved more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees. An estimated 800,000 people were massacred during 100 days of the genocide.

Kagame disputed Hotel Rwanda's portrayal of Rusesabagina as a hero. Kagame has said that Rusesabagina happened to be there and that he happened to survive because he was not in the category of those being hunted.

Rusesabagina criticized Kagame in his 2006 autobiography An Ordinary Man, saying that Kagame surrounds himself with corrupt businessmen.

"The same kind of impunity that festered after the 1959 revolution is happening again, only with a different race-based elite in power," he wrote. "We have changed the dancers but the music remains the same."

Instead of speaking at the church, Rusesabagina spoke at the nearby Wyndemere Auditorium in Wheaton Sunday night.
Director of Operations for All Souls Jennifer Merck, who was involved in organizing the original event, said many in the church were disappointed when Rusesabagina did not speak.

"My observation is that in the United States, we are so comfortable with our right to free speech," Merck said. "The fact that we listen to someone has nothing to do with whether we agree with him or not. That's not so true in the rest of the world."
Many, including Merck, left the Episcopal Church over the issue of homosexuality and chose to be under the oversight of the church in Rwanda.

"I don't know that we really knew then what it meant for us to be connected to Rwanda and frankly, we're beginning to find that out," she said. "It raises questions about what does it mean to live in the global church."

Since Rusesabagina had received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush, the All Souls pastor thought it would be a good way to attract attention for the school the church is trying to build.

"He was controversial or outspoken, but we have named him a hero in this country," Johnson said. "I thought it was a bit tacky because of the film, thinking, 'We're going a bit Hollywood with this, but oh well, it's for the good of the kingdom.'"

But after President Kagame found out Rusesabagina was supposed to speak at a church overseen by archbishop of Rwanda, he contacted Kolini, who then sent a message to the church requesting that the event be canceled, Johnson said.

"The bigger reality for us is having to accept the whole concept of obedience, and that is a harder cultural pill to swallow than I realized," he said. "I'm forced to encounter my own resistance and bias."

Johnson, who was previously a priest in the Episcopal Church, has been under the Rwandan authority since 2004. "He simply said, 'Please don't. Your church can't have this man speak there,'" Johnson said. "My initial response was, 'Can they tell us what to do?' We just have to say, 'Okay, fine, sorry,' and that's what we've done."

The church had sent out announcements to several people in the Chicago area and Johnson was embarrassed to have to cancel the event.

"I don't know if we'll simply have to get masters degrees in political science to keep working in the church," Johnson said and laughed. "I've never even been to Rwanda, but we are

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