Paul Rusesabagina, who shot into the international limelight after the premier of Hotel Rwanda in 2004, has attracted both admiration and controversy in equal measure. His recent arrest has brought the controversies into sharper focus.
His critics argue that he was never a hero and that he grossly exaggerated his role in saving more than 1,000 people, who hid inside Hotel Mille Collines during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Some of the genocide survivors who sheltered inside the hotel until they were rescued by incoming rebel forces commanded by President Paul Kagame in May 1994, have a different opinion.
Odette Nyiramilimo was one of the survivors and together with her husband and children, sought refuge inside the hotel. She is currently a Senator and previously served as Minister for Social Affairs between 2000 and 2003.
“There is no denying that Mr Rusesabagina risked his life to provide refuge for me and my family and many others,” she told The EastAfrican in an exclusive interview.
“We were hiding in our house in Nyamirambo after hearing my name being read among those who had been killed. We had to bribe the police every day to remain hidden. Mr Rusesabagina, who was a family friend, called to see if we were alive. After learning that we were alive, he sent a soldier to pick us up and take us to Hotel Mille Collines.
It was a dangerous journey, so we had to be driven one by one and bribed our way through the roadblocks and lied that we were Hutu. It was a miracle that we arrived at the hotel,” she said.
After the genocide, Ms Nyiramilimo’s family maintained a close friendship with Mr Rusesabagina’s family. It was not until the production of Hotel Rwanda in 2004 that cracks began to emerge in their friendship.
“Everyone here in Rwanda was excited about the movie. I got in touch with the movie’s director Terry George and requested that he premier it in Rwanda. He agreed and I then requested President Paul Kagame to attend the premiere,” she said.
“Terry was supposed to fly in with Mr Rusesabagina for the movie’s premiere on April 4, 2004. But, I got a call from Mr Rusesabagina informing me that he would not come to Rwanda. He claimed that President Kagame had ordered his arrest at the airport upon arrival. I could not believe this, I was confused,” said Ms Nyiramilimo.
Later on she discovered that Mr Rusesabagina had “sold his soul” to French critics of Rwanda, “who promised him financial gain if he became a critic of the Rwandan government.
“He betrayed the same cause he appeared to believe in. This was why he refused to show up at the premiere of Hotel Rwanda in Kigali,” she said. However, Mr Rusesabagina, in an interview with The EastAfrican last week, claimed that he failed to attend the movie premiere because he was sick.
Ms Nyiramilimo claimed that Mr Rusesabagina’s change in character came from frustrations about the government overlooking him by not offering him a state position, yet he had political ambitions of his own.
“I do not consider him a hero. Yes, he helped me and my family, but he is now a rebel killing Rwandans. He turned,” she said.
Mr Rusesabagina’s deeds during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi are captured in the book, We Wish to Inform you That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, written by American author and journalist Philip Gourevitch.
In the book, Mr Rusesabagina is portrayed as an independent-minded critic of former president Juvénal Habyarimana’s regime and describes himself as having “always been in the opposition.”
Mr Rusesabagina is said to have used tact and alcohol to bribe the bloodthirsty soldiers who were hunting Tutsi and moderate Hutus inside the hotel. He also maintained connections on his phone line with several embassies in order to protect those who were sheltering at Milles Collines.
At one point, a military intelligence officer turned up at the hotel and informed Mr Rusesabagina that everybody in it would be killed that night, the book says. Mr Rusesabagina rallied all of his local and international connections and called on refugees with contacts to do the same.
“In one of the conversations with the director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, Mr Rusesabagina said that “If you want these people to be saved, they will be saved. But if you want them to die, they will die today, and you French people will pay in one way or another for the people who are killed in this hotel today,” the book says.
Almost immediately after this conversation, a top army general and General Romeo Dallaire of UNAMIR came to Mr Rusesabagina to assure him that the hotel would not be touched.
However, some of the survivors claim that these stories are false. They say that Mr Rusesabagina only exploited the deadly situation to enrich himself.
British journalist and author, Linda Melvern, said that Mr Rusesabagina’s stature is tainted by his activities aimed at denouncing the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
“Available evidence shows him to be part of a campaign to deny the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. He peddles lies and half-truths about what happened,” she said.