Hollywood hero or terrorist? The mysterious manager of Hotel Rwanda

Paul Rusesabinga was once played, by Don Cheadle, as a big-screen hero. But as MPs and diplomats explain, the truth in Rwanda is murky

Paul Rusesabagina receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush in 2005, the year after Hotel Rwanda was released
Paul Rusesabagina receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush in 2005, the year after Hotel Rwanda was released Credit: AP

On the face of it, the life story of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of Rwanda’s Hotel des Milles Collines, was always tailor-made for Hollywood. During the 1994 ethnic genocide, in which 800,000 died, he sheltered people fleeing the death squads, deploying a deft mix of charm, guile and fine wine. When Hutu genocidaires came knocking, he’d distract them from their task by plying them with best Burgundy. And if that didn’t work, he’d call their bosses in the Hutu political elite, wheedling and flattering them into turning a blind eye.

Thanks to Rusesabinga’s hospitality skills, some 1,200 guests were spared the genocidaires’ machetes. Yet 16 years after his portrayal by Don Cheadle in the Oscar-nominated film Hotel Rwanda, his story has a twist worthy of a sequel – and this time, there seems no prospect of a happy ending.

On Monday, Rusesabagina appeared before a court in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, accused of terrorism, complicity in murder, and forming an armed rebel group. Given his reputation as an African answer to Oskar Schindler, the charges against the gently-spoken 66-year-old seemed baffling: equally mysterious was how he had arrived there in the first place.

Mr Rusesabagina had not previously set foot in Rwanda in more than 20 years, having moved to Belgium after claiming there had been threats to his life. The last his family heard from him was three weeks ago, when he flew to Dubai for a business trip. Just hours after he landed in Dubai, it appears he was bundled onto a private jet hired by the Rwandan security services and flown to Kigali. His lawyers claim he was the victim of an “illegal rendition” ordered by the Rwandan government, which enjoys a close business relationship with Dubai’s royal rulers.

What, though, was a man feted worldwide as a hero doing in handcuffs? The answer, according to many, is simple. Mr Rusesabagina is a prominent opponent of President Paul Kagame, the strongman who has ruled Rwanda for 20 years. Human rights groups accuse Mr Kagame of rigging elections and silencing opponents – often deploying squads against those who criticise him from abroad.

“Rwanda has a track record of using cloak-and-dagger methods to target those it perceives to be a threat to the ruling party,” says Lewis Mudge, of Human Rights Watch. “The fact that Rwanda did not pursue Rusesabagina through lawful extradition proceedings suggests the authorities do not believe their evidence would stand up to scrutiny.”

Some, though, argue that in Rwanda, the distinction between heroes and villains has never been quite as clear as Hollywood made out. Mr Rusesabagina has had his halo tarnished over the years, amid claims that he exaggerated his role as a saviour. A few “Hotel Rwanda” residents even claim he made them pay protection money, an accusation he denies. More pertinently to the charges now laid against him, he has also voiced support for the Forces de Libération Nationale (FLN), an armed group said to have carried out terrorist attacks in Rwanda in recent years.

Mr Kagame, equally, is hard to portray as the African dictator from central casting. Tough he certainly is. But under his rule, Rwanda has enjoyed a remarkable economic transformation, changing from a post-genocidal basket case into one of Africa’s brightest economic prospects. Aid money has been well spent, poverty rates slashed, and the capital, Kigali, surprises many Western visitors with its clean, safe streets. More than half its MPs are women. By 2035, Rwanda hopes to become a middle-income country, leaving its neighbours trailing.

As a result, Mr Kagame has many friends in Western governments, for whom his record on prosperity outweighs his shortcomings on human rights. Tony Blair hailed him as a “visionary leader”, while David Cameron cited Rwanda’s example over his decision to earmark 0.7 per cent of Britain’s GDP for foreign aid. Given the country’s turbulent past, his supporters also argue that he has a right to take a firm line with anyone backing guerrilla groups.

Andrew Mitchell MP says that Hollywood's portrayal of Rusesabagina was misguided Credit: EPA

Among them is the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell, who was international development secretary under Mr Cameron. He cites a video from 2018 in which Mr Rusesabagina voices support for the FLN, urging change through “all possible means”.

“He has been involved with military groups which have killed people, and in Britain he would likely be before the courts on a terror charge,” Mr Mitchell, who has visited Rwanda many times, told The Telegraph.

“Ever since I have got to know Rwanda, I’ve been aware that the film Hotel Rwanda is not accurate – it’s Hollywood fiction. While I have no doubt that Mr Rusesabagina did a lot of good, his role was always murkier than portrayed. If you talk to a lot of Rwandans, you will find their lips tighten at the very mention of his name.”

Certainly, Mr Kagame is unlikely to be troubled by the international fuss over Mr Rusesabagina’s detention. Over the years, he has made it clear he is not interested in lectures from the international community, which did little more than dither during the genocide. While Rwanda has accepted large amounts of foreign help – Britain is one of its biggest donors – he does not want it to become an NGO-ocracy, behoven forever to Western benefactors. “We must build a culture of entrepreneurship, get people to take responsibility for improving their lives,” he told The Telegraph in 2010. “Rather than putting them in a position where they sit back in their poverty and blame others for it.”

Critics, though, say that he has used Rwanda’s tragic past as an excuse to stifle all opposition, pursuing adversaries abroad with the same ruthless efficiency as he has chased development goals. A former Rwandan intelligence chief was found strangled in a Johannesburg hotel, while a former interior minister was shot in Nairobi. Even in Britain, Rwandan exiles have been warned by police to beware of hitmen.

Paul Kagame, Rwanda's president, has pursued his political foes with alacrity Credit: AP

At home, meanwhile, identity politics have effectively been outlawed, with any statements made on ethnic lines likely to fall foul of draconian “divisionism” laws. Supporters say it prevents hate speech. Opponents say that Mr Kagame, an ethnic Tutsi, uses it to silence the Hutu majority - who, starved of political oxygen, have been driven to support armed groups instead.

Even so, though, the Rwandan government has offered no evidence that Mr Rusesabagina ever carried out any armed attacks himself. So why would it go to all the trouble of getting him back to Rwanda?

The answer, according to one former British diplomat who knows the country well, is simply because of his celebrity. “It seems unlikely that he has real links to terror groups – he’s an ex-hotel manager, not an ex-soldier,” the ex-diplomat said. “But his criticisms carry some weight in Washington because he has a profile that other critics don’t have, plus this unimpeachable moral credibility, thanks to Hotel Rwanda. His statements have actually become more extreme over time, but that’s because there’s no scope to have a real dialogue with the Rwandan government.”

The eyes of the world will now be on Mr Rusesabagina’s forthcoming trial, which could see him jailed for life. Meanwhile the former Milles Collines boss is sampling the rather more austere hospitality of one of Kigali’s jails, having been denied bail. Some, though, believe Mr Kagame may have miscalculated, given the international outcry that is likely to follow if Mr Rusesabagina gets a long sentence.

As an exiled critic, the hero of Hotel Rwanda may have been a minor problem: as a celebrity political prisoner, he may be a much more difficult guest.