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How the Hero of 'Hotel Rwanda' Fell Into a Vengeful Strongman's Trap

Paul Rusesabagina went from the world’s most famous Rwandan to a prisoner of his political nemesis, President Paul Kagame, whose government accuses the coolheaded hotelier of murder, arson and terrorism.

By Abdi Latif Dahir, Declan Walsh, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Ruth Maclean

Published by The New York Times on September 18, 2020. Updated on September 20, 2020.

Police escorting Mr. Rusesabagina into a van after his pre-trial court appearance. [Cyril Ndegeya for The New York Times]

KIGALI, Rwanda — As the manager of a five-star hotel where 1,268 people sheltered from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina was known for his cool head — a quality that kept the killers at bay, helped ensure that all his guests survived, and led to an Oscar-nominated movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” that brought his story to a global audience.

Now Mr. Rusesabagina is back in Rwanda, but this time under arrest, in a spartan cell in Kigali’s central police station, where he sleeps in a simple bed draped in a mosquito net. He still cuts the figure of an unruffled hotelier — pressed blazer, white shirt, polished loafers — even as he wrestled with how to explain the latest twists of a life story that threatens to outdo even its Hollywood version.

Not long ago Mr. Rusesabagina, 66, was the toast of America, feted by Oprah Winfrey, awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and earning large fees for his speeches around the world — a human rights icon who warned about the horrors of genocide and offered a living example of standing up to it.

Now he finds himself in a country he vowed never to return to, at the mercy of a president who pursued him for 13 years, and preparing to stand trial for murder, arson and terrorism.

“How I got here — now that is a surprise,” he said with a wry smile, in a jailhouse interview this past week, with two Rwandan government officials in the room. “I was actually not coming here.”

The tale of how a Hollywood hero went from celebrity human rights ambassador to prisoner speaks to the predicament of Rwanda, the small African country where as many as one million people died in 1994 in a grotesque massacre that became the shame of a world that did not intervene to stop it.

A quarter century on, the genocide still casts a long shadow inside Rwanda, where the truth about how it unfolded is bitterly contested.

In the aftermath, Rwanda was stabilized under the firm hand of Paul Kagame, a rebel leader turned president who became the darling of guilt-ridden Western countries. Mr. Kagame won powerful allies, like Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Donors lavished aid on his government, which cut poverty, grew the economy and promoted women leaders.

Now, Rwanda is also known as an authoritarian state where Mr. Kagame exerts total control, his troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighboring Congo, and political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or die in mysterious circumstances at home and abroad.

Foremost among those critics is Mr. Rusesabagina, who leveraged his celebrity as the world’s most famous Rwandan to launch scathing attacks on Mr. Kagame, gradually transforming from activist to opponent to, as the government now alleges, a supporter of armed struggle.

Mr. Rusesabagina was a leader of a coalition of opposition groups, all in exile, that includes an armed wing. In an address to those groups in 2018, recorded in a video now widely circulated by the government, Mr. Rusesabagina says that politics has failed in Rwanda. “The time for us has come to use any means possible to bring about change,” he said. “It is time to attempt our last resort.”

From prison, he said his group’s role was not fighting, but “diplomacy” to represent the millions of Rwandan refugees and exiles.

“We are not a terrorist organization,” he said.

Experts say his situation is emblematic of Rwanda under Mr. Kagame: As the ruling party totally dominates the political space, some exiled opponents have turned to more extreme measures.

“Coming on the heels of something as horrific as 1994, foreigners often want to paint the situation in black and white, good and bad, with heroes and demons,” said Anna Cave, a former National Security Council director for African Affairs under President Barack Obama. “But it’s more nuanced today. There are a lot of shades of gray.”

For weeks, the mystery has been how Mr. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen and American permanent resident, was lured to Rwanda from his home in Texas. In an interview, Rwanda’s spy chief gleefully described how Mr. Rusesabagina had fallen for an elaborate ruse, involving a private jet from Dubai, that he called “flawless.” Human Rights Watch called it illegal, a “forced disappearance.”

Mr. Rusesabagina, speaking in jail, said he believed he had been flying to Burundi. His family insists that he cannot speak freely.

“With guns around him, he’s saying that in the belly of the beast,” said his son, Trésor Rusesabagina, 28, speaking from the United States. “And the beast can bite at any time.”

A Five-Star Sanctuary

The Hotel des Mille Collines, in the heart of Kigali, has been overtaken by newer, fancier hotels. But in 1994, it was a five-star sanctuary in a land of bloodshed.

As Hutu militiamen rampaged through the streets in a convulsive slaughter, Mr. Rusesabagina, a Hutu, employed his wiles and the resources of his Belgian-owned hotel — beer, cash, and charm — to fend off the killers. He bribed army generals with dollars and cigars. He battled to protect his wife, Tatiana, a Tutsi.

Outside the gate, Rwandans were hacked to death, burned alive or shot. Inside, miraculously, all 1,268 hotel residents survived.

“An island of fear in a sea of fire,” Mr. Rusesabagina once called it.

After the genocide, Mr. Rusesabagina went back to work. But the country was chaotic and tense. Two million Rwandan refugees had poured into neighboring countries. A new, Tutsi-led government, headed by the rebel leader, Mr. Kagame, was in charge.

Many Hutus lived under a pall of suspicion that they bore collective responsibility for atrocities carried out by Hutu militiamen. Revenge killings were common.

One day in late 1994, a soldier burst into Mr. Rusesabagina’s home and tried to shoot him. He managed to flee, but it “left him anxious,” recalled his son, Roger, 41, speaking from Billerica, Mass.

Two years later, Mr. Rusesabagina received warnings that his life was in danger and his passport might be confiscated. The following day, the family bolted for Uganda, and soon after, moved to Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial power.

Mr. Rusesabagina applied for political asylum, drove a taxi, and bought a house in the Brussels suburbs. In 1998, his story featured in an acclaimed account of the genocide, “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,” by the American writer Philip Gourevitch. Otherwise, he wallowed in obscurity.

Sometimes, his children recalled, he regaled taxi passengers with his past life in Rwanda.

The Kigali Premiere

Terry George, the Irish film director, first met Mr. Rusesabagina in Brussels in 2002, a passenger in his Mercedes taxi. A year later they traveled together for a research trip to Rwanda.

At Kigali airport, they were greeted by a crowd of cheering genocide survivors, Mr. George recalled, and at the Mille Collines hotel, teary-eyed staff gushed about their former boss. “A hero’s welcome,” Mr. George said.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s apprehensions about his safety had vanished, and he bought a plot to build a house. “I thought that things had changed,” he said from his cell this past week.

Mr. George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” released in 2004, was lauded by critics and Hollywood royalty. At the Los Angeles premiere, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford and Matt Damon posed with Mr. Rusesabagina on the red carpet. Amnesty International promoted the film and it won three Academy Award nominations, including best actor for Don Cheadle, who played Mr. Rusesabagina.

“We should be in awe of people like Paul,” Ms. Jolie said.

In April 2005, for the Rwandan premiere, Mr. George flew from the United States to Brussels to rendezvous with Mr. Rusesabagina and his wife for the flight to Kigali. But only she was at the gate. Mr. Rusesabagina declined to board at the last minute.

“He said he didn’t feel safe,” said Mr. George. “He said he had been warned not to come to Kigali.”

In Rwanda, though, Mr. Kagame seemed to appreciate the film. He sat between his wife, Jeannette, and Mr. George for a screening in the InterContinental Hotel ballroom. When the audience cheered during a scene that showed Mr. Kagame’s face, the president chuckled.

A year later, in May 2006, Mr. Kagame invited Mr. Cheadle and his family to the presidential palace in Kigali. While the adults shared a traditional drink of fermented milk, their children played together. About the film, Mr. Kagame “only said that he was grateful for the attention it brought to his country,” Mr. Cheadle recalled.

But as Mr. Rusesabagina’s profile soared in America, Mr. Kagame’s camp bristled.

After President George W. Bush awarded Mr. Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award, in November 2005, the pro-government New Times published a series of articles attacking the hotelier. “A man who sold the soul of the Rwandan Genocide to amass medals” read one article.

Months later, Mr. Kagame delivered his own broadside. Rwanda had no need for “manufactured” heroes “made in Europe or America,” he said.

“An Ordinary Man,” Celebrated and Derided

After “Hotel Rwanda,” Mr. Rusesabagina sold his taxi, signed up with a speaking agency, and traveled the world warning of genocide.

Admiring articles likened him to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved 1,100 Jews from the Nazis. He traveled to Africa with a congressional delegation and established a nonprofit, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, that accrued $241,242 from 2005 to 2007, according to tax filings.

In 2006, he stood beside George Clooney and the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at a rally in Washington to warn of a new genocide in Darfur, in western Sudan.

“It is another Rwanda,” Mr. Rusesabagina said.

At home, the conflict with Mr. Kagame boiled over.

Mr. Rusesabagina published a memoir, “An Ordinary Man,” that contained sharp criticisms of Mr. Kagame’s Rwanda — “A nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis,” he wrote. The few Hutus in power were “known locally as Hutus de service, or ‘Hutus for hire.’”

In June 2007, Mr. Rusesabagina reported Mr. Kagame to an international tribunal on war crimes in Rwanda, for atrocities he said had been committed by Mr. Kagame’s troops during the genocide.

A battle of narratives erupted.

Over six months, the New Times published 21 articles with headlines like “Rusesabagina’s Megalomania Has No Limit.” Survivors from the Mille Collines came forward to accuse Mr. Rusesabagina of exaggerating his role, and even profiting from the genocide. A government official published a book that purported to tell Hotel Rwanda’s “real story.”

Mr. Rusesabagina had some influential backers. In early 2006 Alison Des Forges, a noted scholar on the genocide, conducted a review of “An Ordinary Man” for his publisher, Penguin.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s account was “true to what I have witnessed and experienced in this complicated society,” Ms. Des Forges wrote in a confidential letter seen by The Times.

The Rwandan government intensified its campaign. In 2007, at a forum in Chicago, Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States accused Mr. Rusesabagina of financing rebel groups in eastern Congo.

In Brussels, Mr. Rusesabagina began to feel unsafe. Intruders broke into his home twice, his children said, rifling drawers and stealing documents. When a car drove him off the road, he took it as an assassination attempt, they said.

In 2009, Mr. Rusesabagina and his wife moved to a gated community in San Antonio, Texas, near the home of an ally — Bob Krueger, a former United States Senator and ambassador to Burundi, whom he had befriended.

Even then, Mr. Kagame continued to court the stars of “Hotel Rwanda.” In June 2010, he sent his helicopter to bring Mr. Cheadle to northern Rwanda for a gorilla-naming ceremony, part of a lauded conservation effort.

At a dinner afterward with the president, Mr. Cheadle recalled, there was no mention of Mr. Rusesabagina.

The Long Arm of Kagame

The death of Patrick Karegeya, a former Rwandan spy chief and critic of Mr. Kagame found strangled in a South African hotel room on Jan. 1, 2014, signaled yet again how far the president was prepared to go to quash dissent.

In at least six countries, Rwandan exiles have been harassed, assaulted or killed, as part of an apparent covert campaign targeting Mr. Kagame’s most nettlesome detractors. Some were accused of having participated in the genocide. Others, like Mr. Karegeya, had been confidantes and even friends of Mr. Kagame.

In Belgium, a fugitive politician was found floating in a canal. In Kenya, a former minister was shot dead in his car. In Britain, police warned two dissidents they faced an “imminent threat” from Rwanda’s government. In South Africa, a former army chief was shot in the stomach but survived.

Western officials often looked the other way. “They are immensely special because of what happened in the past,” Andrew Mitchell, a former British development minister, said in 2015. “It engenders cutting them more slack.”

Inside Rwanda, critics were also vanishing or dying mysteriously. In 2014 Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer, was accused of treason over a song that drew attention to the death of all Rwandans, including moderate Hutus, since 1994 — challenging an official narrative of a “Tutsi genocide.”

In February Mr. Mihigo, 38, was found dead in police custody.

Mr. Kagame’s reputation was further tarnished by a 2010 report from the United Nations human rights body that accused Rwandan soldiers and allied militias of widespread rape, killings of tens of thousands of civilians, and recruitment of child soldiers in eastern Congo. A second United Nations report in 2012 made similar charges and earned Mr. Kagame an unusually public rebuke from President Obama.

In 2010, a Rwandan prosecutor repeated the claim that Mr. Rusesabagina had wired funds to Congo-based rebels. The F.B.I. and Belgian authorities questioned him but took no action, his family said.

In the United States, Mr. Cheadle met Mr. Kagame at a dinner party hosted by a mutual acquaintance. The friend, whom Mr. Cheadle declined to identify, later pitched the actor on a second Hotel Rwanda film, this time casting Mr. Rusesabagina in an unfavorable light. Mr. Cheadle was incredulous.

“I said, ‘You want me to play the same character in a movie I was nominated for an Oscar for, to say that movie was horseshit, and now I’m doing the real movie? I’m probably not going to do that.’”

In January 2018, months after Mr. Kagame had been re-elected with 99 percent of the vote, Mr. Rusesabagina tried to enlist a second American president to his cause.

“I request your support in liberating Rwandan people,” he wrote President Trump. Since 1994, he said, “nothing has changed” in Rwanda.

Bringing Change “By Any Means Possible”

In June and July 2018, gunmen carried out a spate of attacks on remote villages in the Nyungwe forest, inside Rwanda’s southern border with Burundi.

The deadliest hit Nyabimata, a hamlet of steep slopes and banana trees, on the night of June 19. Three people were killed, including Fidel Munyaneza, a primary schoolteacher. His wife, Josephine, said he had been shot in the back.

The Rwandan authorities blamed the attack on the National Liberation Forces — the armed wing of a Rwandan opposition coalition that, at the time, was led by Paul Rusesabagina.

Months later, Mr. Rusesabaginadelivered the video address that spoke of change “by any means possible,” which Rwanda’s government calls proof of his guilt.

From jail, he said he did not remember making such a video.

A Mysterious Flight to Kigali

When he boarded a flight from Chicago to Dubai on Aug. 26, Mr. Rusesabagina provided his family with scant details. “Meetings,” he said.

The pandemic had separated him from his wife, stranded in Brussels since February. He hadn’t been able to visit a newborn grandchild near Boston.

But this trip was apparently worth it.

Mr. Rusesabagina spent just six hours in Dubai. At the city’s second, smaller airport he boarded a private jet that he believed was headed to Bujumbura, Burundi.

In fact, the plane was operated by GainJet, a Greece-based charter company frequently used by Mr. Kagame. It landed just before dawn on Aug. 28 in Kigali, where Mr. Rusesabagina was promptly arrested.

“He delivered himself here,” said Rwanda’s spy chief, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, with a smile. “Quite a wonderful operation.”

If that operation was straight out of the Kagame playbook — dissidents say a private jet flew another opposition leader from the Comoro Islands to Rwanda last year — the nature of the bait used to entrap Rwanda’s latest victim was unclear.

Mr. Rusesabagina said he had been invited to Burundi by a pastor, Constantin Niyomwungere, who invited him to speak at his churches. The pastor could not be reached for comment. Rwandan officials say Mr. Rusesabagina’s true purpose was to coordinate with armed groups based in Burundi and Congo.

Mr. Rusesabagina seemed determined in the jailhouse interview to maintain his customary unruffled demeanor. But he could be evasive and contradictory. He spent the first three days of captivity at an unknown location, blindfolded and bound, where he was interrogated “not much,” he said.

Human Rights Watch says his arrest violates international law, even if he was duped into voluntarily boarding the flight from Dubai.

General Nzabamwita dismissed any suggestion of illegality because, he said, the United States and Belgium had been cooperating with his investigation all along. In fact, he added, the head of Belgian intelligence and the C.I.A. station chief in Kigali had personally congratulated him on the arrest.

“They were only surprised how we could conduct such an operation, and very successfully,” he said.

American and Belgian officials denied the general’s assertion. In an email, a spokesman for Belgium’s SGRS intelligence service said its head, Claude Van de Voorde, had “NEVER congratulated the Rwandan authorities” on the arrest.

Embracing — and Fearing — the Truth

In “Hotel Rwanda” Mr. Rusesabagina is depicted as a wheeler-dealer who used cigars and flattery to talk his way out of the deadliest trouble. Now, confined to a jail cell five miles away, those are not options.

Supporters, both in Hollywood and the Rwandan opposition, argue that he cannot receive a fair trial. “They will do everything to keep him in jail,” said Faustin Twagiramungu, a former prime minister of Rwanda and political ally of Mr. Rusesabagina.

Mr. Rusesabagina, for his part, insisted that his group was “not a terrorist organization,” even if its components include an armed group.

Its objective, he said, was to highlight the plight of “millions” of Rwandan refugees and exiles, like him, who remain trapped outside the country, more than a quarter century after the genocide.

“We wanted to wake up the international community, foreign countries and Rwanda itself,” he said. “To remind them that we also exist.”

Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Kigali and Nairobi, Declan Walsh from Cairo, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Athens, and Ruth Maclean from Dakar, Senegal. Julian Barnes contributed reporting from Washington. The article was written by Mr. Walsh.

© 2020 The New York Times Company.

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