Paul Rusesabagina is a Rwandan humanitarian who has been internationally honoured for saving 1,268 refugees during the Rwandan Genocide. He was the assistant manager of the Sabena Hôtel des Mille Collines before he became the manager of the Hôtel des Diplomates in Kigali, Rwanda. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Rusesabagina used his influence and connections as temporary manager of the ‘Mille Collines’ to shelter 1,268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from being slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia. Rusesabagina’s efforts were also the basis of the Academy Award nominated film Hotel Rwanda (2004). He currently lives in Brussels, Belgium with his wife, children, and two adopted nieces.
Rusesabagina was born in the Central-South region of Rwanda called Murama to a farming family on June 15, 1954. He wanted to be a pastor when he grew up, but currently is a lapsed Seventh-day Adventist. He had three children (Roger, Diane, Lys) with his wife Ester Rusesabagina. After they separated in 1981, he graduated from the Hotel Management program of Utalii College in Nairobi, Kenya, which included a trip to Switzerland. When he returned from Switzerland, he was employed in the Hôtel des Mille Collines as assistant general manager from October 1984 until November 1992, at which time he was promoted to general manager of the company’s Diplomate Hotel in Kigali. He met his current wife Tatiana in 1987 at a wedding party. Tatiana was a Tutsi suffering discrimination at her job as a nurse; Rusesabagina arranged for her to be moved closer to him for this reason, and to get to know her better. After they married, they had a daughter, who died only a few days after her birth. They later had a son, Tresor.
The Rwandan Genocide started on April 6, 1994 as the Hutu-led Interahamwe began to slaughter the Tutsi population, a mass murder of an estimated number of 850,000 to 1 million people in the small East African nation of Rwanda counting as much as 20 % of the country’s population. The violence had raised and was influenced mainly by the Belgian colonization which favoured the Tutsi minority group because of their more “European” appearance of longstanding ethnic competition and the tension between the minorities Tutsi, who had controlled power for centuries. The majority Hutu people had come to power in the rebellion of 1959-1962 as they overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed mostly of Tutsi refugees, invaded northern Rwanda from Uganda in an attempt to defeat the Hutu-led government. They began the Rwandan Civil War, fought between the Hutu regime, with support from Francophone nations of Africa and France, and the RPF, with support from Uganda. This exacerbated ethnic tensions in the country. In response, many Hutu gravitated toward the Hutu Power ideology, with the prompting of state-controlled and independent Rwandan media.
The Hutu’s thought that the Tutsi’s intended to enslave the Hutu’s and they had to resist this at all cost. This ethnic strife resulted in large numbers of Hutu’s displaced in the north and Tutsi killings in the south.
Though Rusesabagina was of mixed heritage – his father was Hutu and his mother Tutsi, he was relatively safe from the Interahamwe due to his position and business connections with important Hutu military leaders. His wife Tatiana was a Tutsi and their children were considered mixed, so he could not escape the war zone with his family without outside help, however, no foreign aid came from the United Nations or its more powerful Western member states; the USA until after over 800,000 Rwandans had been murdered.
When the heinous violence broke out, Rusesabagina brought his family to the Hôtel des Mille Collines for safety. As other managers departed, Rusesabagina phoned the hotel’s corporate owners, Sabena, and secured a letter appointing him the acting general manager of the Mille Collines. Despite some difficulty in getting the staff to accept his authority, he was able to use his position to shelter orphans and other refugees who came to the hotel. His neighbours had moved into his house for safety, though Rusesabagina did not even own a gun. For protection against bullets and grenades they put mattresses against the windows. He described the hardships they faced, which included having to drink the water from the hotel’s swimming pool.
When a murderous Hutu militia threatened to enter the Mille Collines, Rusesabagina ensured that his wife and children fled safely in a truck past the militia’s roadblocks and the truck set out for Kigali airport so they could flee to another country for safety. He himself remained in the hotel because the refugees needed him. Rusesabagina and his wife discussed this decision for hours, because he had promised her he would never leave her in this situation but he couldn’t leave these people behind. He feared that the remaining refugees would be killed and feeling that he would never be able to forgive himself.
Tatiana was a specific target for the brutal attack because she was the wife of the manager of the Mille Collines; the Hutu militia knew she and her children were in the truck owing to radio messages sent out by presenter Georges Ruggiu. Ruggiu was an Italian-Belgian who was part of the radio station conspiracy to incite ethnic tension and encourage the Hutu population to kill all the Tutsis. Ruggiu called Rusesabagina’s family “cockroaches that were fleeing, but would return later to kill all the Hutus”. Tatiana’s mother, four nieces and nephews died in the genocide. Her brother and sister-in-law were missing and her father paid to be executed so he would not die a more painful death.
We all knew we would die without any question. The only question was how. Would they chop us in pieces? With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That’s what her [Tatiana’s] father did.
— Paul Rusesabagina in Humo, nr. 3365, March 1, 2005
The Interhamwe left nearly 1 million corpses behind and the Tutsi rebels pushed the Hutus into Congo in July 1994, after over half of the Tutsis in Rwanda had been murdered. Rusesabagina took orphans from the camp behind Tutsi rebel lines with him to Tanzania, to keep them safe and away from Rwanda. Rusesabagina, his wife and children, and the refugees eventually managed to escape to Tanzania, thanks to the Rwandan Patriotic Front and after staying in Rwanda for two more years, Rusesabagina applied for asylum in Belgium and moved to Brussels in 1996 after receiving credible threats on his life.
- In October 2005, Rusesabagina was awarded the Wallenberg Medal from the University of Michigan in recognition of his rescue and defence of Tutsi citizens who took refuge in the Milles Collines Hotel.
- Rusesabagina received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 9, 2005 from President George W. Bush.
History of violence
Ethnic tension in Rwanda has always existed and there have always been disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, but the animosity between them has grown since the colonial period even though the two ethnic groups are actually very similar as they speak the same language, inhabit the same areas and follow the same traditions however, the Tutsis are often taller and thinner than Hutus, with some saying their origins lies in Ethiopia. During the genocide, the bodies of Tutsis were thrown into rivers, as the killers said they were being sent back to Ethiopia.
It all started with the Belgians arriving to Rwanda in 1916 and took the responsibility to produce identity cards to classify people according to their ethnicity but considered the Tutsi’s to be more superior to the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s was satisfied with this idea and for the next 20 years they had the privilege of better jobs and educational jobs than the Hutu’s. The frustration and anger among the Hutu’s gradually built up by time and resulted in a series of riots in 1959 where more than 20,000 Tutsi’s were killed and many others had to flee to the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. When Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the Hutu’s took their place and over the next decades, the Tutsi’s were targeted as guilty for every crisis.
Large numbers of Tutsi refugees in Uganda had joined the victorious rebel National Resistance Movement during the Ugandan Bush War and created a separate movement. Some 6,000 Tutsi refugee warriors invaded Rwanda to try to regain power as they threatened the Hutu’s since independence.
The beginning of the genocide
The killing was well organized by the government as the Rwandan militia numbered around 30,000, or one militia member for every ten families. It was organized nationwide, with representatives in every neighbourhood. Weapons, such as grenades were widely distributed by the government and many members of the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi were armed only with machetes. Even after the 1993 peace agreement signed in Arusha, businessmen close to General Habyarimana imported 581,000 machetes for Hutu use in killing Tutsi, because at the time, machetes were cheaper than guns. Rwandan PM Jean Kambanda revealed in his testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal that the genocide was openly discussed in cabinet meetings and that “one cabinet minister said she was personally in favour of getting rid of all Tutsi; without the Tutsi, she told ministers, all of Rwanda’s problems would be over
Hutus and Tutsis were forced to use ID cards which specified their ethnic group and these cards served as symbols that the Interahamwe could check via the threat of force. Skin colour was also a way to figure out the “ethnic” identification as the lighter-coloured Rwandans were Tutsi, the minority group, while the darker-skinned Rwandans were typically Hutu, the majority group in Rwanda. In many cases, Tutsi men, women, and children were separated from the general population and sometimes forced to be Hutu slaves. As for the Tutsi women, they were often referred to as “gypsies” and frequently fell victim to sexual violence.
Media and the propaganda
The news media played a crucial role in the genocide; local print and radio media fuelled the killings while the international media either ignored or seriously misconstrued events on the ground. The print media in Rwanda was believed to have started hate speeches against the Tutsis, which was later continued by radio stations. According to commentators, anti-Tutsi hate speech became systematic and the state-owned newspaper Kangura had a central role, starting an anti-Tutsi and anti-RPF campaign in October 1990.
Due to high rates of illiteracy at the time of the genocide, radio was an important way for the government to deliver messages to the public. Two radio stations key to inciting violence before and during the genocide were Radio Rwanda and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). In March 1992, Radio Rwanda was first used in directly promoting the killing of Tutsi in Bugesera, south of the national capital Kigali. Radio Rwanda repeatedly broadcast a communiqué warning that Hutu in Bugesera would be attacked by Tutsi, a message used by local officials to convince Hutu that they needed to attack first. Led by soldiers, Hutu civilians and the Interahamwe attacked and killed hundreds of Tutsi.
Genocide and massacre
The Rwandan military and Hutu militia groups, notably the Interahamwe, systematically set out to murder all the Tutsis they could reach, regardless of age or sex, as well as the political moderates among the Hutu. They incited Hutu civilians to participate in the killings or be shot in turn, using radio broadcasts to tell them to kill their Tutsi neighbours. Most nations evacuated their nationals from Kigali and abandoned their embassies in the initial stages of the violence. As the situation worsened, the national radio advised people to stay in their homes and not to go out. The militia put up hundreds of roadblocks around the country, using them to block off areas and attack the citizens.
On April 9, UN observers witnessed the massacre of children at a Polish church in Gikondo. The same day, 1,000 heavily armed and trained European troops arrived to escort European civilian personnel out of the country and on April 9–10, US Ambassador Rawson and 250 Americans were evacuated. Most of the victims were killed in their own villages or in towns, often by their neighbours and fellow villagers. The militia typically murdered victims by machetes, although some army units used rifles. The Hutu gangs searched out victims hiding in churches and school buildings, and massacred them. Local officials and government-sponsored radio incited ordinary citizens to kill their neighbours, and those who refused to kill were often murdered on the spot. “Either you took part in the massacres or you were massacred yourself.”
Another massacre occurred at Nyarubuye on April 12th, where more than 1,500 Tutsis sought refuge in a Catholic church in Nyange. Local Interahamwe, acting in concert with the authorities, used bulldozers to knock down the church building and the militia used machetes and rifles to kill every person who tried to escape. Local priest Athanase Seromba was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison by the ICTR for his role in the demolition of his church; he was convicted of the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Because of the chaotic situation, there is no consensus on the number of people killed between April 6 and mid-July unlike the genocides carried out by Nazi Germany and by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, authorities made no attempts to record deaths. The succeeding RPF government has stated that 1,071,000 were killed, 10 % of whom were Hutu. The journalist Philip Gourevitch agrees with an estimate of one million, while the UN estimates the toll as 800,000. James Smith of Aegis Trust noted, “What’s important to remember is that there was genocide. There was an attempt to eliminate Tutsis — men, women, and children and to erase any memory of their existence.” Out of a population of 7.3 million people, 84 % of whom were Hutu, 15 % Tutsi and 1 % Twa–the official figures published by the Rwandan government estimated the number of victims of the genocide to be 1,174,000 in 100 days. That is 10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, 7 every minute. It is estimated that about 300,000 Tutsi survived the genocide, thousands of widows, many of whom were subjected to rape, are now HIV-positive. There were about 400,000 orphans and nearly 85,000 of them were forced to become heads of families.
Several individuals were active in attempting to halt the Rwandan genocide, or to shelter vulnerable Tutsi, as it was taking place. Among them there are Romeo Dallaire, Pierantonio Costa, Antonia Locatelli, Jacqueline Mukansonera, Paul Rusesabagina, Carl Wilkens, André Sibomana and Captain Mbaye Diagne.
Approximately 2 million Hutus, participants in the genocide, and the bystanders, with anticipation of Tutsi retaliation, fled from Rwanda, to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and for the most part Zaire. Thousands of them died in epidemics of diseases common to the squalor of refugee camps, such as cholera and dysentery and the United States staged the Operation Support Hope airlift from July to September 1994 to stabilize the situation in the camps. After the victory of the RPF, the size of UNAMIR (henceforth called UNAMIR 2) was increased to its full strength, remaining in Rwanda until March 8, 1996.
International criminal court
In 2001, the government began implementing a participatory justice system, known as Gacaca, meanwhile, the UN sat up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, currently based in Arusha, Tanzania. The UN Tribunal has jurisdiction over high level members of the government and armed forces, while Rwanda is responsible for prosecuting lower level leaders and local people. 22 people were executed in public for their role in the massacre in 1998 and 18 of them in provincial towns where the massacres had occurred, while 4 were executed at a football field in Kigali by firing squad. The executed included Silas Munyagishali, a Kigali assistant prosecutor, and Froduald Karamira of the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development.
Tensions arose between Rwanda and the UN over the use of the death penalty, though these were largely resolved once Rwanda abolished the punishment in 2007, however, domestic tensions continued over support for the death penalty, and the interest in conducting the trials at home. In ten years the Arusha tribunal only succeeded in sentencing 20 people.
On Thursday, December 18, 2008, Theoneste Bagosora was found guilty of crimes against humanity. He was charged by UN judge Erik Møse, and sentenced to life in prison. The court also found Bagosora responsible for the deaths of former Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers.