What really happened in Hotel Rwanda?

Thursday June 12 2014
hotel rwanda

Don Cheadle in the movie Hotel Rwanda, where he acted as Paul Rusesabagina. A new book disputes the content of the movie, saying it gives Rusesabagina credit he doesn’t deserve. Photo/FILE

During the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, single-handedly saved over 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from slaughter by hiding them in the Hotel des Mille Collines, which he managed.

As the violence escalated, the United Nations withdrew most of its peacekeeping troops, leaving about 300 soldiers behind. Foreign governments also evacuated their citizens who were guests at the Hotel des Mille Collines. But Mr Rusesabagina, through his bravery, courage and connections, managed to save not only himself, but also over 1,200 innocent Rwandans.

This is the heartrending story in the famous 2004 Oscar Award-nominated Hollywood movie, Hotel Rwanda, the account of one man’s larger-than-life humanitarian actions when the tide of death swept through Rwanda 20 years ago and left an estimated one million Rwandans dead.

Hollywood star Don Cheadle went on to earn an Oscar Award nomination for his brilliant portrayal of Mr Rusesabagina, and the latter went on to earn his place in history.

Mr Rusesabagina has since collected several accolades – the University of Michigan’s Wallenberg Medal (awarded to outstanding people who act on behalf of the defenceless and oppressed) and former US president George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’s highest civilian award.

The movie launched Mr Rusesabagina as an important public speaker in the US and across the world. Today, he speaks at colleges and churches for upward of $15,000 per speech.


But a new book, Inside the Hotel Rwanda, The Surprising True Story... And Why it Matters Today, by a Hotel des Mille Collines survivor, Edouard Kayihura, and journalist Kerry Zukus, terms Rusesabagina a “fraud.”

They write that Mr Rusesabagina “did not single-handedly prevent the slaughter of more than 1,200 refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines.”

According to the book, when Mr Kayihura first watched Hotel Rwanda, he was “filled with several, conflicting emotions” but he was glad the movie had been made. He wanted “to let the world know where the film had gone wrong.”

Hotel Rwanda portrays Mr Rusesabagina as the man who personally got nearly everyone into the hotel, and also the one who — personally — kept all of them alive. For instance, in the movie, Rusesabagina is told by an army officer to evacuate everyone in the hotel within 30 minutes but he is seen heroically getting the threat lifted.

The authors quote Maj Brent Beardsley — a UN peacekeeping soldier who witnessed the genocide — as saying: “Gen Dallaire’s threats to Gen Bizimungu ensured that Bizimungu protected the hotel with his troops and did not risk a massacre... I have no knowledge of Paul Rusesabagina’s role and how it worked with the general’s actions.”

This corroborates British journalist Linda Melvern’s version in her book, The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. Melvern stated that it was the Tunisian UN peacekeepers who kept the would-be attackers of the hotel at bay.

Even Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the 1998 book from which the makers of Hotel Rwanda extracted Mr Rusesabagina, doubts the hotel manager’s heroism.

Mr Gourevitch told Kerry Zukus: “...he (Rusesabagina), never gave me the impression he was claiming to be some singular hero... in stark contrast to how most of what he says today is ‘I, I, I.’”

About Mr Rusesabagina saving those who sought refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines, Mr Gourevitch said: “He hadn’t saved them, and he couldn’t have saved them – not ultimately.”

Inside the Hotel Rwanda is a story about a group of terrified refugees sharing horrific days in the Hotel des Mille Collines.

Mr Kayihura remembers that there were many people who took care of other refugees inside the hotel, while some kindly Hutus who were not staying in the hotel brought in food from the outside to family and friends who were trapped inside the hotel.

Kayihura mentions Lit-Gen Romeo Dallaire — Force Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994 — whose dwindled troops worked day and night to prevent the Interahamwe militia from attacking the Hotel des Mille Collines.

Mr Kayihura’s version of the role of the hotel manager is supported by the recollections of some of his fellow Hotel des Mille Collines survivors. Serge Rusagara was nothing more than a high school boy when he sought refuge at the hotel.

His story: “...When we arrived at the hotel gate, we walked towards the front desk, only to find that the hotel did not want to let us in because we did not have any money.” Luckily, a Mutarikanwa, their father’s friend, paid for them.

Odette Nyiramilimo is yet another Hotel des Mille Collines survivor. She told Mr Kayihura while in the hotel, “Rusesabagina is a friend of ours (family). He kept calling our house every day... He suggested that Karamira should pick us up. (Froduald Karamira was vice-president of the former ruling party MRND. He was sentenced to death by Kayihura — who was then deputy prosecutor in Kigali — for genocide crimes.)

“We told Paul that we were afraid if he sent Karamira he would kill us... So, Paul sent a soldier named Francois Nzaramba.”

Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story...and Why it Matters Today is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding what really happened inside “Hotel Rwanda” 20 years ago.