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His story inspired 'Hotel Rwanda.' Now he's speaking out against the government

Paul Rusesabagina in 2019.
Nicolas Maeterlinck
AFP via Getty Images
Paul Rusesabagina in 2019.

From April to July 1994, the world watched as genocide unfolded in Rwanda. A million people died as neighbors brutally attacked their neighbors with clubs and machetes.

Thirty years later, the horror of the Rwandan genocide endures, but so does the humanity and bravery of Paul Rusesabagina, whose story that was captured in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.

The real Rusesabagina recounted some of the details when he talked to All Things Considered host Juana Summers recently from his home in San Antonio.

"I happened to be a hotelier in 1994, and I had 1,268 people who happened to come to hide in my hotel — Hutus and Tutsis. And none of them was killed. None of them was beaten in the hotel from the beginning to the end," he said.

Fast-forward to present day and Rusesabagina's story has changed drastically. He hasn't lived in Rwanda since 1996 but still cares about his country and has spoken out about the government there.

"I became an enemy. That experience was just like finding oneself in a hell where you are tortured," he said.

Rusesabagina says he was kidnapped, tried and imprisoned in Rwanda for two years and seven months. After intervention from the U.S. and other countries, Rusesabagina was eventually released. At the time, he says he electronically signed a letter promising not to criticize the government.

"Once you are in hell, what can't you sign? You can sign anything," he said.

The reasons why he's decided to disregard that promise were a focus of NPR's conversation with Rusesabagina and his daughter, Anaïse Kanimba. And it began with a plea from his fellow prisoners.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Paul Rusesabagina: [The prisoners] told me that, "Listen, Mr. Rusesabagina, you have been speaking for us. You have been the voice for the voiceless. Now you have seen how we have suffered, how we are being tortured. Now you are going out. Please be our voice." So I cannot shut up since I have a mission.

Juana Summers: I do have to ask for both of you, at this point, given what your family has been through — Paul, given what you personally went through — how safe do you feel today speaking out openly about the Rwandan government, including President Kagame himself?

Rusesabagina: What I am going to tell you is what I was telling all those directorate of military intelligence guys who would be torturing me: The only thing I am sure of is that one day I will die. But when this is supposed to happen, who is supposed to do it, those are the things I do not know. But I believe that it will never happen a day, a minute, a second before the time determined by the Almighty God.

Anaïse Kanimba: And if I may add, I think, yes, it is very risky to speak up about what's happening in Rwanda because Rwanda practices transnational repression. When my sister and I and our family were advocating for our dad, my sister ended up having Pegasus on her phone. And this was researched through the Amnesty International team and other reporters. And I think it's a call to action for the international community not to let that happen, to protect those who are speaking for others, those who are defending democracy and human rights.

Summers: If you speak to allies of President Kagame, many of them would argue that he has been responsible for shepherding an era of what they say is relative peace in the country, of what they say is improvement, of economic advancement. How do you square those two things?

Rusesabagina: I would tell you that today you have two Rwandas. You have the Rwanda for the elite, the capital city of Kigali, and the other Rwanda where people are dying, being buried because of hunger. In the prison where I was, we were 18,500 people. People would eat just corn and beans and one meal which was just supplied every day at 11 a.m. Is that development?

Kanimba: Some of Rwanda's allies, and specifically President Kagame's allies in the West, do talk about the development of the country, but that is at the cost of the freedom of the people of Rwanda. If people cannot speak freely, all this work cannot be sustainable. And I would also call these allies of Paul Kagame not to undermine the ability of Rwandans to be able to choose their own rulers and still live in safety. And, you know, we shouldn't believe that we need to have somebody like Kagame in order to be safe. And I think they're taking away the agency of the Rwandan people to make that choice for them.

Summers: Recognizing that you both are, of course, outside the country of Rwanda, do either of you see signs that the country is poised for change any time soon?

Kanimba: I believe, yes, the country is poised to change because the country is made by very active Rwandans who want to see a developed country, who want to bring the best to their country, who are working hard every single day. Our country can be better. And our people are there, and they're suffering today under the dictatorship or the authoritarian regime of Paul Kagame. But that doesn't mean that they cannot take ownership of their country and move it forward without this kind of leadership. And so I think, yeah, I mean, it's possible.

And I hope that I can go to Rwanda very soon and not fear that if I'm walking in the streets of Kigali, I can be put in jail. That is my dream and my dream to go back to this country where I was born. But today I cannot. And so I would love to be able to do that in the future and be able to tell you my perspective from inside Rwanda. But that's not possible. And I believe that my brothers and sisters who are in Rwanda, my compatriots, will find a way to let everybody else outside come back one day.

Rusesabagina: Well, I will tell you that Rwanda today is more or less a boiling volcano which can erupt any time. Rwanda has got millions of people outside that country. Those millions of people are also willing to go back to their own homeland, and they can't. And in Rwanda, you've got some people, many people who have been silenced and others who are silencing them. So Rwanda is rather a boiling volcano which might erupt anytime.

After this interview, NPR reached out to the Rwandan government for comment. Yolande Makolo, the government spokesperson, sent along this statement, which is presented here in full: "Rusesabagina lies consistently. He was never tortured. Everyone in Rwanda can say what they want, as long as it doesn't break the laws that govern all of us and that keep Rwandans safe."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.