Redefining a hero

To see is to believe, and as for understanding the Rwandan genocide, the film âÄúHotel RwandaâÄù provided the images to an event that previously garnered little attention. Paul RusesabaginaâÄôs experience as a hotel manager-turned-godsend to more than 1,000 people was featured in the 2004 Academy Award nominated film âÄúHotel Rwanda,âÄù staring Oscar nominee Don Cheadle. The film, which documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 people in only 90 days, portrayed Rusesabagina as an ordinary hero who transformed his high-end hotel into a safe haven for 1,268 refugees. In real life, Rusesabagina, who spoke at the University Monday, has garnered international acclaim and numerous humanitarian awards âÄî including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom âÄî for his selfless acts. But few know that Rusesabagina also faces severe criticism, especially from the current president of Rwanda, who calls his heroism an invention of Hollywood which Rusesabagina is profiting from. As a Hutu (though ethnic identifiers are no longer used in Rwanda), Rusesabagina has been one of the most outspoken critics of the current Tutsi-led government, accusing them of pandering to fellow Tutsis, participating in reprisal killings against Hutus and suppressing dissidents. And Rusesabagina would know that best, considering heâÄôs been living in exile in Belgium for more then 10 years after numerous death threats from citizens of his native country. Since 2000, Rwanda has been lead by President Paul Kagame, former commander of the Tutsi rebel group (RPF) attributed with halting the genocide after capturing the nationâÄôs capitol from Hutu extremists in 1994. Though Kagame has been widely popular with many Rwandans âÄî he won 94 percent of the votes during his 2003 national election âÄî opposition against his government, which is widely ruled by previous Tutsi rebels as well, is rising, much due to mounting accusations of reprisal killings against Hutus during and after the genocide. Those who criticize Kagame are, for national security or post-genocidal paranoia, shunned, detained or banned from entering the country. Rusesabagina is one of them. In his autobiography âÄúAn Ordinary Man,âÄù Rusesabagina targets the president, citing that, âÄúRwanda is, today, a nation governed by and for the benefit of a small group of elite Tutsis.âÄù Rusesabagina also formally filed a criminal complaint in 2006 against Kagame and members of the RPF army concerning âÄúwar crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocideâÄù that were committed against his family. Like many, the film âÄúHotel Rwanda,âÄù allowed me to better appreciate the gravity of the Rwandan genocide and the international apathy within which it occurred. Out of my continuing fascination about the Rwandan genocide, and after meeting Rusesabagina in 2004 (I personally found him to be a warm and genuine man), I visited Rwanda last June to evaluate the current situation of the country. My trip to Kigali âÄî I hitchhiked from my temporary home in Western Kenya âÄî was an extremely unsettling experience that continues to trouble me, despite my short four-night stay in the country. Though Rwanda holds a beauty utterly unique to Africa âÄî with a lush countryside and cobblestone city streets âÄî I felt there was something unnerving, something wrong about the âÄúland of a thousand hills.âÄù It seemed as though every process was extremely restrained, from crossing the border, to hailing a taxi and waiter service at a restaurant, people rarely showed any emotion at all. There was an utter lack of noise or motion within Rwanda. Furthermore, the Milles Collines Hotel, in which âÄúHotel RwandaâÄù was set, showed no signs of what occurred within its aristocratic interior. Sure, there were plenty of expatriates there, willing to drink away their dayâÄôs work, and a few families shuttling off on a gorilla trek to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but not one photo, trinket or plaque about the genocide or Rusesabagina. Though I toured a number of the genocide sites âÄî many times walking inside gutted mass graves âÄî what lingered with me most was the sheer stillness of the country. I later spoke to others who had visited Rwanda, and many had similar feelings about the state of the country, of how citizens seemed to express their lives through hushed voices and rarely veered off in any direction other than normal for fear of punishment, even though ethnicities are no longer politically in play. Regardless of whether Rusesabagina is a true hero or one that was created by Hollywood filmmakers, it is clear that he represents the questions a country reconciling with genocide must engage with. The situation in Rwanda of documented human rights abuses, censorship and ethnic pandering poses a unique set of questions: How does a president lead a nation that has experienced the worst form of violence imaginable? Do you seek vengeance and apply censorship in order to protect the future of your country, or do you establish a reconciliation and amnesty program on behalf of widespread social healing? Those are the questions the Rwandan government is grappling with, and for which ordinary men like Rusesabagina are being targeted. But if action is not taken soon to repair the continual ethnic strife in Rwanda, the probability of another genocide becomes more and more likely with each passing moment. Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]