When it comes to Rwanda, don’t believe everything you see in the movies

By Mathilde Mukantabana
On 11 February 2021 at 01:28

This article was first published in The Foreign Policy Magazine on 10th February 2021

Many Rwandans regard the protagonist of a Hollywood film as a terrorist, not a hero.

In his recent Foreign Policy article on the protagonist of the popular Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda, Anjan Sundaram adds his name to the list of commentators who have chosen the court of public opinion to absolve Paul Rusesabagina—a man who stands accused of multiple counts of terrorism.

While the screenplay written by Keir Pearson and Terry George does make for compelling drama, it diverges significantly from the reality and the lived experience of the survivors of the genocide against the Tutsi who sought refuge at the Hotel des Mille Collines in 1994.

It is not my duty to litigate in these pages; I will leave that to Rwanda’s independent and internationally recognized judiciary. But it would be a betrayal of the truth to allow for uncritical, one-sided narratives pushed by several journalists—and supported by Rusesabagina’s public relations machine—to run rampant. I would therefore like to draw the attention of the media to an often neglected side of the story.

According to numerous accounts from survivors, the popular portrayal of Rusesabagina—the erstwhile manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines, or “Hotel Rwanda”—is patently false. In a Le Monde investigation, the survivor Cyrille Ntaganira told journalists how when “Rusesabagina came to tell us we had to pay,” he was only able to stay when one of his roommates “signed an IOU with him.”

Another survivor, Immaculée Mukanyonga, claimed that Rusesabagina withheld food and water to those unable to pay, forcing guests to drink chlorinated pool water. In his comprehensive book Inside the Hotel Rwanda, Edouard Kayihura—a genocide survivor who spent 100 days as a refugee in the Hotel des Mille Collines and was later the official in charge of prosecuting crimes against humanity in Rwanda—corroborates these testimonies and adds more, including the allegation that lists of hotel guests and their room numbers were passed on to Hutu Power radio stations by Rusesabagina.

Accounts from some foreign officials who were posted in Rwanda in 1994 and spent extensive time at the Hotel des Mille Collines during the genocide align with the allegations above. These include the United Nations peacekeepers Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Capt. Amadou Deme. Both have expressed disgust at the film. Dallaire has said it was “not worth looking at” because it was troops with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda “who stayed in Rwanda … who saved the people at the Hotel Mille Collines—not the hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina.” To Deme, the film’s portrayal of events is “repulsive for its untruthfulness.”

When confronted with these facts, Sundaram’s opinions do not stand up to scrutiny.

The article fails to discuss the facts surrounding the trial, including Rusesabagina’s admission that he helped found the National Liberation Front (FLN), which the Rwandan government regards as a terrorist group.

This makes Sundaram’s premature dismissal of the trial as a “Kafkaesque farce” irresponsible, at best.

Rusesabagina is charged with founding and supporting the FLN, which has openly claimed responsibility for murdering innocent Rwandans. Not only has Rusesabagina publicly admitted that he helped form the FLN, but he also called for FLN troops to “use any means possible … against the Kagame army.”

Sundaram sees no issue with “[a]rmed groups seeking to overthrow Kagame” being “attracted to Rusesabagina as a figurehead.” His disregard for the suffering of ordinary Rwandans, who have tragically lost their lives at the hands of terrorist groups like the FLN, is unethical and dangerous. All over the world, such groups and their leaders have been tracked down and brought to justice. There is no reason Rwanda should be an exception.

The author’s incomplete assessment of the facts is again evident in his discussion of Rwanda’s economic transformation, which has been roundly praised by economists such as Paul Collier.

Because the hard-fought nature of our nation’s unprecedented journey from devastation to development does not fit with his narrative, Sundaram goes to considerable lengths to undermine it. He cites an academic disagreement between the World Bank and a group of professors as proof that “Kagame had manipulated economic growth.”

Rather than addressing the nuanced academic debate around how to weight the consumer price index in Rwanda, Sundaram creates a fiction in which the entire World Bank is apparently under the finger of Rwanda, which is manifestly absurd.

The unprecedented growth, falling poverty, and declining inequality that we have accomplished as a nation are dismissed. Instead, Sundaram’s rewrites reality, stating that it is “tragic,” but somehow inevitable, that Rwandans allegedly “now confront the prospect of even more violence.” One hopes he is merely misguided, rather than malicious, in implicitly validating the ideologies of terrorist groups masquerading as liberation movements.

Rwanda’s government welcomes outside voices, just as we welcome strong partnerships with other nations based not on deference but on cooperation. In our commitment to national self-reliance, we accept that we will not always be perfect.

But we ask that the international perception of our history and sovereign recovery be based on objective fact, not on one-sided and selective reporting.


Mathilde Mukantabana is Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States.

Rusesabagina taken to court in September 2020.