Before history began to be rewritten, the hotel manager and the rebel leader were hailed as heroes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Paul Rusesabagina, whose story of protecting Tutsis from Hutu militiamen with machetes became Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, visited the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States from George W. Bush.
Paul Kagame, leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels who toppled the extremist Hutu regime that led the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, has been praised by prime ministers and presidents for ending the slaughter and rebuilding Rwanda. . Bill Clinton called Kagame “one of the greatest leaders of our time.”
But more than a quarter of a century after the genocide, Rusesabagina is in a Kigali prison awaiting the August 20 verdict in his trial on charges of terrorism, murder and founding an armed group with the intention of overthrowing Kagame.
Rusesabagina’s supporters have little doubt that he will be sentenced after the Rwandan authorities did everything possible to lure him from the United States to Dubai and then onto a plane that the former hotel manager thought would take him to Burundi. He landed in the Rwandan capital Kigali, where he was arrested and tried, not because he committed an actual crime, Rusesabagina’s family says, but because he stood up to Kagame.
The case is based on allegations by the two men that the other is a fraud with blood on his hands. But beyond the personal dispute, the confrontation reflects an increasingly bitter divide over Rwanda’s recent history and the legitimacy of Kagame’s 27-year-old government.
Rusesabagina, who faces life in prison if convicted, is not the only one who questions Kagame’s narrative as the savior of his country, but went further by claiming that, far from ending the genocide, the RPF leader intervened. in causing it.
From exile in Belgium and the United States, Rusesabagina denounced the increasingly repressive government of the Rwandan president, including the murder of opponents at home and abroad. He also lent his voice to allegations that the RPF is guilty of its own genocide by killing Hutus in Rwanda and the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The accusation of a “double genocide” – the mass murder organized by Hutu extremists of Tutsis in 1994 and a parallel massacre of Hutus in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the following years by Kagame’s forces – infuriates the president. , in part because it is widely promoted by exiled Hutus to play down their own crimes.
But Rusesabagina goes further with the unusual accusation that Kagame is responsible for the original massacre of the Tutsis by claiming that his forces infiltrated the Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, to encourage killings during the genocide and thus justify the seizure of power. by the RPF.
It has also promoted the highly controversial claim that the RPF shot down the plane carrying then-President Juvénal Habyarimana, precipitating the massacres. Who benefited from Habyarimana’s death? It’s Kagame and his people, ”Rusesabagina said.
The allegations of a double genocide have found support among some writers and academics outside of Rwanda amid allegations that they are an attempt to diminish and even deny the murder of Tutsis for which a number of senior officials of the old regime were convicted by a international court. .
General Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations commander in Rwanda during the genocide, has called such claims “deliberate deception.” “These deluded academics, journalists and other ‘experts’ continue to spread selfish lies about the victims, with the aim of causing damage as disgusting as that of the early colonialists,” he wrote in the Globe and mail last year.
Kagame responded to Rusesabagina’s allegations by using a genocide memorial day speech in 2007 to denounce him as a “con man” and “gangster.” After that, the Rwandan press questioned the former manager’s account of the events at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, calling it fraud and claiming that he was only able to prevent attacks because he was close friends with one of the most notorious genocide engineers.
Some survivors who took refuge in the hotel claimed that Rusesabagina exaggerated their role or extorted money to protect people, although it is unclear whether they faced political pressure to report it.
What is not in doubt is that Rusesabagina decided to do more than just accuse Kagame. In 2006, he co-founded a political party in exile, PDR-Ihumure, along with his armed wing, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Three years ago, Rusesabagina posted a YouTube video endorsing an armed assault on the Kagame government by the FLN.
“The time has come for us to use all possible means to bring about change in Rwanda, as all political means have been tried and failed.” he said.
Rusesabagina told a Kigali court at a pre-trial hearing last year that the FLN intended to “liberate” Rwanda from Kagame, but denied responsibility for its attacks, including one on a bus in which two people were killed. and others were injured.
“We formed the FLN as an armed wing, not as a terrorist group as the prosecution continues to say. The aim was to draw the government’s attention to the plight of the refugees. I do not deny that the FLN committed crimes but my role was diplomacy, ”he told the court.
PDR-Ihumure joined a coalition of opposition parties under the umbrella of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (RMDC) that has used the double indictment of genocide to distract itself from its ties to Hutu extremists and the 1994 massacres. Rusesabagina became president of RMDC. For Kagame, that was enough to place him firmly in the same field as the genocide.
Others who have crossed paths with the Rwandan president have met a brutal end. Kagame is largely responsible for the murder of his former intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, who was strangled in a hotel room in Johannesburg nearly eight years ago.) Other critics have been killed on the streets of Kenya or have disappeared inside Rwanda.
Rusesabagina’s arrest and trial suggest that Kagame is more interested in publicly discrediting one of the few Rwandans with global name recognition, and the credibility to make his criticism stand. The question now is whether this week’s verdict will do more damage to Rusesabagina’s reputation or to Kagame’s.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism