India has lessons to learn from the parable of the ‘two Pauls’ from Rwanda
In August, 2020 Paul Rusesabagina was flying to Burundi via Dubai to deliver a motivational talk. But his plane landed in Rwanda instead. He has been in captivity since then, writes Abhijit Shanker
Rwanda, a landlocked country in central Africa, has often been projected by the West as an epitome of progress. Owing to this perceived success, the excesses perpetrated by its benevolent and authoritarian President, Paul Kagame, were often overlooked by the international multilateral bodies like the United Nations.
On 31 August 2020, Paul Rusesabagina, a motivational speaker based in Texas, took a flight to Rwanda’s neighbour, Burundi, via Dubai. The Covid-19 pandemic had caused a dip in his earnings, and he had jumped at the opportunity to make some extra money. The aircraft from Dubai carrying Rusesabagina did not, however, land in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Instead, the plane touched down in Kigali, Rwanda and Paul was promptly taken into custody.
Rwanda being his native country, this was a homecoming of sorts. Until a few years ago, he was guaranteed a hero’s welcome whenever he visited Rwanda, especially after the West took him under its wings following the movie made on his efforts during the 1990 genocide, at the ‘Hotel Rwanda’. The film, which starred Don Cheadle playing Rusesabagina, had attracted attention from celebrities and world politicians alike, including President George W. Bush, who had awarded him the Presidential medal of honour, in 2005. Those were heady days, after the long struggle Paul and his family had faced, following their escape to Belgium after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In one of the most defining scenes in the film, which had won three Academy Awards, all the westerners living in Kigali converge at the Hotel Des Mille Collines and are safely evacuated out of the ongoing genocide. This is shown to happen under the supervision of the UN forces. The head of the UN Peacekeeping Force apologises to Rusesabagina, asking for forgiveness for his cowardice.
The hotel manager, Rusesabagina, is the conscience keeper and goes on to save 1,200 lives during the genocide which killed a million in less than a hundred days. This would be noted as the shortest time in which a million people were killed in the history of mankind.
Following the film’s success, the West embraced the hero of Rwanda and bestowed upon him its blessings and honoured him with medals and sheltered him as their own. He reinvented himself as a motivational speaker, talking to generations of Westerners, who found resilience in his story. This was, until he took the fated flight to Burundi.
Spending time behind bars in a Rwandan prison since September 2020, Paul is now accused of harbouring political ambitions and supporting terrorists. Once again, he perhaps expects his Western friends to stand by him. It remains to be seen. The West hardly ever takes up the same issue twice. They are probably done with Paul Rusesabagina, his moment under the (Western) sun having passed, and now it makes better sense to side with the President, Paul Kagame.
The history of Rwanda begs an explanation to understand the tale of two Pauls. Even though the country is touted as a success story by the West, some say this model country is a fabrication, a manipulation of the data presented to the world by its benevolent President. History has shown us that if you dig deep enough, all vibrant states present a darker secret, hidden in their folds.
Having visited its neighbours, Burundi, Congo, and Uganda a few times, I was always curious to know more about the country and found my opportunity when in a meeting, a UN colleague mentioned she was from Rwanda. She promptly became my reference for the country. It helped that she was perpetually smiling, and was willing to offer information on anything I wanted to know more about. Upon my asking, she took time to explain that as a teenager, she had witnessed the massacre of all her family members during the 100-day genocide. She told me she was 14-year-old in 1994, when on April 6th, 1994, an airplane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the President of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the President of Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land.
Hutus and Tutsis comprised the two largest communities in the region. These assassinations set into motion a series of events that would forever change the country’s course of history. The Presidents were Hutus, and the assassinations were blamed on the Tutsi minority. This had immediately resulted in the use of roadblocks throughout Rwanda and sparked large scale violence. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence regarding who shot down the plane, but theories range from moderate Hutus to the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
She told me of the German and the Belgian occupations of Rwanda during the late 19th to the mid-20th century. These occupations had created a native elite among the Tutsis. The other dominant native group of the time, the Hutus, had naturally felt discriminated in almost all areas, including education, business and closeness to the rulers.
After the Rwandan struggle for independence, in 1959, the Hutus took control of the country, which forced thousands of Tutsis to become refugees in neighboring countries, who organised themselves into groups, including the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Paul Kagame was then the leader of RPF, which was involved in the initiation of a civil war in the early 1990s, leading up to the Presidents’ assassination.
The good old radio played a key role in calling upon the Hutus to arm themselves and become parts of larger groups. They were then summoned to kill the Tutsis in their villages and towns. One day, the Hutus came to my colleague’s small home. These were people she had seen as part of the extended neighborhood in her village. Maybe played with some of them. She became philosophical, but not resigned to her fate, even for a moment, pondering why people turn evil.
There are lessons in every such historical anecdote, and signs of evil for us to foresee. India too has lessons to learn from the tale of two Pauls.
(The author worked for the UN in New York and served as UNICEF’s Chief of A still from ‘Hotel Rwanda’ Communications)