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Rusesabagina’s deadly trajectory

Rusesabagina interacts with his lawyers David Rugaza and Emeline Nyembo at Nyarugenge Intermediate Court on October 2. / Photo: Sam Ngendahimana.

Like most people, I learned about the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina when he was presented to Kigali media at the Rwanda Bureau of Investigation (RIB) on 30 August 2020.

Six weeks on, I continue to watch in bewilderment as major media outlets attempt to present Rusesabagina as a maligned Rwandan celebrity. Many have taken advantage of the surprise development to attack Rwanda’s law enforcement and judicial institutions.


The public Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA), which I head, covered the arrest of Rusesabagina on charges that include financing terrorism, kidnapping, arson, recruitment of child soldiers and forming terror groups.


RBA had also reported on the attacks by Rusesabagina’s armed group FLN (National Liberation Forces) in Southern Rwanda in 2018. We returned to the affected villages after the arrest to get the reaction of residents to the news. Many demanded that Rusesabagina and his accomplices be tried at the site of the attacks so that they could get some closure on the killings of their loved ones.


On hearing of Rusesabagina’s arrest, local media and ordinary Rwandans immediately shared articles, audio and videos of his political declarations from recent years.

These were easy to find online as most Rwandans had seen and heard numerous interviews and promotional content, in multiple languages, of the activities of Rusesabagina’s political party MRCD (Rwandan Movement Democratic Change) and its armed wing FLN (National Liberation Forces).

They included Rusesabagina and then FLN spokesperson Callixte Nsabimana (aka “Major Sankara”) bragging on VOA and BBC about attacks the FLN had carried out inside Rwanda, and territory they claimed to have captured in Nyungwe Forest.

In one VOA interview from 2019 that is still online, to the questions of whether the FLN forces are still occupying Nyungwe Forest, Rusesabagina replies that “We did not go there to leave. We are angry. What we want is our rights as native Rwandans.”

I personally tweeted a particularly insightful Christmas speech from the MRCD YouTube channel where Rusesabagina declared his full support for the FLN and called on others to back FLN, their armed group had committed to using force to overthrow the Rwandan government.

Rusesabagina and his associates were not trying to hide their armed attacks. On the contrary, they wanted the world to know what they were doing.

As expected, some of these videos, particularly those recorded by the MRCD group are now being wiped off the internet in a belated attempt to hide evidence.

Fortunately they cannot do the same with interviews with media like BBC and VOA that granted them ample broadcast time to speak about their violent exploits. These are still accessible.

So why are so many foreign journalists still clinging to the narrative of Rusesabagina as the irreproachable character portrayed in a fictional film? Some hesitantly acknowledge that he had “gone on a trajectory”. The virulently anti-Rwanda Human Rights Watch recognises his leadership of an armed militia that killed innocent Rwandans. Yet they revert to the 2005 film character, and imply that Hollywood mystique puts Rusesabagina above reproach for the crimes he is now accused of. They even bizarrely attempt to excuse Rusesabagina’s actions by claiming he had no choice because political competition is closed off.

So which is it? Fallen hero, or captured guerilla commander?

In an interview with a New York Times reporter, the head of Rwanda’s Intelligence and Security Service made it clear that Rusesabagina’s arrest was the result of an intelligence-led law enforcement operation that included the use of deception to lure him into a legal arrest in Rwanda. This is standard operating procedure by police forces around the world.

I requested and acquired an audio recording of the interview because this critical information appears to have been lost on a media determined to pursue another narrative.

What is clear is that Rusesabagina left his home in San Antonio to travel not to Dubai, as his family keeps claiming, but to Burundi, a country currently hostile to Rwanda, and which has previously hosted armed groups targeting Rwanda, including Rusesabagina’s. Rusesabagina’s claim that he was going to Burundi to “speak to church groups at the invitation of a pastor” is an absurd fiction, but it is clear why he does not want to incriminate himself further by saying more. Intelligence indicates that he believed the leadership of Burundi had sent him a private jet to bring him to Burundi to talk to armed groups based there and in the DR Congo. The objective was to coordinate the scattered forces and reorganize them to re-launch attacks in Rwanda.

Looking back, Paul Rusesabagina changed fundamentally after Hotel Rwanda brought him celebrity and credibility. He founded the PDR-Ihumure political party in 2006, and when rhetoric failed to achieve his personal political objectives, he began associating with armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda).

Dominic Johnson and Simone Schlindwein, German journalists for Die Tageszeitung who reported on and later wrote a book about the Stuttgart trials of FDLR leaders, reported that “As early as 2008, [Rusesabagina’s] name appeared in the telecommunications of Ignace Murwanashyaka, president of the FDLR militia, who was later arrested in Germany. In 2010, Rwanda’s attorney general accused him of terrorist financing for the first time.”

By 2016, Rusesabagina formed his own armed group with like-minded exiled extremists which conducted the attacks on villages bordering Burundi in Southern Rwanda in 2018. Their stated aim was to garner international attention and interrupt Rwanda’s tourism economy. The travel advisories of several countries with embassies in Kigali highlighted the seriousness of this threat.

Paul Rusesabagina is not facing prosecution for inspiring the hero role in a Hollywood film. He was arrested for his alleged involvement in armed attacks that killed nine civilians in Rwanda in 2018, and will be tried together with 18 accomplices.

What we should all demand and expect – and what the media should report on – is a fair trial and justice for the victims.

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