Accepted “Fact” versus Real Heroes

I fell for it. I will be the first to admit I fell for Hotel Rwanda hook line and sinker. I watched it in high school and ate it up. I was right there with the rest of the world in my respect and reverence for the bravery portrayed particularly by “Rwanda’s Schindler,” Paul Rusesabagina.

I discovered in college that Paul Rusesabagina’s version of his heroic efforts at the Hotel des Mille Collines featured in the film Hotel Rwanda was likely skewed in his own favor. In fact, the film was poorly researched with Paul Rusesabagina’s memoir being the primary, nearly sole basis for the movie. The film came out in 2004. Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story… and Why It Matters Today was published in 2014 after outcry by both the Rwandan Government, particularly President Kigame, and the Rwandan people. Survivors from the Hotel des Mille Collines, where 1,268 people, comprised of Hutu moderates and Tutsi refugees found tenuous refuge from the genocide, adamantly rejected Rusesabagina’s portrayal of his treatment of the survivors and role in the events. Now, Kigame has his own political issues with Rusesabagina; therefore, it was the emergence of Edouard Kayihura’s memoir that tipped the scales.

Edouard Kayihura is a Tutsi survivor of the genocide who survived in the Hotel des Mille Collines. He and other survivors told their stories of how Rusesabagina had, contrary to the film, insisted on charging survivors for their hotel rooms and meals. Rather than being the persistent moral defender of the Tutsi people against corruption both within and outside the Hotel des Milles Collines it seems Rusesabagina was likely playing a strategic political role to keep himself, his family, and his political connections safe. Rather than instigating and motivating the letter and telephone campaigns by survivors to contacts in the West begging for rescue the survivors report that Rusesabagina actually cut phone lines maintaining only one he had strict control over.

This controversy is well known in Rwanda. However, as is so often the case with African countries, that is not enough. Because so much of Western policy is affected by the heroes we prop up, the rhetoric we create, and the images we promulgate the West must be reeducated on the Rwandan genocide and the complexity of primary sources.

So, let us take it back to history class. Primary sources, as you may well be aware, are sources from the time period under study. This blog, or diaries, government documents, and even the NSA data files on American Citizens will all be possible primary source documents for historian’s to examine in a pursuit to understand 21st century America. Thus, Rusesabagina’s memoir, survivor accounts, and Kayihura’s memoir are all primary sources. You never take primary sources at face value. You do not even take secondary sources with literature reviews and extensive edits prior to publishing at face value. In history, you examine the character of the document, the motivations of the author/s.

Violence in Africa is no different than the rest of the world; it is comprised of people. Human, incredibly fallible people who have bias, egos, and complex motivations. Thus, survivors must all be listened to and their accounts compared with data, other accounts, and weighed against their own gains. Hollywood oversimplified their research for this movie and the directors had their own motivations in wanting to create a movie about the “Rwandan Schindler.” It’s not a historical account. It’s a poorly researched movie based on a memoir by a questionable source.

This is incredibly crucial to recognize because those who did risk everything, sacrifice everything to protect their friends, families, or neighbors have been ignored. This one story somehow outweighed the other amazing stories from every day citizens who lacked the resources at Rusesabagina’s disposal as well as his shameless self promotion. There was not just one good man in Rwanda. Rwandans fought the genocide. Rwandans had consciences.

Finally, Paul Rusesabagina’s memoir is truly a complicated and questionable primary sources as he and the movie failed to mention the Rwandan Genocide’s truly extraordinary hero: the Senegalese UN Captain Mbaye Diagne. Capt. Mbaye Diagne is estimated to have personally saved “400 or 500 minimum” lives, this figure from Colonel Faye who worked alongside Capt. Diagne in Rwanda. The State Department in Washington officially estimates the number to be “as many as 600.” Richard Siegler, an American Fullbright Scholar planning to publis a book on Capt. Diagne, estimates Diagne may have saved 1,000 or more.

Richard Siegler: “The full extent of Captain Mbaye’s actions has yet to be recognised, because those who saw him act only saw a small part of what he was doing… When you put everything he did together, it becomes clear that this was one of the great moral acts of our time.”

Mbaye personally delivered the murdered Prime Minster Agathe Uwilingiyimana’s five children to the Hotel des Milles Collines. Marie-Christine, 15 at the time, has largely put her near death experience to bed; however, she agreed to speak to Doyle in order to “pay tribute” to the memory of the man who saved her life. “He is – he was – a good person. I owe him my life. If he hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here now.”

He was a constant presence at the Hotel des Milles Collines when he wasn’t rushing to deliver refugees to safer locations risking his life with every stop at a roadblock. He laughed and joked his way through roadblocks demonstrating tremendously intelligent, insightful understanding of people and sheer guts with every crossing. He saved Mark Doyle’s life; threatened at a road block due to his suspected Belgium heritage (ex-colonizers being included in the “enemy.”)

He was singular in his effort to communicate and engage with the media. The people, journalists, academics, refugees, and UN peacekeepers who witnessed him in action were heartbroken when he died instantly from shrapnel at his final roadblock on May 31, 1994. Some such as Colonel Faye believe if it were not for Captain Diagne’s vital role in protecting the Hotel Milles des Collines, his bribes of his own rations, and his ineffable ability to inspire his comrades to action the hotel would have fallen.

UN Commander Romeo Dallaire told Doyle “It was a very, very difficult day. [There were] so many, but it stood out because we lost one of those shining lights, one of those beacon-type guys who influences others.”

Given Captain Mbaye Diagne’s popularity and well known, among those who were there, importance to the protection of survivors in the Hotel Milles des Collines the lack of acknowledgement in Hotel Rwanda and by Paul Rusesabagina is almost criminal.

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