Published First in The Star
“I was going to sleep and my phone rang non-stop,” he said in a phone interview. “It was my son-in-law in Brussels. He said my house had been invaded and every document was taken. All the doors were broken. Then I knew that God had spared my life, because I was on a list.”
Rusesabagina, known in the West as the real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda, on his efforts to save more than 1,200 refugees from the Rwandan genocide, survived the blood-drenched event. But he says that neither he nor the country has escaped the shadow of violence.
He warned that Monday’s presidential election was a step backward from the long-term peace and reconciliation Rwandans have hoped for since 1994, when President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front swept to power.
The poll, predicted to be a landslide for Kagame, has been marked by arrests and killings of critics and opposition figures, barring of parties opposed to Kagame, and a clampdown on the media.
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Last month, a senior official in the opposition Democratic Green Party was beheaded in a grisly attack, and a reporter for a local newspaper shot after investigating the wounding of an exiled dissident general in South Africa. Rwanda denied any involvement in the killings, and blamed disaffected people linked with the genocide. But Pretoria recalled its ambassador for “consultations.”
Kagame has been praised in the West for stabilizing Rwanda, which World Bank voted the “most improved” global business reformer, as economic growth burgeoned and average incomes rose. But Kagame’s critics say much of the wealth is in the hands of a small elite and too little has trickled down to the numerous poor.
Kagame, a Tutsi and former militia leader, is acclaimed for his dedication to racial equality and vow to eradicate the “genocide ideology” that led to the massacre 16 years ago. But his anti-genocide legislation has also been used against his political foes. In 1994, some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in one of the most ferocious acts of violence Africa has seen.
The majority of the dead were from the Tutsi minority. But those who have spoken out for recognition of Hutu as well as Tutsi killings have been punished, among them presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who is under house arrest, charged with genocide denial and aiding rebel groups. An American law professor who arrived to defend her was also charged.
“Kagame is pursuing anyone who could potentially present a challenge,” says Brian Endless of Loyola University Chicago. “But unless there is peaceful change in Rwanda, groups who are not getting the benefits (of prosperity) could oppose him in a more violent way.”
Rusesabagina, who is resented by many Rwandans for urging a different approach to national reconciliation, has had a high-profile feud with Kagame, whom he has criticized as an autocrat. He calls the country “a simmering volcano.”
“If we don’t have equal justice there will never be reconciliation,” he says. “And it will never be possible to have a sustainable peace.