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Paul Rusesabagina of 'Hotel Rwanda' fame and his daughter criticize the government

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

From April to July 1994, the world watched as genocide unfolded in Rwanda. A million people died as neighbors brutally attacked their neighbors with clubs and machetes. Thirty years later, the horror of the Rwandan genocide endures, but so does the humanity and bravery of Paul Rusesabagina.

PAUL RUSESABAGINA: Well, that is a very - quite a long story.

SUMMERS: A story that was captured in the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," starring Don Cheadle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOTEL RWANDA")

DON CHEADLE: (As Paul Rusesabagina) Welcome to the Mille Collines. I am Paul Rusesabagina, the house manager.

SUMMERS: The real Paul Rusesabagina recounted some of the details when he talked to me recently from his home in San Antonio.

RUSESABAGINA: I happened to be a hotelier in 1994, and I had 1,268 people who happened to come to hide into my hotel - Hutus and Tutsis. And none of them was killed. None of them was beaten in the hotel from the beginning to the end.

SUMMERS: From beginning to end, Rusesabagina is credited with keeping those 1,200-plus people safe through weeks of violence.

RUSESABAGINA: After the movie, "Hotel Rwanda," I became kind of famous.

SUMMERS: Fast-forward to present day and Rusesabagina's story has changed drastically. He hasn't lived in Rwanda since 1996 but still cares about his country and has spoken out about the government there.

RUSESABAGINA: I became an enemy. That experience was just like finding oneself in a hell where you are tortured.

SUMMERS: Rusesabagina says he was kidnapped, tried and imprisoned in Rwanda for two years and seven months. He was able to talk to his family once a week for five minutes.

RUSESABAGINA: They would talk to me, but they would talk in proverbs.

ANAISE KANIMBA: We knew that these phone calls were being listened to.

SUMMERS: That's Rusesabagina's daughter, Anaise Kanimba. He and his wife adopted her after her parents were believed to be killed in the genocide.

KANIMBA: So we had to speak in proverbs and in a way that he could try to understand.

SUMMERS: After intervention from the U.S. and other countries, Rusesabagina was eventually released. At the time, he says he electronically signed a letter promising not to criticize the government.

RUSESABAGINA: Once you are in hell, what can't you sign? You can sign anything.

SUMMERS: The reasons why he's decided to disregard that promise were a focus of my conversation with Rusesabagina and his daughter, Anaise Kanimba. And it began with a plea from his fellow prisoners.

RUSESABAGINA: They told me that - listen, Mr. Rusesabagina, you have been speaking for us. You have been the voice for the voiceless. Now you have seen how we have suffered, how we are being tortured. Now you are going out. Please be our voice. So I cannot shut up since I have a mission.

SUMMERS: I do have to ask for both of you, though, at this point, given what your family has been through, Paul, given what you personally went through, how safe do you feel today speaking out openly about the Rwandan government, including President Kagame himself?

RUSESABAGINA: What I am going to tell you is what I was telling all those directorate of military intelligence guys who would be torturing me. The only thing I am sure of is that one day I will die. But when this is supposed to happen, who is supposed to do it? Those are the things I do not know. But I believe that it will never happen a day, a minute, a second before the time determined by the Almighty God.

KANIMBA: And if I may add, I think, yes, it is very risky to speak up about what's happening in Rwanda because Rwanda practices transnational repression. When my sister and I and our family were advocating for our dad, my sister ended up having Pegasus on her phone. And this was researched through the Amnesty International team and other reporters. And I think it's a call to action for the international community not to let that happen, to protect those who are speaking for others, those who are defending democracy and human rights.

SUMMERS: If you speak to allies of President Kagame, many of them would argue that he has been responsible for shepherding an era of what they say is relative peace in the country, of what they say is improvement of economic advancement. How do you square those two things?

RUSESABAGINA: I would tell you that today you have two Rwandas. You have the Rwanda for the elite, the capital city of Kigali, and the other Rwanda, the other Rwanda where people are dying, being buried because of hunger. In the prison where I was, we were 18,500 people. People would eat just corn and beans and one meal which was just supplied every day at 11 a.m. Is that development?

KANIMBA: No. Yes, some of Rwanda's allies, and specifically President Kagame's allies in the West, do talk about the development of the country, but that is at the cost of the freedom of the people of Rwanda. If people cannot speak freely, all this work cannot be sustainable. And I would also call these allies of Paul Kagame not to undermine the ability of Rwandans to be able to choose their own rulers and still live in safety. And, you know, we shouldn't believe that we need to have somebody like Kagame in order to be safe. And I think they're taking away the agency of the Rwandan people to make that choice for them.

SUMMERS: Recognizing that you both are, of course, outside the country of Rwanda, do either of you see signs that the country is poised for change anytime soon?

KANIMBA: I believe, yes, the country is poised to change because the country is made by very active Rwandans who want to see a developed country, who want to bring the best to their country, who are working hard every single day. Our country can be better. And our people are there, and they're suffering today under the dictatorship or the authoritarian regime of Paul Kagame. But that doesn't mean that they cannot take ownership of their country and move it forward without this kind of leadership. And so I think, yeah, I mean, it's possible.

And I hope that I can go to Rwanda very soon and not fear that if I'm walking in the streets of Kigali, I can be put in jail. That is my dream and my dream to go back to this country that - where I was born. But today I cannot. And so I would love to be able to do that in the future and be able to tell you my perspective from inside Rwanda. But that's not possible. And I believe that my brothers and sisters who are in Rwanda, my compatriots, will find a way to let everybody else outside come back one day.

RUSESABAGINA: Well, I will tell you that Rwanda today is more or less a boiling volcano which can erupt anytime. Rwanda has got millions of people outside that country. That million or those millions of people are also willing to go back to their own homeland, and they can't. And in Rwanda, you've got some people - many people who have been silenced and others who are silencing them. So Rwanda is rather a boiling volcano which might erupt anytime.

SUMMERS: Paul Rusesabagina and Anaise Kanimba, thanks to both of you.

RUSESABAGINA: Thank you.

KANIMBA: Thank you very much, Juana.

SUMMERS: After our interview, we reached out to the Rwandan government for comment. Yolande Makolo, the government spokesperson, sent along this statement, which I'm reading in its entirety. "Rusesabagina lies consistently. He was never tortured. Everyone in Rwanda can say what they want, as long as it doesn't break the laws that govern all of us and that keep Rwandans safe," end quote.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a co-host of NPR's All Things Considered, alongside Ailsa Chang, Ari Shapiro and Mary Louise Kelly. She joined All Things Considered in June 2022.