Paul Rusesabagina Speaks Out on His Captivity in Rwanda


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With his hands and legs trussed up and his mouth gagged, Rwanda’s most prominent dissident was relieved when after two days in detention, his blindfold was finally taken off.

Standing in front of him, blocking the blinding light, were two senior Rwandan government officials, he said, who promised to free him quickly if he began cooperating. He said that they promised him any government post he wanted — an ambassadorship, a ministerial position, just not the presidency — if he disclosed the foreign governments and accomplices they suspected were backing his rebellion.

“You can get anything else you want,” Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier whose heroism in the face of the genocide in 1994 inspired the Oscar-nominated movie “Hotel Rwanda,” recalled that the officials told him. “It is you to make a choice.”

But Mr. Rusesabagina knew he didn’t have a choice.

Instead, that episode just days after he was captured in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, in August 2020, began two and half years of imprisonment that brought international scrutiny to the landlocked nation in Central Africa. Mr. Rusesabagina was tortured and denied medication, he said, then charged with terrorism and sentenced to 25 years in prison in a trial that drew global condemnation.

In an interview with The New York Times, his first since he was released from prison in March in a deal brokered by the United States, Mr. Rusesabagina described the 939 days he spent in detention, explained his relationship with a pastor who lured him back to Rwanda, and denied accusations that he intended to overthrow the Rwandan government with violence. Some of his claims could not be independently verified, and contradicted things he’d said earlier.

The government of Rwanda did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Mr. Rusesabagina was breaking his silence despite having written a letter seeking pardon from President Paul Kagame last year and promising to retire “in quiet reflection” if released. Instead, Mr. Rusesabagina, 69, said he would begin speaking out yet again against Mr. Kagame, whom he accused of turning Rwanda into a “protected private property.”

“They expected me to be silent. To be a good guy and behave,” Mr. Rusesabagina said last weekend at his home in a gated community in San Antonio, where he moved his family in 2009 after he said his life was threatened by Rwandan agents in Belgium.

“No one can silence me that easily,” Mr. Rusesabagina said calmly, surrounded by posters made for his homecoming in April and balloons from his recent birthday party.

In time for Independence Day in Rwanda on July 1, he released a video proclaiming that Rwandans were still not free under Mr. Kagame’s regime, and that many political prisoners are given sham trials like his. He urged the international community to stop working with Mr. Kagame, likening it to working with the apartheid government of South Africa. Rwanda has been striking deals with Britain and other European countries to take in migrants they don’t want.

“The whole country is a prison,” said Mr. Rusesabagina in the interview.

Mr. Rusesabagina’s re-emergence opens a new chapter in the rivalry between him and Mr. Kagame, a once-rebel leader who has ruled Rwanda for three decades.

Even as he attracted Western donors and advanced his nation in the aftermath of the genocide, Mr. Kagame, 65, has tightened his grip by jailing critics, targeting opponents abroad and recently, purging his military leadership. For years, he accused Mr. Rusesabagina of fabricating the heroic story portrayed in “Hotel Rwanda.”

Timothy P. Longman, a professor at Boston University and the author of two books on Rwanda, said that Mr. Rusesabagina “probably has more of a platform than anyone else,” because of his prominence and the international attention to his case.

However, Mr. Longman said in a telephone interview on Friday, “I am not optimistic for radical change in Rwanda anytime soon.”

Mr. Rusesabagina’s improbable journey back to Rwanda began in mid-2019 when a lawyer friend, Innocent Twagiramungu, introduced him to a pastor from Burundi, Constantin Niyomwungere.

The three met several times in Belgium, where Mr. Rusesabagina, a U.S. permanent resident, has citizenship and another home. Mr. Rusesabagina said that the pastor wanted him to visit Burundi to talk to his churches about reconciliation and human rights.

Mr. Niyomwungere could not be reached for comment. Mr. Twagiramungu did not reply to text messages.

But as plans for the trip got underway, Mr. Rusesabagina said he grew wary of the pastor.

He said the pastor asked him to fly to Dubai and board a rented private jet alone. Mr. Rusesabagina refused and insisted they fly together.

The pastor then told him not to inform his family about where he was going. But Mr. Rusesabagina did anyway, first calling his wife and then texting his daughter when he landed in Dubai. He promised to inform them when he landed in Burundi.

As they boarded the private jet, Mr. Rusesabagina said he asked the pilot and the flight attendant separately about their final destination. Both said they were going to Burundi. (Mr. Rusesabagina and his family are suing the private airline, GainJet, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

As the plane took off just before midnight Dubai time, he said he was handed a drink.

“I slept deeply,” Mr. Rusesabagina said. “I believe there was something in that glass of champagne.”

He woke up as the flight touched down, he said, and glimpsed Kigali’s familiar airport tower. “I just said to myself that this is the end of my life,” he said.

When security forces bound him and he screamed for help, he said the crew stood by and watched. “My principle is to suspect all, to never trust anyone,” he said. “But still, I fell for it.”

In a trial that began soon after, Rwandan officials accused Mr. Rusesabagina of leading an opposition coalition whose armed wing killed civilians inside Rwanda, and planning to collaborate with other militant groups in neighboring Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pastor Niyomwungere testified against Mr. Rusesabagina in court. The pastor has said that he agreed to serve as a government informant to avoid prosecution himself, and that he had come to deplore Mr. Rusesabagina’s alleged involvement in terrorist attacks.

In the interview, Mr. Rusesabagina said he was no longer the head of the opposition coalition when he was detained. He also said the coalition had expelled the opposition political party that had an armed wing in June 2020 because it had not informed the coalition of its activities.

He had professed in court that he had given 20,000 euros to the armed group — known as the National Liberation Front. In the interview, he said he had agreed to say that only after being tortured. “I just wanted to get out of prison,” he said.

The Rwandan government circulated as evidence against him a 2018 video of Mr. Rusesabagina proclaiming that change in Rwanda had to come by “any means possible.”

During his jailhouse interview with The Times in 2020, Mr. Rusesabagina said he could not recall ever making such a video. This time, he acknowledged making that video, but said those words were taken out of context: “My principle is to fight not with the guns, but with words.”

Mr. Rusesabagina said he was denied his blood pressure and heart medication in prison and held in isolation for 23 hours a day. He was prohibited from talking to other prisoners, he said, though some left him notes in the bathroom wishing him well. When a friend sent him a rosary blessed by Pope Francis, prison officials confiscated it; they returned it the night he was released, he said.

“Kagame says that pressure cannot work against him,” he said. “But I know pressure worked. It is not because of kindness that I am out.”

For now, Mr. Rusesabagina is trying to get back to his normal life.

He attends physiotherapy sessions, hosts visitors from around the world and devours everything that his wife, Taciana, cooks‌. (His favorite meal: a rare steak served with red wine‌.)

On an afternoon drive, as he passed rolling terrain dotted with cactuses and mesquite, Mr. Rusesabagina said he was happy to come back to San Antonio — a long way from the cool, verdant hills of Rwanda.

“San Antonio is home,” he said. “But it will never be Rwanda.”


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