BETWEEN IMPOSING A HERO AND LISTENING TO THE TRUTH OF THE VICTIMS

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Minnesota, November 15, 2011

Open Letter To Katrina Lantos Swett,

President, The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice

Dear Ms. Lantos Swett,

Tomorrow, in a few hours, you will award your Foundation’s prize to Mr. Paul Rusesabagina. In a press release dated 1 November 2011, you present your rationale in these terms:
“Paul Rusesabagina is widely hailed as a hero of the 1994 Genocide. As a hotel manager during the time of the conflict, Rusesabagina was able to provide shelter to 1,268 people, both Hutus and Tutsis, ultimately saving them from a certain death.”

There is no one who can legitimately dictate to whom you should award your prize—and to do that is far from the intention of Rwandan survivors. By the same token, however, no one has the right to impose on the survivors a savior. However, your choice of Rusesabagina presents a problem. It is not certain that his actions during the genocide, and especially his actions and words after the genocide, are compatible with your Foundation. There is nothing heroic , for example, in charging money to the people hidden in the hotel for their rooms, as the survivors have always stated. Yet, in your response to the survivors, you nonchalantly persist: “Hi everyone. We appreciate you taking an interest in the 2011 Lantos Prize, but our decision stands…Thanks again for your interest…”

You are, of course, free to make your own decisions. However, the link that you draw to the Tutsi genocide leads me to cite Yolande Mukagasana, a Tutsi survivor and author of numerous testimonies who was present at the hotel, and who said: “We know our saviors, and Rusesabagina isn’t one of them.” Thus, you are treading on contested and dangerous ground in disregarding the testimonies of survivors who “know their saviors.” It essentially imposes a savior on Tutsi survivors, even when it has neither the right nor the authority to speak in the survivors’ name. Secondly, the dismissal of the victims calls into question your foundation’s commitment to honoring the victims and survivors of genocide, yet as Dr Wandia Njoya, a Kenyan professor observes, “a foundation in honor of a survivor of Nazi labor camps… should appreciate the importance of truth in a matter as grave as genocide.” Your refusal to recognize the complexity of the Tutsi genocide pushed Dr Njoya to charge that the foundation’s choice of Rusesabagina reflects “the racist attitude that presents African issues as lacking complexity” because “when it comes to Africa, the answers are obvious.” (http://jewishinfonews.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/rwanda-rusesabagina-an-imposed-hero/;http://www.zeleza.com/blogging/african-affairs/rusesabagina-imposed-hero)

Similarly, it is difficult to avoid recalling former French president François Mitterrand’s statement: “in these countries, genocide is not important.”

In your first message, you write that you consider Rusesabagina’s “actions to be truly heroic,” which you later expound as the money Rusesabagina “needed to feed the 1200 people living in the hotel and to bribe the ever murderous gangs that prowled outside the hotel gates.” Once more, what you consider to be “heroic” does not in any case include the survivors who were at the Hôtel des Milles Collines. In addition to General Dallaire who commanded the UN forces, there are individuals who were at the hotel who can testify to Rusesabagina’s actions during the genocide were hardly “heroic.”

Some might wonder about taking money from survivors and numerous dubious actions, and even questioning the meaning of the genocide in several Rusesabagina public lectures. Rusesabagina concedes today that he took money from survivors but to bribe perpetrators, but in April 3, 2008, before the District Judge in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, he appeared as a defense witness of four perpetrators and claimed that “No one had any money to pay. They were fleeing with nothing”. Rusesabagina recognized anyway that he requested people to sign “guarantees of payment”. We can question whether the threat and the obligation to sign “guarantees of payment” consist of bribing murderers. (https://umuvugizi.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/rusesabagina-a-genocide-denier-proud-of-being-a-friend-of-genocidaires)

Those of us who did not have “Allied Forces” during the genocide, “we know our saviors,” to quote Mukagasana. We know who stopped the genocide; we know who saved human lives at the Sainte Famille church in June 16, 1994, and elsewhere. We know who challenged the fate, like in Greek mythology, in transforming a “major handicap into momentum, into enthusiasm for reinventing the (Rwandan) nation”.  But for us the question of survivors is not knowing who saved them, but allowing survivors to tell their stories and to tell the world that everyone, even those who perpetrate genocide, has the right to live. It is in that spirit that Rwanda decided to abolish capital punishment in 2007.

In your second press release dated on Kristalnacht, the 9th November, it seems to me there is an unfortunate conflation of the question of Rusesabagina and survivors with an attack on the Rwandan government. I don’t question your right to express yourself about Rwanda as you see fit. But this point of view is not appropriate especially for the history of a prize which includes the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, given the ongoing concern and protests of Rwandans all over the world who feel offended by a “savior” who is not a savior to them, and moreover, has been imposed on them by a Hollywood film, and now, sadly, through this prize.

It is surprising to see that every voice challenging Rusesabagina is dismissed as “manufactured protests” by the Rwandan President and is described as an act of “censorship, intimidation and even violence.” By whom? The Rwandan survivors have neither money, nor power, nor media, nor lobby to make their voices heard. They are aware of real “censorship” and “intimidation” from these who are suppressing their truth, silencing their voices we hear from far.

But even as the world cannot hear these survivors’ voices, you still reproach them for using simple means – a small peaceful protest.  Listen to other survivors please Ms. Lantos Swett, as you did to your father, in whose honor you have created this award. Listen to them and not to those such as Rusesabagina who dictate a false reading of the Tutsi Genocide. Perhaps the crime of Tutsi survivors is essentially a crime of lese-majesty: they dare to testify of a genocide that calls to question the final decision of imposing again to them a savior on September 16th. Do not let pride be your guide.

You fault the petitioners for not having reacted after the release of Oscar-nominated filmHotel Rwanda,” or after President Bush awarded to Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There are many other events to which they also did not react. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that survivors of the genocide are not critics of fictional films. In addition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is intended to recognize “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” which may not necessarily have a direct implication for the genocide against the Tutsi.

Your prize, in contrast, interests Tutsi survivors for many reasons.  Why do they address their concerns to you? You recall on many occasions that you are a “child of Holocaust survivors,” that the prize is in the memory of “the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress” and that Rusesabagina saved survivors. It may be the case that Tutsi survivors are wrong in assuming that their voices find an echo in you considering your Holocaust heritage. How would you and others sharing your heritage react to such an imposed hero, one whose actions are clearly contested by the survivors who suffered so terribly?

And when you add that the petitioners “accuse Paul of denying the genocide when in fact he has devoted his life to telling the awful story of Rwanda’s genocide and working to achieve genuine peace and reconciliation.” Herein lies a contradiction. On one hand you defend Rusesabagina on the basis of his work after the genocide, yet on the other, you explain, that you “originally chose Paul Rusesabagina as the Lantos Prize recipient purely based on his heroic actions during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, not for his work since then through the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation.”

There is no doubt that Rusesabagina still constantly revises the history of the genocide against the Tutsi. Many times, he returns to the theory that perpetrators were victims who had left Byumba because of the war in 1990. In 1997, he stated in an interview that “we have to call it genocide, because we can never change it. This genocide designation has been decided by the Security Council.” And worst of all, in the same interview, he finished by affirming that there was genocide against Hutus and Tutsis committed by the Tutsis (sic!). I am curious to know to what extent you agree with Rusesabagina. Let’s suppose that Rusesabagina has saved people, does this give him the right to spit on the memory of victims?

To impose Rusesabagina as a hero, a title that he uses more and more to excuse the perpetrators, some of which are his friends, is an act of forcibly injecting the Stockholm syndrome into the survivors so that they will admire their torturers. Awarding Rusesabagina and proclaiming him hero consists to cover “truth of survivors” with a shroud. Elie Wiesel, a previous recipient of the Lantos Prize, shares with you the memory of the Holocaust, and also shares with the Tutsi survivors “memory in dialogue”. Condemning the simplistic theory that Tutsi leaders could have been responsible for their own catastrophe, Wiesel said in September 2009, that such action “is exactly what the Anti-Semites frequently do: they make the victims responsible for their unhappiness. And that to me is morally deplorable and historically regrettable.”

In simply removing the reference to genocide in the honor that you want to give to Rusesabagina, the debate will be closed. This is aside from the fact that I would have wished to have read in your declarations some reference to the “genocide against Tutsi” (a misnomer, as it was not the Rwandan genocide, just as it was not the German genocide) and to learn that you have accepted to meet with the President of the Association of the Rwandan Survivors,Ibuka (Remember), Mr Jean-Pierre Dusingizimungu. In conclusion, to you and to everyone of good will, I would like to borrow Elie Wiesel’s response to Pierre Péan in hopes that what is true for others is true for the Tutsi people:

“What my generation has also learned is that, in every tragic event, it is the truth of the victims which should be privileged. This was true in other times, in times of darkness and of malediction, and this will always be true for Rwanda where the victims are the Tutsis.”

Sincerely,

Jean-Pierre Karegeye, PhD

Director, Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center/Kigali-Rwanda

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