By Karen Langley
Self-described survivors of the Rwandan genocide demonstrated downtown yesterday against the decision of a local human rights group to honor the Kigali hotelier portrayed as a hero in the film Hotel Rwanda.
The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, led by Katrina Swett and named for her father, the late congressman Tom Lantos, is scheduled to present an award next week to Paul Rusesabagina, who is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide by providing sanctuary in the Hotel des Mille Collines.
The dozen or so people who held signs yesterday at the corner of Pleasant Street and State Street challenged that narrative, with some claiming Rusesabagina did not save lives and even denies the genocide of the Tutsi people. Organizer Gerard Sefuku, who said his father and siblings were killed in the conflict, said Rusesabagina minimizes the genocide by saying both Tutsi and Hutu people died.
“Everywhere he goes, he claims Rwanda didn’t go through a genocide, it went through a war,” Sefuku said.
Sefuku, who owns a collection agency in South Bend, Ind., said people survived in the hotel because it was under the protection of the United Nations, not because of the actions of its manager.
Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation, said she believes the protest was prompted by the government of Rwanda in response to claims Rusesabagina has made of political oppression and human rights abuses in his country. She said the Lantos Foundation decided to honor Rusesabagina for his actions during the genocide but since has been impressed by his outspokenness about conditions in the country today.
“He could have just remained a respected humanitarian,” Swett said. “But because he has chosen to speak out, he’s become a target.”
She dismissed claims that Rusesabagina denies the genocide, saying an acknowledgement that Hutus died during the conflict no more minimizes the Tutsi genocide than an admission that Catholics and Roma died during the Holocaust minimizes the attempt to destroy the Jews. Swett’s father was the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. Congress.
Swett stood outside the foundation’s offices yesterday afternoon, speaking with the protesters. When Alexis Defuro, a young man wearing a suit, approached to tell her that he had been thrown out of the hotel during the genocide, she expressed sympathy for his experiences but skepticism for his charges.
“It seems very curious these attacks only began when Paul Rusesabagina began expressing his concerns and speaking out against the policies of the Rwandan government,” she said to him.
Jean Paul Turayishimye, who is originally from Rwanda, traveled from his home in Massachusetts to support the award for Rusesabagina. Turayishimye said he lost two brothers in the genocide.
“I wish they were lucky to know where Mille Collines was when Rusesabagina was the manager,” he said. “It’s ridiculous and absurd to see people campaigning against him.”
Turayishimye, who works as a court interpreter, said he also believes the protests were organized by the Rwandan government.
Sefuku said the government had no role in organizing the demonstration. But he said Rusesabagina has damaged the country by criticizing it as it moves away from the time of the genocide.
“Him going around and claiming these claims, it hurts us,” he said.
One of the protestors, August Mbanda, a Dover resident who left Rwanda in 2006, said he believes Rusesabagina did save people but now is trying to make money from the story. “It’s like a business,” he said.
“For them to give him the award, it’s okay, but they should dig down and find out the truth,” Mbanda said.
The office of the Lantos Foundation has received phone calls and emails about the award since mid-October, after it was announced. It will be presented to Rusesabagina next Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Since its establishment in 2009, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize has been awarded to the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate.
In response to the protest, Rusesabagina, who now lives in Belgium, released a statement saying he would not watch human rights violations and political oppression in Rwanda without protesting.
“I was not silent when my family, friends and countrymen were being killed and tortured during the genocide in 1994,” he said. “Why would I be silent now when the torturing and killing is happening again? My goal is to try to awaken the world about the dormant volcano of violence that is erupting again in Rwanda.”
Rusesabagina joined in protests of appearances by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Chicago in June and in Paris in September. He has argued that Kagame represses political opposition and that Rwanda has sponsored violence in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. His organization, the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, says his speeches on the Rwandan genocide are frequently targeted by allies of the Rwandan government who attempt to have the events canceled.
(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or firstname.lastname@example.org