Hannah Wood reviews Hotel Rwanda
Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, at the time of the 1994 genocide. It is the story of one man’s personal courage and determination to save as many people as he could in the face of the horrors of genocidal massacres all around him.
The role of Rusesabagina is powerfully and movingly portrayed by Cheadle and doubtless this film will bring the events of April-June 1994 in Rwanda to the attention of many, many people who paid little attention at the time. Recent surveys have shown that knowledge of the Holocaust amongst young people in Britain is at best patchy. It seems likely that knowledge of events in Rwanda is worse.
Most of the killings took place over a period of around six weeks; the Rwandan population in 1994 was estimated to be a little less than eight million, and somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million died. The main victims were the minority Tutsi people, killed by extremist Hutu militia and large parts of the Hutu population organised to wipe out the so-called “cockroaches” — Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
In the face of this horror, Rusesabagina, described as “an African Schindler”, managed to shelter over 1,000 refugees in the Hotel des Milles Collines. He used his contacts in the army and police, bribery with whiskey, beer and cash, to keep the interahamwe militias away.
The film doesn’t offer any real reasons as to why the genocide occurred, other than one rather throwaway remark about people being mad and angry. Its description of the Hutu and Tutsis being “created” by the Belgian colonists is likewise over-simplistic.
In pre-colonial Rwanda the minority Tutsi were generally the rulers, but only a minority of Tutsi held any real power and wealth; the majority of so-called “petits Tutsi” had little more privilege than their Hutu neighbours.
The Belgian colonists used the Tutsi as their allies, promoted them and created a “scientific” myth about their origins which “explained” their superiority over the Hutu. The Belgians also insisted on putting “ethnicity” on identity cards so that people could no longer move between groups as had previously been possible.
But when the Belgians left, they left power in the hands of some Hutu who took their “revenge” on the Tutsi. During the years that followed, the Tutsi suffered various forms of official discrimination and were effectively barred from most areas of public life; they also suffered from sporadic attacks and violence.
The immediate political background to the 1994 genocide was the gradual disintegration of the regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana. His plane was shot down on 6 April 1994, and that triggered the start of the genocide. He had been the dictator of Rwanda since a coup in 1973. Under increasing pressure to democratise, he had found in the Hutu supremacists useful allies. Facing the rebel army of the RPF (mainly formed from the children of Rwandan Tutsi exiles living in Uganda), Habyarimana was whipping up hate against the Tutsis in an increasingly desperate attempt to hang onto power.
The specifics of Rwandan society — where tight social control and unquestioning obedience to those in charge was the norm — meant that many, many ordinary Hutu were co-opted (more or less willingly) into the murder of the Tutsis.
The film does not show this background, but it’s hard to imagine how such a history could be told in a film. However the story it does tell, is in all important aspects a true story (as related in Philip Gourevitch’s book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families).
It is part of the particular horror of the Rwandan genocide, that it involved vast swathes of society in the killing — people murdered their next door neighbours. But it also makes all the more extraordinary the actions of someone like Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu with a Tutsi wife, Tatiana (movingly played by Sophie Okonedo). His wife being Tutsi is not on its own an explanation — many Hutus with Tutsi relatives (intermarriage was not uncommon) took part in the genocide.
The fact that the UN abandoned the Rwandans to their fate is shown in the film by the rather clumsy use of the character of Colonel Oliver (played by Nick Nolte). Colonel Oliver has two roles – he fills in the gaps in the story by giving at least a little background to the Rwandan situation, and he illustrates the impotence of the UN contingent. Whilst international intervention on its own would not have been a solution, and they would probably have managed to make some other mess of it, it is no good thing that the UN stood by and did nothing whilst nearly one million people died.
Rusesabagina’s story is worth telling — it offers little in the way of answers, but the events of Rwanda in 1994 should be remembered, and when people say “never again” they should mean it, and make it happen. And the courage of an ordinary man, who did what he could in the face of such horror, is inspiring.