Hotel Rwanda, and our complicity in genocide

In 2005 I reviewed Terry George’s superb film ‘Hotel Rwanda’ for the Morning Star. It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a hotel in the capital Kigali, during the Rwandan genocide. In hindsight, I think that a little background helps contextualise the importance of this film.

In 1994 a campaign of mass violence took place in Rwanda. It has been approximated that somewhere in the region of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in just over 100 days. Even at the time reports of mass-rapes, murders and torture were reaching the western press. But our representatives on the UN Security Council, the body set-up to protect humanity against such atrocities, demonstrated how the economic interests of the ruling classes outweighs the lives of the exploited class. I knew little about it at the time. It wasn’t until ten years later that I watched Terry George’s heartbreaking ‘Hotel Rwanda’ that I began to understand what had occurred while many of us were looking the other way.

In a more recent Democracy Now interview with Emily Willard of the National Security Archives, declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents are discussed that clearly demonstrate that a decision was taken by the USG at the time, based on economic costs, legal concerns and anticipated efficacy to wait until the violence was over and send aid, rather than attempt to stop the radio broadcasts inciting the slaughter. And it doesn’t stop there. The Clinton administration’s refusal to refer to the mass ethnic slaughter as genocide, which coincidentally would have demanded UN action, preferred to talk about ‘acts of genocide’ which could be ignored by the UN, and therefore the permanent members of the Security Council.

In the same Democracy Now segment, Professor Scott Straus, argues that it wasn’t just the US government, but the governments of the UK, France and Belgium, alongside senior officials at the UN, who were all reluctant to stop the genocide and worked the UN Security Council specifically to that end. As Professor Straus goes on to explain, even after several decades, the extent of the French government’s role and/or awareness, before during and after the genocide, is still subject to much debate and speculation.

The one thing we can say for sure, is that the Rwandan Genocide, and the role of our ‘leaders’ in it, is one of the most shameful examples in recent memory of the inhumanity of our current political systems. Free market democracy stood by and watched as hundreds of thousands of people were tortured, raped and butchered. Thankfully the makers of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ left us a constant reminder of what can happen when we allow our ‘leaders’ to decide the value of a human life.

The review was published by the Morning Star. I believe it has now been consigned to their archives. However to read it in full or to download a text version of the article please click through to the page.

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda by Terry George

First published by Morning Star on 8th March 2005

Blood on our hands

NICOLAS LALAGUNA asks if Hotel Rwanda is as far as the West will go to admitting its part in the bloody genocide.

Hotel Rwanda was finally brought to the attention of the world’s cinema-goers as it went head-to-head with the “best” that Hollywood can produce for best original screenplay, best supporting actress and best actor at the Oscars.

It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a hotel in Rwanda, who, amid the genocide, turned a plush Belgian-owned hotel into a refugee camp for those fleeing death squads.

This film is a perfect vehicle for what is arguably some of Don Cheadle’s and Sophie Okonedo’s best work to date.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with this sort of necessary and deeply resonant film, it finds itself competing against the high-budget big-name blockbusters.

Cheadle’s superb turn as Rusesabagina is up against off-the-shelf fare from the likes of Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio, while Okonedo, in her equally brilliant role as Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, faces high-profile Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman.

The saddest blow for Cheadle is in the timing of the film release. In any other year, he would not have found himself going up against Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles for best actor.

Hotel Rwanda delivers a deeply upsetting view of an island of sanctuary weathering the storms of the worst depths of human brutality.

Men, women, children and the elderly are all openly butchered in the streets by machete-wielding death squads in the direct view of United Nations peacekeepers.

Hotel Rwanda, which was released only 10 years after the actual Rwandan genocide, goes some way towards shining a spotlight on what occurred on the streets of Kigali and in the countryside of Rwanda, where it is estimated that between 800,000 and a million people were exterminated.

The film is very specifically focused on the story of Rusesabagina and avoids using the wider angle lens that would take in the Clinton and Bush administrations, the governments of John Major and Francois Mitterrand and the UN under Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In truth, any film-maker would find it near impossible to set the international scenery wider within the confines of a two-hour film and a Western-dominated media industry.

The world media has been consistent in laying the blame firmly at the door of the United Nations for its inaction to halt the genocide.

It is only now that we can begin to see how the United Nations general assembly is being blamed for the realpolitik of the security council.

The major members went further than simply turning a blind eye during the genocide. They were active in building the foundations for it and, once it was happening, allowing the atrocities to continue.

The history of Rwanda is not vastly different from the rest of the African continent.

After well over a century of interference from European imperialists, Rwanda found itself playing host to the nuclear superpowers fighting their cold war by proxy.

By 1990, blood-drenched Rwanda was being forced by the International Monetary Fund, under the
leadership of the US and the world’s richest nations, into a structural adjustment programme that froze government salaries and devalued the Rwandan franc.

The people of Rwanda were driven further into desperation and poverty.

Arms sales were approved by the French and British governments in the run-up to the genocide.

In the case of the French, it is believed, even after the UN embargo was applied, that our democratically elected governments in Europe gave the death squads the tools to do their job.

As the slaughter reached full speed, the UN security council, comprising the permanent five and, among others, Rwanda, argued semantics over the difference between genocide and acts of genocide.

The ethnic divisions of Hutu and Tutsi were created by the 19th-century imperial powers, the motivations were nurtured and weapons supplied by the 20th-century economic superpowers and, once the children were being hacked to death in their cots, the only global agency capable of stopping the genocide was undermined and made irrelevant by the aspirations of the world’s political elite.

Hotel Rwanda is a story that needed to be told.

It is entirely understandable how the limitations of the medium and the film industry stopped Terry
George, the director, from explaining fully such a complex and long story.

But, surely, after 10 years, we can start owning up to our part in the Rwanda tragedy.

If we are to avoid such atrocities, we need films like Hotel Rwanda to open a frank and honest discussion about international complicity in mass murders on this scale.