Are Colleges and Universities in North America Unwittingly Providing a Platform to a Tutsi Genocide Revisionist?

Posted: May 30, 2011 in Analysis
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Since 2004 in the United States and in Canada, Paul Rusesabagina, the man upon whom Don Cheadle’s character in Hotel Rwanda is based, has been celebrated as the Oskar Schindler of the Tutsi genocide.

In 2002, when Terry George, the film’s producer, sat down with him to write the script for the film, Rusesabagina was living in Belgium as an ordinary man.

Two years later when the film got three Oscar nominations, he was catapulted into prominence.

According to the film’s narrative and that of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography he co-wrote with Tom Zoellner, Rusesabagina saved 1268 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had taken refuge at the hotel he managed.

For that, he has amassed prestigious awards, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which put him in the company of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Simon Wiesenthal; the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award, which put him in the company of Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel; and the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award, which put him in the company of Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa.

Not surprisingly, he has become one of the most sought-after speakers in colleges and universities across the United States and Canada.

According to Tom Zoellner in the March 6, 2009 issue of The Lawrentian, a Lawrence University student newspaper, Rusesabagina had by then spoken at more than 200 colleges and universities in the United States alone.

At least two of the institutions in the United States where he has spoken (Loyola University Chicago and Gustavus Adolphus College) and one in Canada (University of Guelph) granted him honorary doctorates.

In November 2009, Boston University installed him as a Martin Luther King, Jr. Fellow.

Indeed, to denounce Rusesabagina as a revisionist of the Tutsi genocide – the very genocide upon which his reputation rests – would seem to be the ultimate irony. Yet he is, unequivocally.

Why college and university communities in North America have not taken note of this is mind-boggling. Perhaps it takes a Tutsi genocide survivor or a person who lost loved ones to the genocide simply because they happened to be Tutsi to decode Rusesabagina’s revisionist discourse.

On November 11, 2008, at Birmingham-Southern College, I, together with eight or so other people who, like me, had had relatives killed in the genocide simply because they were Tutsi, listened to him for one long hour as he narrated, with many distortions and omissions, the history that led to the genocide.

In one glaring distortion of Rwanda’s history of peonage, he said that for decades the minority Tutsi tribe did, with the complicity of Belgian colonialists, enslave the majority Hutu tribe.

In shock and disbelief I heard him prevaricate, “Hutu in Kinyarwanda means slave,” and added that Hutus who killed Tutsis in the genocide were striking back for the many years of their enslavement. Throughout the entire talk, not once did he use the phrases “the Tutsi genocide” or “the genocide against Tutsis,” preferring instead to use phrases like “the Rwandan genocide,” “the genocide in Rwanda,” or simply “the genocide.”

When he ended his speech, the more than 1000 students and faculty members in attendance gave him a long standing ovation while we – those of us who had lost relatives in the genocide – sat quietly in pain, a pain wrought by the irony of the moment: students and faculty unwittingly applauding a Tutsi genocide revisionist.

When it was time for the Q&A phase of the presentation, I tried hard to compose myself so as to sound coherent but failed miserably.

With a shaky voice I asked him if the “Rwandan genocide” he kept referring to in his speech meant the same thing as “the Tutsi genocide.” Instead of answering my question, he went into a 30-minute rambling tirade against the current Rwandan government, leaving no time for others in my group to ask their questions.

Since that night, I have reread An Ordinary Man and have watched Hotel Rwanda again to see if they contain any hints of his revisionism. To be sure, both the autobiography and the film call the genocide what it was: the genocide against Tutsis.

However, since becoming famous following the popular acclaim of the film, his discourse on the genocide has changed drastically, without much of his North American audience realizing it.

He now says that because the genocide claimed the lives of Hutus and Tutsis, it should not to be called the Tutsi genocide but rather the Rwandan genocide.

Indeed, that kind of claim is tantamount to saying that since the German Nazi government sought to exterminate certain German groups, for example persons with disabilities, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jewish genocide should be known by another name, say the German genocide.

What Rusesabagina does not take into account, and deliberately so, is the notion of intent – “intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” – as Article 2 of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states in its definition of a genocide.

The killing of Tutsis that started in April 1994, Rusesabagina should be reminded, was part of a government plan to wipe them off the face of Rwandan territory.

In Hotel Rwanda, which was produced before he adopted his revisionism, there is a scene that speaks to the premeditated nature of the killings. Early in the film, wooden crates full of machetes are accidentally discovered – machetes that the Hutu government had ordered from China to be used to exterminate all Tutsis in Rwanda.

What is particularly hurtful and heart-rending for those of us who lost loved ones to the genocide is that Rusesabagina, in his speeches and interviews, places responsibility of the genocide on Paul Kagame, the very man who led his troops to end it.

In an interview with Keith Harmon Snow, a freelance journalist known for his virulent denialism, and who has called the Tutsi genocide “a mythology,” Rusesabagina used the example of one Robert Kajuga, whom he claims is a Tutsi and yet he was not.

The undisputable truth in Rwanda is, Robert Kajuga, was a Hutu.

Indeed Kajuga was president of the infamous Interahamwe, as the Hutu militia was called, to support his claim. Here is an excerpt from the interview, with Snow’s editorial notes.

KHS: Was Robert Kajuga a Tutsi?

 PR: Yes, Kajuga was a Tutsi.

KHS: How can that be? The Interahamwe, according to the common portrayals of genocide in Rwanda, were a bunch of murderous Hutus with machetes…

PR: How could that be? That is a problem. Because Kagame had infiltrated the [Habyarimana’s] army [FAR], and the militias, everywhere; he [Kagame] had his own militia within a militia.

KHS: Are you saying that Robert Kajuga was one of those infiltrators?

PR: Among many others…

KHS: So you then say that Kagame had something to do with orchestrating what people know as “the genocide in Rwanda,” which was those now famous “100 days”—or three months as you call it—of killing.

PR: What do you think?

Clearly, using Kajuga’s Tutsi identity to absolve the extremist Hutu government of having carried out the genocide is equivalent to saying that since some of the kapos in Jewish concentration camps were Jews, the blame for the Holocaust should not be placed on the German Nazi government alone.

No, there is no irony in denouncing Rusesabagina as a Tutsi genocide revisionist. What is ironical is that he has been provided a platform, of all places in universities and colleges in the United States and Canada.

What is also ironical is that some of the universities and colleges where he has spoken have genocide studies programs whose faculty and students have not raised a finger to protest their institutions’ invitation of him.

Of course there has been an exception. Deborah E. Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of Denying the Holocaust, knows something about Rusesabagina’s revisionism.

In 2007 after she had heard him speak at her school, she wrote on her blog to decry what she called “a new form of [Tutsi] genocide denial.” She said, “What will surprise most readers of this blog – it certainly surprised me – is that one of the people who has been active in spreading this form of denial is Paul Rusesabagina.”

Surely, the colleges and universities that have invited and continue to invite Rusesabagina to speak on their campuses must not be aware that he is a Tutsi genocide revisionist, for if they knew, they would not provide him a platform.

Free speech should have its limits, even in academia. In 2007 when Columbia University invited Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, to speak on its campus, there was an uproar that was justified.

In some countries, for example Poland, Germany, and Austria, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by a prison sentence. David Irving, whom Deborah E. Lipstadt wrote about in Denying the Holocaust, served a prison sentence in Austria after pleading guilty to the crime.

In Rwanda, where Tutsi genocide denial is also a crime, Rusesabagina would have to answer for his revisionism in a court of law if he were to step in the country. Could Rusesabagina’s deliberately vague diction in his speeches on college campuses be the reason why his revisionism has not been decoded?

At Birmingham-Southern College where I heard him speak, he told his audience that “the best and worst weapons in life are our words.”

If, as he claims, he used words adeptly to ward off Hutu militia and military bent on killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had taken refuge at the hotel he managed, he is now using a three-word phrase, “the Rwandan genocide,” that only few in North America – and these include survivors and relatives of victims of the Tutsi genocide – can decode as denying that genocide.

  1. rwandanheart says:

    Uraho Tom! Excellent! This issue of Rusesabagina being invited to speak at our universites to spew his lies and hatred is something that totally infuriates me! If that genocide denier should ever be invited to one of the universities here in Manitoba I will be there “armed” with very tough questions and with my book by Alfred and Privat! I will enthusiastically show the book to each and every person in the audience! I will raise such a commotion that they may have to escort me from the venue!!! I am reading “Guns over Kigali” by Henry Kwami Anyidoho at the moment and as I was reading it the other day I was struck by a common thread in each and every book that I’ve read about Rwanda and her people (and there have been many!). PAUL RUSESABAGINA IS NOT EVEN MENTIONED IN ANY OF THEM AND HAS NEVER BEEN IDENTIFIED AS A HERO OF THE MILLES COLLINES! He, like his “autobiography” and the movie “Hotel Rwanda” is a man-made work of fiction! How on earth do we stop this insanity!!!