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opinion | Paul Rusesabagina

Rwandans can’t remain silent on human rights abuses

Children played in the village of Mbyo, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.

Phil MOORE/AFP/Getty Images

Children played in the village of Mbyo, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province.

I wish I could be in Kigali. This month especially, I wish I could be in Kigali for the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I wish I could be in Kigali every other day because it is my home and I miss it. Sadly, I was not invited and I am not welcome.

Twenty years ago, I spent the days of genocide as a hotel manager, sheltering as many people as I could at the Hotel Milles Collines. I spent those long days and nights desperately trying to reach the outside world and to keep everyone in my care alive. I believed that if the international community heard what was going on in Rwanda, they would come and save us from slaughter. I called and called and no one came. I knew that at any time I could be dead and that the 1,268 people who sought shelter at the hotel could be dead as well. But somehow we survived.

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After the genocide, we mourned our family, friends, and neighbors who had been killed. I vowed to help rebuild my country — to make certain to tell the international community that “never again” means never again for Rwanda, for Darfur, for Cambodia, for Syria, for Bosnia, and for every other place on earth. I hoped that if I talked about the genocide, I could ensure that it would not happen again. I educate tens of thousands of people every year about the genocide and how the world needs to prevent another one. But I am worried about my native country.

In Rwanda, forgiveness and reconciliation have stalled. People are afraid to speak. I left Kigali in 1996, for fear of my own life. I still live with fear. Because I have spoken out against injustice, human rights violations, and a totally closed political space, I can’t go home to Kigali to mourn our losses and celebrate our gains.

There have been many gains since the genocide. Today, Kigali has a beautiful, glittering skyline. Children have greater access to education. Roads are clean. People aren’t getting killed in the streets. But these gains do not mean that we should stand silent about human rights in Rwanda.

Skulls of genocide victims were laid out in a church in Nyamata, Rwanda, on March 24.

Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

Skulls of genocide victims were laid out in a church in Nyamata, Rwanda, on March 24.

I did not stand silent then when the Hutu militias were killing innocent civilians. I cannot stand silent today when the current Rwandan government imprisons or assassinates its political opponents. I can’t stand silent when Rwanda sends proxy armies into the Democratic Republic of Congo to chase Hutu rebels who then come back with conflict minerals to line their own pockets.

Today, the genocide memorials in Rwanda are tourist attractions filled with bones. I wish that instead of glorifying the death of my fellow Rwandans, we had memorials to glorify the memory of their lives. My foundation intends to set up a virtual Genocide Memorial so that survivors can post memories of their lives before genocide and tributes to the friends and relatives that they lost.

But the best commemoration would be to gather all Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi, around a table and conduct a truth and reconciliation process, so that we can walk forward together in sustainable peace. I want all of us, young and old, to be able to understand one another and to forgive.

Rwandans need a government that recognizes the importance of power sharing. When a small group of elite Hutus oppressed the majority of Rwandans, the situation did not last. When a small group of elite Tutsis oppress the majority of Rwandans, the situation cannot last. Rwanda must change so that we do not relive the worst of our past.

More than anything, I wish I were in Kigali — not a Potemkin Village Kigali, but a free Kigali. That is my wish.

Paul Rusesabagina is the former general manager of the Hotel Milles Collines whose story is told in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” He is also the founder and president of the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation.
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