Calls from Rwandan jail: Rusesabagina family campaign for father’s release

Subject of Hotel Rwanda speaks to wife and children every Friday ahead of terrorism verdict

At their home in a quiet Brussels suburb Paul Rusesabagina's wife Tatiana and his youngest daughter Carine hover around a laptop waiting for a call to come through from Mageragere prison in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Since his shock arrest on terrorism charges last year, Fridays have become the focal point of every week in the family's life as each Friday Paul Rusesabagina gets to make a short phone call home.

While Tatiana and Carine wait for the call they are linked via Zoom to another daughter, Anaise, who is in Washington DC, also waiting. It can come through any time, though a pattern of sorts has emerged and the family knows to expect it at some point in the afternoon. “We have to be careful not to go to the bathroom at the wrong time or we will miss it,” Carine explains with a laugh.

The family's lives have been turned upside down since August 2020, when Paul Rusesabagina boarded a flight to the small African nation of Burundi, he believed, for speaking engagements with church groups. Instead of landing in Burundi, however, the private jet was diverted to Kigali where he was arrested and dragged from the plane, blindfolded.

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Days later he was charged with several offences including terrorism and kidnapping. It was one of the few times Mr Rusesabagina had stepped foot on Rwandan soil since leaving the country in 1996 for Belgium, and subsequently, the US following multiple death threats. In an affidavit that emerged via his Rwandan based lawyer, he claims he was tortured in the days after his arrest.

For much of the past year Mr Rusesabagina has been kept in solitary confinement. The only glimpses his family have had of him are his court appearances streamed live on YouTube. He appears dressed in the bright pink prison uniform for so long synonymous with post-genocide prisoners in Rwanda.

Holywood film

Magaeragere jail is a 45-minute drive from the Hotel des Milles Collines – the so-called Hotel Rwanda of the Hollywood film that in 2004 brought the story of Paul Rusesabagina to a global audience. Directed by Belfast's Terry George, the film tells how, as manager of the Milles Collines during the 1994 genocide, he saved the lives of more than 1,200 Hutus and Tutsis by helping them to hide out in the hotel.

In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then US president George Bush; in the view of many Rwandans in exile this very public honouring of Rusesabagina for his humanitarian work is where his troubles escalated.

In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide he became an outspoken critic of the repressive tactics of Rwandan president Paul Kagame and his government. He didn't feel it was safe to return to Rwanda and according to his family he would not have willingly entered the country.

Back in the family home on Friday afternoon the phone rings and the family picks up; 'Hello, Papa?'

“You should never outshine Paul Kagame,” Carine said ruefully as she explained the impact of her father’s very public opposition to Rwanda’s leader. Her view is echoed in a groundbreaking new book, Do Not Disturb, by journalist Michela Wrong, which sets out in extraordinary detail the extent of the Rwandan government’s ruthless targeting of its enemies.

In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide Mr Kagame was beloved of guilt-ridden western governments, who viewed him as a strong leader who could rebuild Rwanda with the help of billions of dollars in aid. Now that view sits uneasily alongside emerging evidence of an authoritarian government that hunts down its enemies at home and abroad.

In the case of Mr Rusesabagina, the government has pursued him relentlessly, accusing him of supporting the FLN, the armed wing of Rwandan opposition groups. In a 2018 video, widely circulated by the Rwandan government, he was filmed stating: “The time has come to use any means possible to bring about change”. His family and supporters say the comments have been taken out of context and his lawyers claim there is no evidence to support any terrorism charges against him.

Lives on hold

Since his arrest the Rusesabagina family have put their own lives on hold – in the case of daughters, Carine and Anaise, giving up their jobs to campaign for their father’s release. From Brussels and the US, they lobby politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mr Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, shuttles between continents heading up the campaign. His sons Trésor and Roger, both based in the US, are often on the weekly calls too. His older daughters, Elys and Diane, interrupt their working days on Fridays to join in. Both women were teenagers during the genocide and have clear and disturbing memories of it, but they admit that until their father’s arrest they had managed to put those memories behind them. “This has brought all of it back to us,” Diane said.

Back in the family home on Friday afternoon the phone rings and the family picks up; “Hello, Papa?”. It’s a clear line and Mr Rusesabagina greets his family warmly. His voice is calm and strong and as the conversation unfolds a prison guard can be heard in the background.

For the next 14 minutes they exchange news. Tatiana smiles with relief to hear that he has got his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Anaise and Carine tell him the good news that 41 US senators and members of Congress have signed a letter to secretary of state Anthony Blinken, calling for his safe return to the US and expressing concern over the "extrajudicial means" used by the Rwandan government to detain him.

Paul says he is very pleased to hear it and urges them to continue the pressure. He tells them how he is now mixing with more prisoners and that he even knows one of those he has met, an old school friend. Afterwards Tatiana confesses that while mixing with other prisoners is very good for his spirits at the same time it worries her, “That’s why I told him be careful, don’t think they are friends.”

After the excitement of the phone call the room falls silent again; the Friday phone call is over and they must wait another seven days before hearing from him again. They will have just one more phone call before August 20th, when the verdict in the Paul Rusesabagina terrorism trial will be delivered in Kigali and his family will learn his fate.