In 1990, a war began in Rwanda that would have devastating consequences for the country and millions of its citizens. Known as the Rwandan Civil War, this conflict was fought by the Rwandan Armed Forces, who represented the country’s government, and a rebel group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Sparked by the long-burning embers of colonialization, this conflict was primarily a battle between ethnic groups–the Hutu and the Tutsi. The war would last four years and cause massive casualties amongst citizens and civilians.
During the height of the conflict, forces associated with the government began planning, then executing, a massacre of the Tutsi people. An estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan citizens were killed in 100 days in 1994–roughly 70% of whom were Tutsi. In addition to the killings, 500,000 women were raped during the genocide, leaving an entire group of people traumatized for decades.
After key political figures during the war were assassinated, Hutu extremists in the government organized the massacres. However, a majority of the murders were committed by regular citizens in the countryside and remote areas throughout the country. During this time, families were torn apart, villages and towns were destroyed, and a majority of the country was left in shambles.
The genocide–and war–would finally come to an end just a few months after the slaughter started, but the ramifications lived on long afterwards. The Rwandan Patriotic Front won the war in July 1994, and after obtaining power in the country, the soldiers punished anyone who participated in the massacre. Today, the country has two holidays dedicated to the mourn the losses of the genocide. It is also a criminal offense in Rwanda to deny or obscure the harsh realities of the genocide.
As a result of the appalling genocide, various nations around the world came together to form the International Criminal Court. This organization prosecutes individuals who are responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. In an effort to prevent future massacres such as the Rwandan Genocide, or bringing agressors to justice, the court has the remained a permanent fixture in our world.
However, during the actual genocide, the Tutsi people were left scattered and afraid as they tried to seek refuge. Some were lucky enough to find United Nations refugee camps, others sought the famed Hôtel des Mille Collines, an inn owned by a Hutu man named Paul Rusesabagina. Any Tutsi who checked into the hotel was offered protection from Hutu extremists.
An adaptation of these events was covered in the critically-acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda. The movie was praised for its portrayal of the genocide’s devastating effects and for uncovering the political corruption in the country. The film also propelled Rusesabagina to fame, causing people around the world to view him as a humanitarian on the level of Oskar Schindler.
However, in the memoir Inside the Hotel Rwanda, author Edouard Kayihura goes against the notion that Rusesabagina was an uncomplicated heroic figure. A Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, Kayihura checked into the Hôtel des Mille Collines in order to receive refuge from the violence. During his time there, Kayihura claims that Rusesabagina used the crisis for monetary gain from people on both sides of the conflict.
Throughout his story, Kayihura and other refugees offer testimonies that question Rusesabagina’s benevolence. Examples include Rusesabagina threatening to kick refugees out of the hotel if they did not pay, in addition to reprimanding guests who used supplies in the hotel without paying for them.
In this excerpt from Inside the Hotel Rwanda, Kayihura recounts the night that Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed in a plane after being shot down by unknown assailants. In this chilling account, Kayihura discusses the tension he felt on his ride back home as Hutu extremists demanded the killing of Tutsis in retribution for the President’s death.
Read an excerpt from Inside the Hotel Rwanda below, then download the book.
After work on Wednesday, April 6, 1994, I found myself in the Café Rion in Nyamirambo, Rwanda, about 10 miles from midtown Kigali, our nation’s capital. An African Cup of Nations soccer match played on the television set but, as much as I enjoy the game, I could barely watch it. Instead I found my heart beating rapidly, energized by an ever-growing yet murky fear. Many denizens of the café were feeling good and cheering, clapping their hands when a player did well. With each passing moment I felt sicker and sicker to my stomach, unable to drink soda or even water. Maybe, I thought, all Tutsi were feeling the same dread that was gripping me that night.
I do not claim to be clairvoyant, but I felt that a national anxiety that had been building for days, weeks, and months was coming to a head. At 8:20 P.M., an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi, crashed as it prepared to land in Kigali, killing both men instantly. No nation or group accepted responsibility for the catastrophe. But a very short fuse had been lit, and the bomb that would change a nation forever was about to explode.
I left the café around 9:30 P.M. I was not yet aware of the president’s airplane crash, though I couldn’t help but notice people listening intently to their radios. I asked a taxi driver for a ride. I was living at the time in Secteur Gitega, a suburban neighborhood of Kigali-Ville.
It normally took me ten minutes to get home from the café. The traffic was light because the military had begun putting up roadblocks everywhere. Other people might have found such a sight unusual, but in Rwanda, I had grown used to it. Tension had been ratcheting up in fits and starts since 1990, and I was also frequently haunted by memories of the more distant past, based on tales from my father. We always seemed to be in a state of heightened military presence, right on our residential streets.
The taxi driver did not take me to my door, but dropped me off several blocks from my house. He claimed it was because of the roadblocks. I continued on by foot.
Unlike other parts of town, Secteur Gitega, the neighborhood I was in, had never been quiet; many militiamen lived there, each evening moving around patrolling the area. It was quieter now, though, because they were all gathered before their houses or in cafés listening to their favorite radio station, Radio télévision libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). RTLM was a private station owned by Hutu hardliners that received support from the government-controlled Radio Rwanda, which initially allowed RTLM to transmit using its equipment. Widely listened to by the general population, RTLM broadcasted hate propaganda against Tutsi.
Normally, the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi—the two major Hutu extremist militia groups—would be marching around, controlling the area. Instead, that night, people were standing around in groups, whispering.
I passed in front of Buregeya’s store. People could take a drink in that store, but no one was drinking at that time. The militias were lingering around, visibly enraged. Buregeya came to me and asked, “Do you know what happened?”
“No,” I said.
“The president’s plane was shot down and he is dead. The militias are in a meeting. We don’t know what is going to follow next.”
I was so shocked I could not reply. I went directly home. President Habyarimana was Hutu. I was certain his death would be blamed on Tutsi. I was sure the next thing to happen would be the killing of my people. Genocide.
I cannot minimize the suffering any other person has endured since the beginning of time, for surely there has been far too much. Most humans go through life without ever harboring the acute fear of imminent death at the hands of another. It is the dream of each man and woman to live a long and fruitful life, followed by painless death in one’s dreamful sleep. Death from debilitating disease can be a long, painful, undignified struggle, filled with agony and suffering.
But few of us, thank God, will ever experience what it is like to realistically take into account one’s entirety of being and say, “Soon I shall be viciously and painfully murdered. No one will come to save me, and no one will care.” The impending explosion of raw violence that Tutsi were agonizing over was sure to be as vicious and primal as any hatred the world had ever seen. Tutsi, vastly unnumbered, would now be blamed for murdering the president of our nation. We, the unarmed few—not soldiers, but average citizens—would all be marked for death.
There were those who had been preparing for genocide, compiling lists of Tutsi citizens and spewing out hate on RTLM Radio. Now they had the tipping point they had been waiting for—one, perhaps, they may even have created. Now only the shrill voices of death and insanity would be heard over the din.
As I walked to my home, the air was filled with radio broadcasts. The nation had gone collectively insane. I heard voices saying unspeakable things. Savagery was all I could hear: “Kill the cockroaches! Kill the cockroaches now!” The words hissed like a slithering snake. I was no longer a human. We—all of us, all Tutsi—were now simply referred to as the cockroaches.
By the grace of God, I managed to make it to my house and bolt myself inside. I walked around looking for evidence—evidence against me. My very existence as a Tutsi was now a crime. With the president dead, the government’s standing army would no longer have control of the land.
Militias, well-trained and heavily armed with machetes, grenades, rifles, and handguns, would now rule the streets. Genocidal chatter among the militias had been stirred to a boil for months leading up to this night. Plots had been hatched—we heard of it all the time, for the true believers were not ashamed of their politics of hate. Now the time for mass killing had come.
Newspapers criticizing the president or praising the RPF were illegal—banned upon publication. They were, as you say, “underground” publications. After President Habyarimana’s plane crash, when I found any of these anywhere in my house, I destroyed them, tearing them into little pieces and flushing them down the toilet. Then came the music. Citizens were not allowed to listen to certain songs and recording artists who were considered “subversive.” Any of those recordings that I possessed, I also destroyed.
Most of the music I listened to was on Muhabura Radio—Rwandan Patriotic Front Radio—a “pirate” radio station that did not censor music and artists. The RPF was a political party that began in exile, made up of mostly Tutsi, but eventually joined by some moderate Hutu who did not agree with the extremism, divisiveness, and genocidal ideology of the Habyarimana dictatorship. Those who had that subversive music or listened to Muhabura Radio were known as “cockroaches” or accused of “sustaining the cockroaches.”
Now, I was sure the militias would come to search my house, just as they did in 1990 when the war began. I put everything down the toilet that I believed they could use as their so-called evidence against me. Even though I was spared arrest or murder before, I doubted I would be so lucky twice within such a short period of time.
I lay down on my bed, but I could not sleep a wink. Within hours, the sun would rise on a new world order: the first full, deadly day of genocide in Rwanda.
Want to keep reading? Download Inside the Hotel Rwanda.
There is plenty of more to unpack in Inside the Hotel Rwanda. Kayihura’s experience will leave readers in shock as he reveals every horrific event that happened to him during the Rwandan Genocide with grueling detail, including his stay at the Hôtel des Mille Collines. Interestingly enough, Rusesabagina denies any of the claims made by Kayihura and other refugees in the novel. The Tutsi people who found refuge at the Hôtel des Mille Collines did manage to escape much of the violence and chaos, although as Kayihura shows, that escape came with a cost–literally.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Archive to continue publishing the historical stories you love.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons