Book Excerpt: The Real Story Behind 'Hotel Rwanda'

Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story… And Why It Matters Today Benbella Books

Twenty years ago this week around 1 million people died in the mass killings now known as the Rwandan genocide. At the time, the international community did nothing and the genocide's memory leaves a stain on many consciences. One story emerged, though, about heroism in trying times: "The Hotel Rwanda." The story of the hotel was immortalized in a much-celebrated 2004 Hollywood movie. But the story of a heroic hotelier, Oskar Schindler-like protecting his guests, is not quite what it seems.

In his new book Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story… And Why It Matters Today (Benbella Books), Edouard Kayihura attempts to set the record straight. Kayihura is a survivor of the genocide and one of the 1,268 people who took refuge inside the hotel. The book, which was written with Kerry Zukus, builds on Kayihura's memories and supplements them with testimony from other refugees – or prisoners – in the hotel.

The following is an excerpt.

In the hotel, we thought of ourselves as many things: refugees, hotel employees, victims. At times we considered ourselves prisoners—glad to be alive, but at the same time stuck inside this building with nowhere else to go. And as captives in this luxurious dungeon, we had one very bad prison guard [Paul Rusesabagina], who, like many classically corrupt sentries, exploited us and treated us poorly. But one thing we never considered ourselves to be was hostages.

A hostage is a person in some form of captivity who has a perceived value in barter. In most criminal situations, that value can be measured in dollars. In a wartime situation, it is as a trading chip for other hostages. As time went on, the RPF side began collecting prisoners of war. Meanwhile, we at the hotel, deep within Hutu Power/FAR territory and many of us simpatico to the RPF cause, provided a bargaining chip for the FAR to use in getting some of their people back from the RPF.

Actually, certain people within the militias and the interim government had earlier on considered taking us hostage, as a pawn in future negotiations. The UN peacekeepers felt if this was allowed before any formal agreement for peace or a cease-fire had already been reached, the prisoner exchange would be imbalanced. Whoever had hostages—especially higher-profile ones—would already have the upper hand in any negotiation. This went into the peacekeepers' thinking when they decided their best move would be to get the refugees back to the hotel, where they could protect us until the negotiations were further along. This is something we all wish we had been more aware of when we spent the latter days of the genocide within the hotel compound. We may have been incrementally safer, but we were not, in fact, safe. Yet at the time it was all happening, we were mostly kept in the dark regarding the political intrigue going on around us and involving us.

Some of us wondered why Paul Rusesabagina, suspected of giving our names to RTLM hate radio, had put his own wife on one of the transports. Did he feel that because he considered himself an important man, friend to the génocidaires, she would be left unharmed while others were murdered or beaten? Did he think putting her on the truck after providing the passenger manifest would protect all the refugees on board? No one could say for sure, but Wellars Gasamagera, a mature and wise man, might have said it best and most succinctly: "It shows that he is nothing."

A major turning point in the war occurred on May 22 when the RPF took control of the Kanombe Military Camp, and eight hundred Rwandan soldiers and their families surrendered to General Dallaire. He handed them over to the Red Cross, which handed them over to the RPF and oversaw their captivity. The detention of those surrendered soldiers and their families, along with some of the Hutu refugees who were in the Hotel Méridien and the King Faisal Hospital, put pressure on the interim-government militia to protect the refugees at the Hotel des Mille Collines. The RPF controlled the Amahoro National Stadium in Kigali and used it as an internment camp. Many of the killers who marched under the Hutu Power banner were now corralled there or else had friends who were there. Those of us in the hotel were an asset for the génocidaires, who were in need of a truce when they realized they were losing the war. The interim government cajoled the Interahamwe, telling them they could not kill the people in the hotel because those people would be exchanged for their members and families in the RPF zone.

On May 22, Ghanaian Major General Yaache, a sector commander and military observer of UNAMIR, and his humanitarian team, which included French statesman Bernard Kouchner, held an important meeting at the Hotel des Diplomates with Colonel Bagosora and the Interahamwe to officially discuss hostage transfers. Rumors spread throughout the hotel community, positive rumors of impending freedom and a road to safety. Yet there were those among us still nursing their wounds from the beatings they took at Sopecya Station. Would the Interahamwe, who appeared completely out of control and only interested in bloodlust, actually go along with a wholesale plan to allow us to leave the hotel? RTLM radio still pumped them full of roaring hatred and murderous thoughts on a daily basis. The tenor had not changed since April 6. These people were easily led, with minds full of irrational fears and paranoia, and deep-seated personal insecurities that made them suspicious and jealous of anyone of reason or intellect. They were the hate-filled bigots of our nation, now fully immersed in government-sanctioned violence. Once they had legally tasted blood, committed vicious murder and rape, could they ever turn back?

Hope was all that got us through each day and each night. But was hope just a mirage?

Copyright © 2014. Reprinted by permission. Excerpted from the book Inside the Hotel Rwanda: The Surprising True Story ... and Why It Matters Today, published by BenBella Books. Available on Amazon.