KIGALI, Rwanda — It’s a Thursday night in the Rwandan capital and the poolside bar at Hotel des Mille Collines is thumping.
Gathered under a thatched cabana, a mix of travelers, expats and well-to-do locals sip overpriced Mutzig beers, ferried by wait staff clad in bow ties and blue-checked vests. Piercing the din of multi-lingual chatter, a piano band provides the soundtrack, crooning a mix of local favorites and Western pop, including the obligatory Hotel California. Eager for a night’s work, Coke-sipping single ladies — adorned with high heels, glossy lips and conspicuous buttocks — wait patiently to catch the gaze of a lonely white “mzungu” traveler.
It’s a scene that could be set at almost any up-market hotel in Africa. Yet thanks to its brush with Hollywood, the Mille Collines may be the most famous lodging on the continent.
It was here, as dramatized in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” that more than 1,200 refugees took shelter during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and were saved from murderous army units and Interahamwe gangs thanks to the strategy of the hotel's cunning assistant manager Paul Rusesabagina. Nominated for three Academy Awards, the film defines what much of the world has come to know about the genocide — 100 days of methodical killings in which more than 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsi lost their lives: shot, beaten or hacked to death with machetes.
Sixteen years later, after extensive renovations, the Mille Collines hotel is thriving. Though not Kigali’s swankiest hotel, its new rooms come with air conditioning and plasma-screen TVs, and its Panorama restaurant is one of the city’s finest.
Belgian-owned during the genocide, the hotel was purchased, after years of decline, in 2005 by Rwandan magnate Miko Rwayitare. The since deceased Rwayitare, said current assistant manager Paul Ntaganda, provided the vision to revamp the establishment into the “kind of hotel that is demanded today on the market.”
In a sense, the Mille Collines’ rebirth is one that parallels the rise of Rwanda — a country that is now safe, orderly and home to one of the fastest growing economies in Africa.
Yet Rwanda is also a nation where many freedoms deemed sacred in the west are compromised. The country under President Paul Kagame is a tight-lipped place — an Orwellian-tinged society where ethnic labels are ultimate taboos, except when referring to the “Genocide against the Tutsi,” the official refrain that fails to acknowledge any reciprocal killings of ethnic Hutu.
Months away from August’s presidential election, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, outspoken about the need to investigate the full story, was recently prevented from leaving the country and is currently being investigated for possible charges of “revisionism” and “double genocide ideology,” punishable offenses under a strict set of laws protecting the ruling party’s version of history.
In an April 7 speech, marking the 16th anniversary of the start of the genocide, Kagame dismissed Ingabire and her assistant Joseph Ntawangundi — who last month admitted to his role in the genocide and has since been convicted to 17 years in prison — as “hooligans.”
“For those who bring us a fight,” he promised, “we should be able to bring them a fight they’ll never forget.”
Kagame’s words might also apply to Paul Rusesabagina. A 2005 recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero is now a prominent Rwandan dissident, whose foundation works to “prevent future genocides and raise awareness of the need for a new truth and reconciliation process in Rwanda.” Rusesabagina accused Kagame of covering up the killings of Hutu and of escalating a climate of fear and political violence.
Now based in Texas, Rusesabagina is persona non grata on his home turf — decried by critics as a swindler and opportunist, who extorted money from those he’s credited with saving and who has profited shamefully from his manufactured-in-Hollywood status.
“Rusesabagina's ill-gotten fame has opened new avenues for his avarice,” reads a March 15 editorial in The New Times, Rwanda’s official daily. “While he claims that his foundation is aimed at preventing future genocides, he is hobnobbing with Genocide deniers and defends Genocide criminals in various forums. … He goes around peddling his lies and hoodwinking unsuspecting westerners that they are actually dealing with a real life hero.”
Rather than Rusesabagina’s resourcefulness, critics contend, it was the efforts made by friends of well-connected refugees, along with U.N. peacekeepers guarding the hotel entrance, which saved the 1,200 lives.
When asked about this debate, Mille Collines’ current assistant manager Ntaganda said he has no strong opinion regarding his hotel’s controversial past. Instead, he stressed the tourist-friendly nation Rwanda has become, election-year politics notwithstanding.
“I wish people would come and see exactly what Rwanda is,” he told GlobalPost from the Mille Collines’ new terrace, as children splashed in the pool below.
“I know there are a lot of people thinking Rwanda is like a jungle or an unfriendly place because they’ve heard stories about the genocide. The genocide has happened but we are totally moving away from that.”