Paul Rusesabagina may be a hero, the real-life Hotel Rwanda operator who saved an estimated 1,200 lives by bartering words, cash and courage to save family, friends, neighbors and co-workers.
Yet the nonfictional subject of the 2004 movie cannot go back again.
The son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother - considered a Hutu by Rwandan standards - could have died for standing up to the radical 1994 Hutus who were butchering Tutsis and the Hutus who supported them. He saved hundreds in his Mille Collines hotel.
Instead, he says he is persona non grata in today's "democratic" Rwanda, with its Tutsi-dominated government. The 53-year-old has lived in exile in Brussels since 1996. His sons and nieces attend U.S. schools.
When Stuart Muszynski of the Cleveland-area charity Project Love was in long-distance discussions with Rusesabagina about the group's Humanitarian of the Year award this year, Muszynski says he unexpectedly got an e-mail from the Rwandan government. It said Rusesabagina wasn't a hero and didn't deserve the award.
Rusesabagina came to Cleveland anyway, and Muszynski presented the award to him Thursday night at a ceremony in Aurora.
Why is the hero of Hotel Rwanda not considered a hero in Rwanda?
His detractors accuse him of not saving as many people as he claimed, of taking money from the hotel guests he saved, of other supposed misdemeanors and exaggerations.
But Rusesabagina told a group of Plain Dealer editors and reporters Thursday that such sniping didn't start until he began publicly criticizing Rwandan President Paul Kagame for his Tutsi rebel background and for allegedly suppressing Hutu opponents.
Rusesabagina says those disappearances and arrests continue.
"So, I do not keep quiet."
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This has earned Rusesabagina the label "divisionist" back home. "Divisionism" is a potential criminal offense in a country trying to move beyond ethnic labels. Abolished are the old identity cards, job quotas and other ethnic markers that used to keep Tutsis and Hutus in their separate castes. Hutus outnumber Tutsis by five to one, but, until the 1960s, Hutus were subordinate to Tutsis, the traditional power-brokers in Rwandan society.
Yet Rusesabagina says this clamp on ethnic discussion just perpetuates hidden ethnic hatreds and prevents an understanding of all of the factors that contributed to the genocide - meaning it could happen again.
Tutsis, he argues, will come away believing that all Hutus are to blame for the 1994 genocide that killed more than half a million of them and tens of thousands of moderate Hutus. Meanwhile, he said, there's no accountability for Tutsi rebels whose rural massacres against Hutu villagers contributed to the climate of intolerance and anger, he says.
The old Yugoslavia is an example of how hard it is simply to close the door on ethnic violence.
After the brutal slaughters of World War II, Communist leader Josip Tito cemented over the mass graves and urged "brotherhood and unity" to erase the memories of intercommunal bloodshed. But the new mythology never took hold outside of the major cities. In the countryside and community halls, grievances festered until the horrific violence of the early 1990s.
Rwanda still may find its way.
Although the U.S. government called the 2003 Rwandan elections seriously flawed, Kagame - a Tutsi - could not have been elected president without substantial Hutu votes; even Tamany Hall would have had a hard time figuring out how to steal 85 percent of the ballots.
Yet every day that the Rwandan government avoids dealing with Rusesabagina and what he calls "the power of one" is a setback for that hopeful future.
The 1994 slaughter also came at a hopeful moment - when peace and reconciliation were in the air, and Hutus and Tutsis were about to share power.
That's the point - that extremists are still there, waiting and watching, while the human being who saved others despite the risk to himself is denied a domestic voice. The Hotel Rwanda hero should be able to go home again - for his own sake and his nation's.
Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.
© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer