Paul Rusesabagina, who hid more than 1,000 potential victims of genocide in Rwanda in 1994, has come home to San Antonio.
Kidnapped and imprisoned for 2½ years by a Rwandan regime lambasted by the European Union for its human rights abuses, Rusesabagina, 68, was released last weekend and landed Wednesday afternoon at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. From there, he was to enter Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
“They have LANDED!” Kathleen Tobin Krueger, wife of the late Ambassador Robert Krueger and a close friend of the Rusesabagina family, said in a text message just before 4 p.m.
At BAMC, he’ll be cared for in a facility known for its treatment of former prisoners of war and hostages. Its patients have included three Americans held captive for five years by rebels in Colombia and WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was released in December from a Russian penal colony where she was held on drug charges.
Rusesabagina, who inspired the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda” and lives in San Antonio, will undergo a series of medical and psychological evaluations after having been held since late 2020 in a Kigali prison, where he was denied basic medical care.
“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, something great to celebrate,” said Tresor Rusesabagina, his son. “Something incredible to celebrate.”
After his release, Rusesabagina was taken to the Qatari Embassy in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, before being flown to Doha, Qatar. U.S. State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Monday that Rusesabagina “of course will continue on to the United States.”
Krueger said he was to have been released last Friday morning.
However, two prison guards approached him after dinner Thursday evening, ordering him to leave his cell. Rusesabagina protested, unaware he was to be released that night.
The guards brought the business suit he wore when he was kidnapped in August 2020 by order of the Rwandan government and told him to put it on. He removed his pale pink prison uniform and left his cell.
“He changed into his suit which, after these 21/2 years of torture and imprisonment, his son said swallows him,” Krueger said. “He told his family that as he was leaving the prison, walking down the corridors or past the other cells, that the other prisoners began singing and cheering him as he was leaving. They were jubilant that he was seeming to be set free.”
A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Rusesabagina saved more than 1,200 people during the Rwandan genocide, hiding them in a luxury hotel he managed. He and his family eventually received asylum in Belgium and later moved to San Antonio.
The story of the ethnic violence in Rwanda, and Rusesabagina’s efforts to save lives, became familiar to many in the United States and aboard after actor Don Cheadle played him in “Hotel Rwanda.”
He emerged as a vocal critic of the Rwandan regime headed by President Paul Kagame, accusing his government of corruption and human rights abuses.
The bad blood between the men goes back at least to the period after the 1994 Rwandan genocide when the Rwandan leader offered him an ambassadorship to the Bahamas, Krueger said. Rusesabagina, who found his wife’s mother and other family members slaughtered and their bodies decomposing in a pig sty, vowed to speak out against murder, atrocities and injustice, and often bashed Kagame’s regime.
Rusesabagina was kidnapped in August 2020, arrested in Dubai and spirited to Rwanda, where he was falsely charged with terrorism, arson and murder. He was tortured for four days before his family knew he had been arrested. A Rwandan court sentenced him to 25 years in prison in September 2021 on charges the European Union said were “marred by numerous violations of his fair-trial rights.”
The State Department, responding to the trial, raised concerns over the “reported lack of fair trial guarantees that calls into question the fairness of the verdict.”
The Kruegers and other supporters of Rusesabagina, including U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro and Young Kim, pressured the Kagame regime to free him from prison. Castro, D-San Antonio, and Kim, R-California, sponsored a resolution calling on the Rwandan government to release him on humanitarian grounds, echoing a similar European Union measure in October 2021.
There were concerns for his health throughout the ordeal. He suffered from high blood pressure and had survived cancer.
Krueger said his health had been “deteriorating significantly.” She and a group of other supporters in the United States and abroad coordinated a lengthy campaign for Rusesabagina’s release. But they had been quiet in recent months as the Biden administration worked to cut a deal with the Kagame regime.
“We trusted that they were negotiating as best as they could and so we did stay quiet, and this seems to be the outcome that we all hoped for,” said Krueger, whose husband served as U.S. ambassador to Burundi in 1994 during the Rwandan genocidal rampage. Burundi borders Rwanda to the south. “There is no doubt the personal involvement of the White House and of Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken made all the difference.”
Just how Washington engineered his release isn’t clear. Patel, the State Department spokesman, said Monday that Blinken made a trip overseas in August that “played a key role in eventually resolving this case.”
Rusesabagina and his family have been close to the Kruegers since they met in 2007. Robert Krueger and Rusesabagina had a lot in common, given their work for peace and reconciliation in the Great Lakes region of Africa, particularly in Burundi and Rwanda. Oprah Winfrey arranged a telephone call between them. The next year, Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, asked Kathleen Krueger to be her new godmother.
Her first godmother was killed in the Rwandan genocide.
Rusesabagina relocated his family to San Antonio in 2009 so they could be closer to the Kruegers, who lived in New Braunfels.
Jubilation broke out among his friends after word broke late last week that Rusesabagina’s release appeared imminent, but everyone held their breath until family and friends learned that his plane had left Rwanda at about 9 a.m. Sunday Kigali time.
“We were waiting for that moment. That was one of the most important moments for us, was when the plane took off from the country,” Tresor Rusesabagina said.
“He will come home to San Antonio and I am sure his wife will cook him all of his favorite foods, and we will all give him the time and space he needs to readjust,” Krueger said.