From Hell to Hollywood: the tale of a hotel in Kigali

The Mille Collines was a sanctuary amid genocide. Now it is up for sale, and there is bitterness among survivors. Report by Declan Walsh
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The Independent Online

A decade ago, before the darkness fell, the Mille Collines was Rwanda's premier hotel. The four-star, five-storey building was a watering hole for diplomats, dignitaries and tourists en route to Rwanda's famous gorillas.

A decade ago, before the darkness fell, the Mille Collines was Rwanda's premier hotel. The four-star, five-storey building was a watering hole for diplomats, dignitaries and tourists en route to Rwanda's famous gorillas.

Proudly standing on a Kigali hill, it boasted sweeping gardens, a sparkling pool and a classy restaurant with eagle-eye views over the city.

Then, 10 years ago today, a manic genocide blazed across Kigali and the Mille Collines became its last sanctuary. More than 1,200 Tutsis cowered in the corridors and slept in the snack bar as Hutus armed with machetes, guns and clubs slaughtered Tutsis at roadblocks around Kigali. One group of killers was stationed outside the entrance. Miraculously, the refugees survived in the four-star refugee camp for two months - sleeping up to 10 per room, drinking from the swimming pool, and bribing militia commanders with beer to keep the killers at bay.

As Rwanda marks the start of the 100-day slaughter, the story of the Mille Collines is going celluloid. Terry George is directing Hotel Rwanda, a film centred on the hotel's brave manager, Paul Rusesabagina, who used charm, wiles and wit to protect his refugee guests from the relentless slaughter outside. The Hollywood actors Don Cheadle (who plays Rusesabagina) and Nick Nolte recently finished shooting in South Africa. Rwanda, one of the world's poorest nations, did not have the necessary support facilities, according to the film makers.

But in Kigali, where solemn genocide commemorations are taking place, some of the epic's real-life characters are coming back. First among them is Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the embattled Canadian UN officer who pleaded in vain for international help. Instead, the UN cut its peace-keeping force back to a sliver of its former size. Yesterday, Lt-Gen Dallaire, who subsequently tried to commit suicide because of post-traumatic stress, blasted the international community. The West bears a "criminal responsibility" for the genocide, he told a conference. "There is no country today ... which can wash its hands of Rwandan blood just by saying sorry," he said.

At the Mille Collines itself, other characters in the grisly drama have never checked out. They also haunted by the past. Zozo, the smartly-pressed concierge, still welcomes arriving guests through the double doors. Strolling through the corridors, he recalled the manic bloodshed that surged through the surrounding streets in 1994. "The city was burning, so much smoke everywhere," he said, pausing at the fourth-floor restaurant and pointing out over the city. "The presidential guard [of assassinated president Juvenal Habyarimana] tried to shoot us through the windows.

Bullets came through the lobby, a shell landed on the first floor. It was really terrible." As a "cockroach" - the extremist nickname for Tutsis - Zozo enjoyed a fragile safety inside the Mille Collines, where he lived in room 35. But his family, which was trapped outside, did not. Six weeks into the 100-day slaughter Zozo learnt that his wife, two children and his brother's family had all been murdered.

"A guy who came to the roadblock told me they had been shot. It was horrible; my wife was eight months pregnant. I don't really want to talk about it - too many bad memories."

The UN estimates 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus perished in the country-wide slaughter; the Rwandan government puts the figure at close to one million. For Terry George - a former Irish Republican prisoner who wrote the Oscar-nominated In the Name of the Father - it represents "one of the greatest collective shames of the rest of the world".

Mr Rusesabagina, the mild-mannered hotel manager at the centre of his film, was one of the slaughter's few heroes. He kept threatening militia leaders sweet with offers of free beer, using a secret telephone line to appeal for international help. Two months later, not a single guest had been killed under his watch.

Now living with his family in Belgium, he acted as consultant to the Hollywood film. "When I see the film ... it wakens the old demons," he told reporters in South Africa. Sophie Okonedo, a British actress whose credits include Dirty Pretty Things, plays his wife, Tatiana.

Staff at the Mille Collines remember Mr Rusesabagina. He was "a strong man, a good man" said Ephrem Rwamanywa, a softly-spoken porter who weathered the storm under his protection. But equally he could not forget the villains of the piece, he added. The Hutu commander Augustin Bizimungu paid regular visits to the hotel of terrified refugees. So did Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, a Catholic priest accused by human rights groups of implication in the genocide.

Fr Wenceslas came by the Mille Collines in early April to check his ageing mother into a room. Then he walked down the hill to the Sainte Famille church, where thousands of Tutsis were later butchered. The cleric carried a revolver on his waist, said Mr Rwamanywa, remembering that he once dropped it with a clatter on the lobby floor. He paid particular attention because his wife and children were sheltering in the Sainte Famille.

They escaped unhurt, but now he is angry that the priest has been allowed to take refuge among fellow Catholics in France. "They say he is still celebrating mass. How can that be?" he asked angrily.

Father Wenceslas's chances of escaping trial are gradually improving. Only 66 of the genocide masterminds have been captured by the International Criminal Tribunal in neighbouring Tanzania. Two thirds have yet to stand trial. Notorious figures such as Felicien Kabuga, who financed a hate radio station and has a $5m (£2.6m) bounty on his head, remain at large. The UN has ordered the war crimes court to wrap its investigations by the end of this year and to finish all trials by 2008.

Rwanda has grown rapidly since the genocide. It has one of Africa's fastest growing economies thanks to foreign donors led by Britain, which is contributing £37m this year. Shiny new office blocks and hotels are popping up on the undulating horizon. Government critics suspect some have been funded with resources plundered during the war in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

But at the Mille Collines, which first opened its doors in 1973, little has changed. In a sorry state after the genocide, cleaners quickly spruced it up, and made a gruesome discovery - an aborted foetus dumped in a rubbish bin by an unknown, probably distressed, refugee. Since then the carpets have been scrubbed, the walls re-painted and the pool has been flushed clean. But otherwise the £80-a-night rooms retain the original decor of soft pastels and wicker furniture in the lobby.

Clients at the fourth-floor restaurant look down on the scattered lights of a city at peace as they are serenaded by a wandering jazz saxophonist. But management faces competition from a new Intercontinental hotel a five-minute drive away and the owner, Sabena Group, has put it up for sale.

But if nothing else, the hotel's front-row place in Rwandan history is guaranteed by books and films. Three other films based on the genocide are also in production. One, based on the novel A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali by the Canadian author Gil Courtemanche, is also set in the Mille Collines.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation plans to film Lt-Gen Dallaire's recently published book, Shake Hands with the Devil. The traumatised former soldier attributed Western indifference to a "racist background ... of saying our wars are complex, like in Yugoslavia, but black people in Africa killing each other is nothing more than tribalism". President Kagame hailed Lt-Gen Dallaire as "a good man caught up in a mess".

Amid the chorus of bitter recrimination, other genocidal-style massacres are continuing elsewhere in Africa, also against a background of scant international attention. Aid workers are drawing parallels between 1994 in Rwanda and the situation in Darfur in western Sudan, where thousands have been killed and more than 800,000 forced to flee in the past year, they say.

The first fictional account of the genocide was 100 Days, directed by the former CNN cameraman Nick Hughes. But fictionalised accounts of the slaughter can be a sensitive subject in Rwanda. During the recent filming of Sometimes in April by the US cable channel HBO, teams of psychologists had to comfort genocide survivors traumatised by the re-enactment of the killings.

Instead, the government has thrown its weight behind a memorial centre which is due to open on Wednesday. Situated above a mass grave on a Kigali hillside and built by two British brothers, it is the first national representation of the painful past.

Coming to terms with the genocide is a key step for Rwandan society, which is still grieving its bloody legacy and suspicion and fear abound.

Tutsi survivors feel disillusioned by the slow pace of justice; Hutus say they are marginalised by the Tutsi-led government.

"We have started the process of reconciliation," said a Mille Collines porter, Ephrem Rwamanywa. "But we haven't caught all those who organised the genocide. And their ideology is still going around."

Today's solemn commemorations, led by President Paul Kagame, are again giving vent to anger at the Western failure to prevent the slaughter.

Last month, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan, who led peace-keeping operations in 1994, expressed deep regret for his failure to act. However, he will be absent from Kigali today, as will most Western leaders. The Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt is the only Western head of state attending the commemoration. He will unveil a monument to the 10 Belgian paratroopers pulped to death by Hutu militia exactly 10 years ago. Their grisly deaths helped trigger the UN pull-out.

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