The REAL Hotel Rwanda

When I say I’m going to Rwanda to most people in the United States, their first thought likely immediately turns to images of the genocide, or, quite frankly, what they imagine the genocide would have been like, which was likely not nearly as bad as the reality of the atrocities committed 22 years ago.

But where do people who have never experienced mass atrocities, and have not studied it intensively, get the information that creates their imagined landscapes? For many US citizens imagining the Darfurian genocide, they most likely turn to the film Hotel Rwanda.  

The movie, released 10 years after the genocide, portrays the occurrences that happened at “Hotel Rwanda” or Hotel Des Mille Collines, where over 1,000 people– victims of the genocide– were saved from the interahamwe and other perpetrators of the genocide. The movie portrays Paul Rusesabagina as the saintly hero of the movie, risking everything to save others from the horrors of the genocide. While offering a glimpse of the horrors of the genocide, the movie is extensively criticized for its controversial happy ending, where Paul, the Hutu rescuer, and his family, who were all Tutsi, escape to Europe.

But like I’ve said, most people have already seen this film. What I want to talk about is the real Hotel Rwanda.  

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Hotel Des Mille Collines is located right in the center of town and is completely impossible to miss. It still operates as an upscale hotel, and quite frankly one of the nicest places I’ve seen in Rwanda AND any of the other countries I’ve been to in sub Saharan Africa (which include Ghana and South Africa– and soon will be adding Kenya to the list!). Hotel Des Mille Collines has a pool and a bar, massage tables, hammocks, and what I can only imagine are very fancy hotel rooms. It’s pretty picture perfect.

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But it’s also pretty weird.

I’ve gone to Hotel Des Mille Collines several times– twice to gawk at the experience of being in THE Hotel Rwanda, and probably hundreds of other times just passing by.

The first time I went was last summer, on the second day of Global Youth Connect’s Human Rights Program in Rwanda. We all went in and ordered drinks and sat at the table, awkwardly using the wifi and taking in our surroundings. None of us talked.

The second time was just a few days ago, when we had a few extra minutes before meeting a friend in town, so I decided to take my friend who had never seen it.

The mental disconnect between what Hotel Des Mille Collines must have been like during the genocide and what it is like now is mind boggling. People are playing in the swimming pool– the same one that victims of the genocide drank from to stave off dehydration. People are experiencing the height of luxury today where others suffered unimaginably 22 years ago. I could go on and on.

Hotel Des Mille Collines is one example of thousands of moments that you have in Rwanda. Today, I feel incredibly comfortable and safe in Rwanda. So much so that sometimes it’s easy to forget that the places I see on a regular basis held significant meaning, either positive or negative, during the genocide. For example, the hotel I stayed at last summer, Saint Paul, was one of the churches accredited for saving thousands of lives during the genocide. The hotel right next door was the location of large- scale massacres.
Rwanda has done a truly exceptional job or reconciliation and transitional justice, so much so that it is today considered one of the safest countries in Africa and one of the best places to travel to. While foreigners–  including myself– could not possibly imagine the true horrors of the genocide, there are constant reminders of Rwanda’s devastating past, a past that must never be forgotten.

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