Like many others in the United States and around the world, we were filled with hope about the incoming Biden administration. The restoration of America’s influence as a leader for democracy, human rights, and justice was long overdue. We have seen firsthand what happens in authoritarian-leaning countries around the world when the U.S. isn’t passionately defending, supporting, and protecting democracy. From the far-right revolution in Poland, to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—there are profound consequences when the so-called ‘shining city on a hill’ is perceptually absent, preoccupied, or uncaring.
The most personal consequence to us, though, was the brazen kidnapping of our father, a permanent U.S. resident who was lured from America last year, dragged across international borders, imprisoned unjustly, and now stands in a sham trial in Rwanda, where he faces false charges of aiding terrorists. We have been waiting for our leaders to bring him home. Our father has fueled our belief in the hope and vision that the Biden team says they champion. But now, as he remains in perilous danger in Rwanda, and as the U.S. strategy for getting him back stalls—we wonder if that hope was premature.
Our father is Paul Rusesabagina. Many of you know his story from Hotel Rwanda. The film told the remarkable true story—our family’s story—of how our father saved over 1,200 people by sheltering them in the Belgian-owned hotel he managed in Rwanda during the genocide. What he was doing was incredibly dangerous. He put his life on the line every single day to try and protect people from the monumental bloodshed that was occurring around them, using every resource at his disposal and reminding curious rebels that “America is watching.”
But is America watching now? For over a decade, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has harassed our father, sent spies after him, and spouted ridiculous lies about him. The more our father advocated for the freedom of the Rwandan people, who now face a brutal dictator with a cult of personality and a habit of murdering or “disappearing” dissidents, the angrier Kagame became. In August of 2020, the Rwandan government lured him to Dubai under the false pretense of a human rights project, paid for a chartered plane to kidnap him from there, tied him up, and flew him to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Just as people patiently waited to attack American democracy on Jan. 6, Kagame patiently waited and now has our father in his grasp.
A Belgian citizen and permanent U.S. resident being kidnapped across borders and imprisoned under unjust legal proceedings should be an easy case. After all, his arrest was blatantly illegal under virtually any international legal standard. If his arrest and rendition was unjust, he cannot be detained. Rwanda’s Minister of Justice has outright admitted that they paid for the flight that spirited our father away to Kigali. He admitted that he intercepted legal communications between our father and his attorney, explicitly underscoring the trial’s flagrant corruption. Kagame’s government officials “gleefully” gloated that they had “flawlessly” lured our father to Rwanda last fall.
Since he was kidnapped last year, his health has visibly declined. Several international human rights groups have raised the alarm on his case. We have fought for every inch of progress with the State Department and the U.S. government to get him back; in December, our efforts spawned a bipartisan congressional letter calling for his release. We were unbearably close to getting our dad home.
But now, under the new Biden administration, the tone and strategy have suddenly changed. The brakes have been pumped. Every inch of progress we made has been regressed, with the government issuing statements encouraging a fair trial in Rwanda while Kagame openly mocks democracy in CNN interviews. The American Bar Association identified numerous critical issues that the Rwandan courts have failed to address in our father’s case. Foreign Policy magazine wrote that these events have confirmed Rwanda’s “descent into dictatorship.”
For us, watching this is like a constant nightmare where we are forced to relive the most painful moments of our lives as salt is poured all over our wounds. During the genocide, we lost our biological parents—our adoptive mother’s sister and brother-in-law. People lost husbands, wives, and children to indiscriminate, bloody violence while the world watched. Loss is a constant reality in the lives of Rwandans who survived the genocide. It was an indescribably brutal wave of violence that took at least 800,000 souls; a vile scale that citizens of the world later pledged to “never again” repeat. They say never again because of the shame the global community carries about its inadequate response to the horror of the genocide.
The permanence of loss and grief changes us, but it also challenges us and demands that we exit our comfort zone to be brave and to do what is right. We know that the Biden family knows loss, too. President Biden’s devotion to speaking out about brain cancer, breaking the silence of mourning, and advocating for a cure is a personal calling triggered by a personal loss that we respect entirely.
But ultimately, we face even more loss when leaders are too scared to make the tough but necessary political call. Apathy is, on a basic level, why the genocide happened in the first place. Just as he committed to saving the 1,268 guests at the Hotel de Mille Collines, our father was committed to protecting us and raising us to always stand for what is right. We have been raised with a dedication to public service, human rights, and compassion. Even when our family had to flee to Belgium in 1996 because of an assassination attempt on our father’s life, he did not stop speaking out in favor of democracy, freedom, and fairness—nor did he stop criticizing the increasingly authoritarian regime of Paul Kagame in Rwanda.
Our family lives and breathes American. Up until his kidnapping, dad had been based in the U.S. for over 10 years, tending to his garden at his San Antonio home, and in pre-pandemic times, hosting large family get-togethers where he spoke about the Bible in between trips around the world to advocate for genocide prevention and human rights. As his daughters, we have been educated and assimilated in the U.S. since middle school, attending some of America’s finest educational institutions and becoming citizens or residents. We are a family of faith and service born out of the ashes of grief—and we know the drive for democracy that the Biden family and administration cherishes. We also know the vitriol that such drive can invite.
It is no secret that Paul Kagame’s Rwanda is oppressive, corrupt, and murderous. The U.N. and the State Department have reported mass murders, press freedom restrictions, and dissident crackdowns. It is also no secret that our father has been targeted over his activism for truth, reconciliation, and democracy. There are certain facts that we have been shouting from rooftops for months now: that Rwandan authorities funded and masterminded the plot to kidnap him; that they refused to let my father use his own legal counsel for over 90 days; that they’ve continued to “change” his blood pressure medication and have denied us information about our father’s multiple hospitalizations; and that they are spitting in the face of international law by refusing to reconsider the legitimacy of a trial that began with an illegal kidnapping scheme.
We were raised with the values of democracy, fairness, and justice—not only by our father, but also by our new home, the United States. Yet we aren’t seeing our leaders live out these values themselves. Rwanda is not playing by the rules of international law, and what significance do these laws hold if dictators are allowed to desecrate and violate them without any consequences?
We have done everything we can. Trying to rescue our father is a full-time job. We have done so much outreach, talked to so many government officials, and given so many media interviews. We have opened up our homes and our minds to the world, giving away pieces of ourselves in the hopes that it will bring him home—that America would bring him home. We are not sleeping. We are having trouble eating. Loss and grief have propelled us out to speak up since we were little girls. Yet still, we’re seeing America make the same mistakes it did in the genocide—the mistakes that led to our biological parents’ deaths, along with hundreds of thousands of others.
How did we get here? Just six days into his role, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hosted us alongside other American families who have loved ones being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas. But then, instead of strongly condemning Kagame and calling for my father’s immediate release in light of the abhorrent, painfully obvious, and proven violations of international law, the Biden team stepped back, halting its strategies with us and instead calling for a fair trial in Rwanda. But the trial can never be fair. They know this. All of the facts are laid out in front of them, with even more spilling out of the mouths of Kagame and the minister of justice when they talk to foreign press. By even suggesting that Rwanda is capable of holding a fair trial for our father, Biden has granted cover, legitimacy, and support to Kagame.
What do they want us to do? Is the State Department really saying that the only way they’ll help us bring our father home is in a body bag? Will they suddenly speak up when we are planning our father’s funeral? Have Rwandans not buried enough people for America to act already? How much blood has to be spilled? How much corruption has to go unpunished? How many parents do we have to lose?
We have lost enough, and we’ve lost enough because of this exact behavior—the same mistakes that America vowed to never again repeat. During the genocide, countries were hesitant to intervene in the brewing violence. They were comfortable with their positions in the global community, and it was too uncomfortable for them to act. Without the personal impact of that loss and grief, there was no impetus to shove them out of the nest of apathy. And as a result, scores of people died, including our parents. And now, as we watch this nightmare repeat itself, we spend every breathing moment wondering if today is the day Kagame will have our father killed. For Kagame, there is no shortage of creative ways to murder dissidents.
Just as white supremacy, police brutality, and racism are systemic issues in America—where the tools of a flawed justice system are deployed against dissidents and protests—Kagame also uses the system of state violence to create fear, to stamp out democracy, and to punish those who dare speak out against him. He also ruthlessly uses propaganda to harass his critics, spamming them on Twitter, calling them genocide deniers, and reinforcing his untrue fantasy that he is the savior of Rwanda by creating a Soviet-style machine to silence any hint of criticism. Kagame’s fight against democracy did not start by brazenly kidnapping my father, just as the Capitol attack did not start spontaneously, just as the 1994 genocide was the result of ongoing negligence by the international community and prolonged power struggles in Rwanda.
Kagame has encapsulated Rwanda into a dictatorship so slowly, continuously, and sternly that many people internationally, and within its borders, did not realize the terrible direction the country was headed in until it was too late. And now we are stuck in a cycle of false neutrality, similar to that of white Americans failing to confront the truth behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement and what it stands for. The U.S. is failing to call out the Rwandan government for what it is: a dictatorship that kidnapped an American resident and that needs to be addressed with a serious line in the sand.
Our father believes that we must address every injustice with equal weight. His dedication to the rule of law and to justice has colored his work around the world. Like President Biden, he is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Lantos Award for Human Rights. Our dad, the family man who loves to garden, has countless shared experiences and values with President Biden. This is why it mystifies us and deeply hurts us to see that President Biden is still wavering and failing to address this grave injustice. He has already placed sanctions on Russia and Saudi Arabia for the actions they took while America was not watching over the past few years. Yet he is willingly closing his eyes on Rwanda, just like so many people did in 1994.
We are now reliving the consequences of the United States ignoring injustice in Rwanda. We know that if Kagame is able to get away with this show trial, our father will die and Kagame’s grip on power will be immensely reinforced. We have seen enough death in our lifetime. We are begging President Biden to intervene so that we are not made to relive the story of how international inaction led to our parents’ slaughter. We are asking him and all of our leaders to harness our loss and our grief, our lives spent not knowing our parents—our rawest plea. Let it help you out of your comfort zone. Let it help you speak up.
We do not want to be the poster children of America’s broken never again promise. We can only pray that this time, the promise is kept.