A Rwandan refugee renounces revenge, embraces forgiveness

Joseph Sebarenzi with his wife, Liberata. — Photo courtesy of Joseph Sebarenzi

Joseph Sebarenzi grew up on a farm in Rwanda near Lake Kivu where he swam as a boy. His family was relatively wealthy, and his boyhood was full and happy. He intermingled with neighbors freely, unaware that some of them were Hutu, a different ethnicity from his own, Tutsi. When his parents first introduced him to the simmering antipathy between the two peoples and the likelihood of future violence, he found it hard to comprehend.

Mr. Sebarenzi was sent away to school in Congo because his parents sensed that violence would come to Rwanda sooner or later. When he resisted the idea of going away, his father said simply, “If we are killed, you will survive,” a motif that he would never forget.

His journey to school by boat across a section of Lake Kivu was the first leg in a remarkable odyssey that has taken him to Uganda, Burundi, Congo, Canada, and eventually the United States. “I could feel the firmness of the earth release the canoe and the uncertainty of the water embrace it, ” he writes in his memoir, “God Sleeps in Rwanda.” Twice he returned to Rwanda and twice he was forced to flee when it was clear that he would be killed if he stayed, even though he was speaker of Parliament during his second return.

Mr. Sebarenzi arrived in the United States in 2000. Currently he works for the Justice Department, and speaks frequently on reconciliation and conflict management at universities and events around the country. On Saturday, he will talk at the Howes House in West Tisbury at 5 pm. The talk is sponsored by African Artists Community Development Project, the Haiti PeaceQuilts project, and ACE MV.

In 1994, the violence that his parents had predicted exploded into a three-month killing spree that left more than 800,000 Tutsi dead, including Mr. Sebarenzi’s parents, seven brothers and sisters, and many other close relatives. It was the horrific culmination of a rivalry between the two peoples that was introduced and promoted by the Belgians when they colonized the region. It was the crazed illogical outcome of a regional rebellion that threatened to become a full-scale civil war. Grotesquely, it proved a French proverb that Mr. Sebarenzi cited when he considered what war would mean to his country: “One knows how war begins, but no one knows how it will end.”

He was never sure what the future held, but he know the risks were enormous, and the costs might last for generations. He writes, “Countries rush to war thinking it is the quickest, easiest solution to conflict, only to find themselves still entrenched years later, suffering more losses than they expected and asking themselves, bewildered, ‘How did we get here?'”

Rather than dwell on that question, Mr. Sebarenzi chose to look forward. And rather than dedicate his life to avenging the loss of his loved ones, he devoted himself to a life of understanding and forgiveness.

While working as an interpreter for the U.S. Agency for International Development soon after the genocide, he encountered the mayor of his village in a filthy prison. The mayor had once been a family friend, but he was sucked into the killing frenzy and helped orchestrate the deaths of Mr. Sebarenzi’s closest relatives. Begging for his life, the mayor claimed that he was innocent.

“I knew he was lying, but I said nothing,” Mr. Sebarenzi writes. “As we talked, all of the anger and bitterness I had felt for the last year sat idle as another emotion slowly rose to the surface: compassion. Not anger, not hate — but compassion. I couldn’t explain it, but there it was all the same. Despite what he had done, I felt sorry for him.”

In a telephone conversation this week, Mr. Sebarenzi elaborated on his decision to “look forward and embrace forgiveness,” citing three reasons.

“One is peace for future generations. The crisis in my country went from my grandmother to my mother to myself, and I felt it had to stop somewhere. The reason it went from generation to generation was because people were unable to go beyond suffering. If I had taken the path of revenge, I would have made my family into victims. By taking revenge I would be passing this cycle of violence to future generations. And I would be showing lack of compassion for future generations.

“Another motivation has to do with my faith. I grew up in a Christian family, and I remembered that we were always taught to forgive, not to take revenge, to reconcile, not to get even. I felt I had to be faithful to my church by fully embracing forgiveness.

“The third reason had to do with my health — my emotional and physical health. My anger and bitterness prevented me from living the kind of life that I wanted to live with my wife and my children. I was no longer productive, I did not sleep well, I had headaches. And I realized that my anger was hurting me, not my enemies.

“The best solution that I could come up with was forgiveness.”

Joseph Sebarenzi, 5 pm, Saturday, August 6. Howes House, West Tisbury (across from Alley’s).