When Joseph Sebarenzi was a little boy, his mother told him he should keep his mouth shut about who he is. Confused, he asked her why and she said,
â€œDonâ€™t you know I had to take you into the bush?â€
â€œThat seemed ridiculous to me,â€ Sebarenzi recalled. â€œWe lived in a nice home. Why would we have to sleep in the bush?â€
His mother explained that when he was a baby, his Tutsi family had to flee their town from rebel Hutus who were trying to kill Tusis. Sebarenzi didnâ€™t understand why that would happen because he played football with his Hutu buddies next door.
Things became more confusing the following day when their Hutu neighbors frantically told them to leave their house because people were coming toward it with machetes to kill Sebarenziâ€™s family. His family fled to another friendâ€™s home, also Hutu.
â€œImagine hiding in a home knowing there are people at the door who want to kill you â€” to kill your mother â€” itâ€™s very frightening,â€ Sebarenzi said to the audience.
He did not think they were going to survive the night, but their Hutu friends defended of the rebels and the army chief of staff, General Juvenal Habyarimana, seized power and restored order for a time.
â€œThat was my first experience of fear and suffering,â€ Sebarenzi said. â€œIt affected me deeply.â€
In a compelling presentation to a crowd of more than 100 people in the Lory Student Center Theatre last night, Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi talked about his experience as a Rwandan child facing death with his family in 1973, then, loosing most of his family in the horrific genocide of 1994.
Morgan Dorn, a historian on the Executive Board of United Men of Color, helped to organize the event with Hillel in honor of Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Week at CSU.
â€œWe need a contemporary perspective on genocide,â€ Dorn said. â€œThe Rwandan genocide happened within the last 20 years. Most of us were already born when it happened.â€
Dorn believes the community should still be focusing on this as an international issue.
â€œWe hope that this event facilitates discussions on other contemporary issues requiring peace and reconciliation strategies,â€ he said.
Rwanda has been plagued by conflict and violence since 1918 when Germany and Belgium turned the traditional Hutu-Tutsi relationship into a class system. The Tutsi minority was favored over the Hutus and given privileges and western-style education. Belgians introduced a system of ethnic identity cards differentiating Hutus from Tutsis. The Tutsi minority was used to enforce the Belgianâ€™s rule. Over the years, the Hutus staged a series of rebellions, often massacring the Tutsis.
Fast forward to 1994. President Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed when Habyarimanaâ€™s plane was shot down. Hutu extremists were believed to be behind the attack. That night, the brutal killing of more than 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates began and lasted for 90 days.
Sebarenzi lost both of his parents and seven siblings to the massacre.
He projected a photo of a family wedding on an enormous screen in the theatre, showing the members who were killed.
â€œThis is a picture of my older brotherâ€™s wedding,â€ he explained. There were dozens of extended family members in the picture. â€œHe was killed, so was his wife and his children.â€
Audience members were captivated by Sebarenziâ€™s tale, listening to find out what the fate was of the people in the photo.
â€œJust about everyone in this picture was killed.â€ He paused; then, he said gravely, â€œIt was a catastrophe beyond any understanding.â€
Perez Ansah-Mensah, vice president of United Men of Color, was glad for Dr. Sebarenziâ€™s appearance at CSU and the message he brought.
â€œHatred is not the answer,â€ said Ansah-Mensah. â€œWe should learn from such a horrible event and not resort to violence.â€
Ansah-Mensah believes conflicts should be talked out.
â€œFind a common ground,â€ he said. â€œDonâ€™t go with stereotypes, they spark conflict and violence.â€
Sebarenzi fled Rwanda and survived the Tutsi genocide of 1994 â€” not without deep-rooted emotional turmoil. After a period of mourning, he decided to go back to Rwanda to cope with his anger and help his country reconstruct.
â€œI believed that civil wars and genocide were the result of bad government,â€ he said. â€œI wanted to have a strong parliament, and it was my deep desire to avoid this happening to my children.â€
Sebarenzi served as the head of the Rwandan Parliament from 1997 to 2000, when he learned of an assassination plot planned against him and was forced to flee Rwanda again.
In spite of the tragedies and turmoil in his life, Sebarenzi refused to let them bring him down.
â€œI made sure not to behave like my offender,â€ he said.
Sebarenzi moved to the United States and dedicated his life to spreading the message of peace and forgiveness. Motivated by the innocence of
children, his faith and the desire to be healthy, Sebarenzi makes it a daily process to forgive and reconcile with his enemies.
â€œYou can not change the past,â€ he said. â€œAnger will hurt your heart and your health and those around you that love you. But it will not hurt your offender.â€
Sebarenziâ€™s details his story and story his formula for forgiveness in his book, â€œGod Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of transformation.â€
Staff writer Emily Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.