Former Rwandan government official Joseph Sebarenzi may have grown up in a culture of violence, but it is a message of peace that he is preaching to America now.
Sebarenzi addressed an audience of roughly 50 students and professors at Gainesville State College Wednesday and gave a presentation reviewing the Hutu genocide of Tutsis that unfolded in Rwanda during the 1990s. His speech, titled "A Message of Peace and Reconciliation," is one he has delivered to colleges and universities across the country since 2000.
Sebarenzi is a former speaker for the Rwandan parliament and was third in power to the country’s president when he fled Rwanda for the United States after being informed of a plot to assassinate him. He said a specific bill he supported in parliament that called for reduced presidential power triggered the conflict surrounding his military-enforced resignation.
Now a Virginia resident, Sebarenzi teaches conflict resolution at the School for International Training and also lectures nationwide.
At the college’s Continuing Education building, Sebarenzi told his story, beginning with the first time he saw machete-wielding Hutus burning homes in his village when he was a young boy. He then recalled the deaths of his seven brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts and parents.
"It’s a story of suffering, but also of courage," he began. "I saw Hutus running with machetes burning house after house until they were destroyed. And the government did nothing. And there was no humanitarian aid."
In 1994, Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis, Sebarenzi said, but the violence did not start or end there.
He said in 1959, Hutus and Tutsis, who were divided by stature differences determined by Belgian colonialists, began fighting for power in Rwanda. Tutsis typically are defined by their tall slim figures, while Hutus are generally shorter, although that is not always the case, Sebarenzi said.
"We speak the same languages and we’ve lived side by side, so it’s hard to tell the difference," Sebarenzi explained. "But I did have an identification card that said I was Tutsi."
Between 1959 and 1967, 20,000 Tutsis were killed and 300,000 more were forced into exile, Sebarenzi said. The two Rwandan tribes have juggled power back and forth ever since.
On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport.
The assassination brought ethnic tensions to a head in the country, and Hutus began a genocide campaign that left 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, dead in a 100-day period.
"When people ask me how many people in my extended family have died, I say ‘I don’t know, I’ve never really had the courage to count,’" Sebarenzi said. Only two members of his immediate family survived the 1994 genocide. One was Sebarenzi’s brother, who was out of the country at the time, and his sister.
Finally, Sebarenzi discussed his primary point — forgiveness.
"The resentment I had against the people who killed my loved ones was taking over my life," Sebarenzi said. "You carry that bitterness for many years, but at some point you have to let it go, and by doing that, it’s a gift you give to yourself, because then you can sleep at night, and not turn and turn.
"My grandmother went through this, my father went through this, and I went through this. At some point it has to stop. We have to stop this cycle of violence. And by forgiving, we can break this cycle of violence, of revenge that transmits violence to future generations," he said.
One Gainesville State College student had first-hand insight into Sebarenzi’s lecture.
Diane, who asked her last name not be revealed, said she grew up in Rwanda and is of both Tutsi and Hutu lineage. She left Rwanda eight years ago.
"When I try to analyze the situation, I think that both tribes really played a part," Diane said. "Both tribes committed genocide. Everyone, everyone lost a member of their family. I wish this nation (the United States) would know it’s not just Tutsis that were killed."
Diane said that although she believes the killing of Hutus should also be highlighted in Sebarenzi’s speech, she agreed with his message of forgiveness.
"I was there when things happened — I was in the country," Diane said. "But I will not teach bitterness to my children. I will move on with my life."