Rwanda genocide survivor shares live experiences

Samantha Weiss April 10, 2014 0

ne of the fondest memories of my childhood in Rwanda is of swimming in Lake Kivu as a boy … From the lake, I could climb a steep hill to our house, which was surrounded by avocado trees. Eucalyptus trees dotted the farm, their sweet scent carried on the breeze that slipped between its branches and blew across our banana and coffee plantations…” Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi wrote.

Despite the beauty of Rwanda, less pleasant memories of violence and fear also fill Sebarenzi’s childhood.

Sebarenzi remembers the day his father asked him to go to school abroad. What would usually be considered a privilege became the last resort of a desperate man. “If we die, you’ll live,” he recalled his father telling him.

Sebarenzi is a survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, immortalized in the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” Though the genocide lasted only 90 days, over 800,000 men, women and children of the Tutsi ethnic group and several thousand of the Hutu ethnic group were killed. The violence and efficiency of the genocide is compared to the Nazi-Holocaust in 1933-1945.

Located in Southeast Africa, Rwanda is about the size of the state of Maryland; it is the most densely populated African nation, with about 317 people to every square kilometer. The Belgian government instated and enforced their regime until 1962. It was shortly before the country won its independence that the slaughter of the Tutsi was organized. The government-sanctioned murder of the Tutsi people is estimated to have destroyed three-fourths of the population.

The expressions of those listening to his story in Gibble Auditorium on April 3 ranged from shock to horror. Most of the students in attendance knew of the genocide in 1994, but meeting a man whose family was nearly decimated because of it created entirely different emotions. As the audience sat in quiet astonishment, Sebarenzi continued his story by explaining the road he took to get to forgiveness and how it has changed his life.

Aside from his peacemaking efforts and work with the United States and Rwandan government, Sebarenzi wrote a memoir called “God Sleeps in Rwanda,” which details the genocide in 1994 and the process of catharsis, which continues today.  He opens the book with the lines “I am not a storyteller. In Rwanda, it’s too dangerous to tell stories. There are thousands of stories to tell — about birth and life, and far too many stories about death.” He chooses a story that needs to be told and takes his chances in the hopes that the story of the Rwanda conflict will serve as an example to other nations. It proves that such horror can happen anywhere, but also that forgiveness and justice can be achieved.

“I think [the book] is good for young people because it shows that despite the suffering you go through in life, you need to react in a positive way,” Sebarenzi said.

Kristi Syrdahl , the director of the office of international student services met Sebarenzi at a summer conference and began planning to bring him to campus during 2014, the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. The Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking worked together with Syrdahl and her office to host and publicize the event. In conjunction with the April installment of the international film festival, “Sometimes in April,” Sebarenzi spoke to a small group of faculty over lunch, held a book discussion over dinner and gave a lecture in the evening. The series of discussions and presentations that Sebarenzi took part in were intended to teach students and visitors about peacemaking in the context of the Rwanda conflict.

“I was happy to hear him talk more about the attempts at reconciliation after the genocide. Most of us knew little about Rwanda before the genocide, became mesmerized during the terrible months in 1994 and then forgot about it again after the storm passed. He reminded us that the process of reconciliation and peacemaking continues long after the immediate crisis is past,” Director of the Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking Dr. David Kenley said.

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