By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
Joseph Sebarenzi has every reason in the world to be angry and bitter.
“You can go through a very, very tough situation but that should not hold you down, should not take away your kindness, your purpose. You need to find ways to move forward and continue being kind, do the right thing and pursue your goals,” Sebarenzi said. “In my case, particularly, I endured tragedy beyond understanding with the killing of my father, my mother, my seven siblings — that is a tragedy. But despite that tragedy, I was able to overcome my anger, my bitterness and commit myself to reconciliation, to being kind.”
Sebarenzi was born in Rwanda in 1963 at a time when his country was already experiencing great turmoil and tension between the two ethnic groups: the Hutu and the Tutsi. He is a Tutsi, part the minority group, though he says there is no way you can tell the difference between the two by looking at them.
Throughout his childhood, he and his family narrowly escaped death at the hands of Hutu rebels several times, but when the situation intensified in the 1990s, he was sent away to Burundi.
“I know for a fact that this is a conflict that started very small, but it grew, and grew and grew until it was a genocide,” he said.
His parents, seven siblings and most of his other family members were among the approximately 800,000 Tutsi murdered by the extremist Hutu militia during the 1994 genocide that lasted less than 100 days.
Sebarenzi returned after the genocide to help repair the country he loved. After working as a consultant for non-profit organizations, he was elected the speaker of parliament. He served in this position from 1997 to 2000, when he fled the country to the United States following threats on his life.
Since fleeing the country, he has been a vocal advocate for peace. He has worked with the School for International Training in Vermont, teaching conflict transformation.
He brought his message of peace and understanding to Mississippi State University last night, where he spoke to a group of students on the importance of letting go of anger and forgiving their enemies.
“Each year we celebrate International Education Week and we try to bring in a different speaker that can basically enlighten our students to international issues,” Maria White, assistant dean and director of the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, said. “It is going to be good for our students to hear a message of hardship and great tragedy that is being turned around and used to bring awareness and enlightenment to people all over the world.”
Sebarenzi said he held on to the anger and resentment for many years, but he had to learn to let it go and move on. He recognized forgiveness was the only way to ensure peace for future generations.
“I had to do something to make sure that what happened to my parents, to my siblings does not happen to my children, does not happen to my grandchildren, does not happen to innocent children,” he said. “If you take revenge, you are helping this cycle of violence to keep going. The only thing I was able to do was make a contribution to peace for those who had survived, peace for future generations, peace for my children. I could do something about this.”
Sebarenzi said he also felt he was called by his faith to give up the hate he held in his heart.
“I was raised in a Christian family and like many spiritual faiths — like Islam, like Buddhism, like Judaism — they all teach forgiveness, they don’t teach revenge,” he said. “You cannot forgive a sin, but you can forgive a sinner. I keep telling people, I cannot forgive the genocide, but I can forgive the people that committed the genocide.”
Sebarenzi says he now works to channel the anger into something positive and works to ensure that what happened to his family and his people never happens again. He wrote a book about his experiences following the devastating genocide, called “God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation.”
“I was able to show kindness, not just to anyone, but also to the people who were involved in the genocide. If I can do that — it’s not easy — many people can do that regarding disappointments they have regarding their boyfriend or girlfriend, or divorce, or loss of money,” Sebarenzi said.