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A witness to rescue

Joseph Sebarenzi's story of the Rwandan genocide

BRATTLEBORO—Joseph Sebarenzi, 48, is a Rwandan Tutsi by birth who now lives in Washington, D.C., where he works for the U.S. Department of Justice on African and sub-Saharan human rights issues.

He recently spoke to an audience of approximately 100 students, faculty, and visitors at the SIT Graduate Institute as part of the Rescue Project’s ongoing awareness events.

His talk was titled “Honoring Rescuers, Fostering Compassion.” And his presence in the room was compelling on several counts.

He is tall and thin and graceful, characteristics often ascribed to the Tutsis of Rwanda. And his soft voice gave emphasis to the points that he was making about international responsibilities when genocide is happening, and about the power and grace of the people who become rescuers.

Copies of his book, God Sleeps in Rwanda (Atria Books, 2009), were for sale in the entryway outside the large, second-floor dining room where he delivered his talk. The title comes from an old saying, according to the book jacket: “God spends the day elsewhere, but He sleeps in Rwanda.”

Sebarenzi’s life, chronicled in his book, has been one of stark contrasts.

As a young boy, he and his siblings helped run the family compound and played in nearby Lake Kivu, where he would bring the cows to graze on its banks and drink its water.

Avocado trees surrounded his house, just part of the family’s farmland, which also included banana and coffee plantations.

But since one already knows that his parents and seven siblings were slaughtered in the 100-day Rwandan genocide in 1994 that killed nearly a million people, it’s difficult to wallow much in Sebarenzi’s idyllic childhood.

Sebarenzi points out that his father, whom he describes as a devout Christian, was considered a wealthy man, with land and 30 cows and three wives.

Even though polygamy was frowned upon since missionaries began arriving in 1910, it was still customary. The practice was generally confined to rich men, since each wife had to have a house.

His first wife didn’t conceive, so he married the woman who became Joseph’s mother. Then each wife conceived and delivered within weeks of the other.

A third wife came into the picture when Sebarenzi’s uncle left the country. To hold onto the brother’s property, Sebarenzi’s father needed a wife to live there.

As a result of these marriages, Sebarenzi once had 16 siblings and step-siblings.

Traditional indigenous beliefs are sometimes practiced along with Christianity, he said.

Sebarenzi writes that Rwanda is predominantly Christian, with a majority of Catholics. About a quarter of the population is Protestant, with a few Muslims and the rest Seventh Day Adventist, which was Joseph’s family’s faith.

He said that he remains a religious man, but not a follower of any particular branch of Christianity. In his book, he consistently credits God for whatever good fortune comes his way.

When Sebarenzi was in his teens, he was sent to live with another family so he could attend school in Congo and, while he appreciated the opportunity, he was terribly homesick. That period really marked the beginning of the end of his innocent childhood.

Subsequently, Sebarenzi married, had a child, and sent his family to safety. He survived the tumultuous events in his country, including many uprisings before the atrocities in 1994.

He went to school and lived outside the country, but returned to run for the Rwandan Parliament in 1996. Not only did he win, but he was also named Speaker and stayed in that role until 2000.

But eventually, given the sharp, lasting, and unresolved rivalries, he was forced out. At times, Sebarenzi feared for his life.

His wife, Liberata, and their five children live in Canada while Sebarenzi works in Washington; in addition to his government duties, he works as a part-time faculty member at SIT. He travels often to see his family, he said. And he lectures often at schools and universities.

The bulk of Sebarenzi’s heartfelt book, post childhood, tells the stories of the chaos, deceptions, and betrayals that led to Rwanda’s atrocities and to its subsequent unsettled state.

There are also tales of courage and bravery, but they appear to lack cumulative momentum. And he is not the only person to express cynicism about the “never again” pledges made by many nations, most of which turned a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide.

At his SIT Rescue appearance, Sebarenzi touched on the total failure of the Rwandan government and the international community to protect people in danger of extermination.

And, yet, he said, “In the midst of this total failure...some brave Hutu men and women took action and protected Tutsi despite the great danger of doing so.”

He told the stories of several rescuers, some of whom actually protected his stepsister’s family.

“When the genocide ended in July 1994, at least three-quarters of the Tutsi population were killed,” he said.

“The remaining quarter of the Tutsi population survived, essentially due to the courage of ordinary Hutu men and women, the bravery of some Tutsi rebels, and the kindness of foreigners who stayed in Rwanda to help,” Sebarenzi said. “Some rescuers are known, but many others will never be known.”

What all rescuers have in common, Sebarenzi said, is “ultimate compassion exhibited when it is risky to do so.”

“The ultimate compassion is not empathy, which is the recognition of the suffering of others,” he said. “The ultimate compassion goes beyond all that!”

Sebarenzi said that the goal of such compassion is “to eliminate extraordinary crimes, which are genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.”

And part of that goal, he adds, is to make known the stories of rescuers.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #127 (Wednesday, November 16, 2011).

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