Former Rwandan leader tells of genocide survival

More than 200 people filled Lecture Hall 8 Thursday night to listen to the inspirational stories of a man who survived a genocide and became the speaker of the Rwandan Parliament.

Joseph Sebarenzi, who lost most of his family in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was brought to Binghamton University by the Student Association Programming Board to share his tragic story, as well as his message of peace and reconciliation, with students and faculty members alike.

“It’s a unique opportunity to bring someone like Joe to BU, and we hope students can take a lot away from what he says,” said Aaron Cohn, vice president for programming for the SA, before the event.

Sebarenzi tells his family’s story of the genocide and his life experiences twice a month to students across the United States to encourage them to remain altruistic despite the suffering they may endure.

The worst acts of genocide occurred in 1994, when Hutus, the majority political power, killed 800,000 Tutsis, the minority power, in 90 days. Most of Sebarenzi’s immediate family, including his parents and seven siblings, were killed in this genocide.

Because of his father’s orders, Sebarenzi was living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the time. Sebarenzi’s father wanted to guarantee that one family member would survive if a genocide occurred.

“I feel lucky compared to others because I have a brother and a sister who survived,” he said. “There are families in which no single person survived.”

Soon after the genocide, the Tutsis took power, and Sebarenzi felt safe to return to Rwanda where he began advocating for peace.

He was voted speaker of Parliament in 1997, the third-highest position in Rwandan government.

Sebarenzi used his powers as speaker to sign a bill that would “lay a foundation of lasting peace.” Although he knew this decision could cost him his job and possibly his life, it was a risk he had to take.

“I signed this bill into law to make a difference, but also to prevent another genocide in Rwanda,” he said.

The law was short-lived because of an assassination plot against Sebarenzi that forced him to flee the country. Seeking refuge in the U.S., he quickly learned English and worked to obtain a Ph.D. at the School for International Training.

While the fighting in Rwanda has stopped, there is no democratic system in place and there continues to be a threat of violence.

Sebarenzi currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and five children. While he misses Rwanda’s landscape and weather, he is happy that he sought refuge in the United States and plans on staying here.

“I am a U.S. citizen now,” he said. “I feel safe sleeping at night and I can see that people [in the U.S.] are generally very generous and welcoming.”