Former Speaker of the Rwanda parliament and Darfurian genocide survivor Joseph Sebarenzi was guest speaker at an April 3 event at Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study honoring Joyce Reilly, co-convener of the NJ Coalition Responds to the Crisis in Darfur.
Coalition members include a number of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest, Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, and Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest.
Reilly is an advocate for victims of the strife in Darfur. She helped raise more than $100,000 for solar cookers for Darfurian refugees and launched a children’s education program at the Oure Cassoni Refugee Camp in Chad. Recently, Reilly joined the staff of Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest NJ to help resettle the first Darfurian refugees in New Jersey, who are expected to arrive in the next few months.
Sebarenzi, whose family belonged to the country’s Tutsi minority, recalled his life in Rwanda before he sought political asylum in the United States.
He said he remembers being sent into exile three times. The first time, at age 11, he was sent by his father across the border to a relative. “If we are killed, you will survive,” his father told him. Two decades later, Sebarenzi fled Rwanda as violence erupted again. Hutu extremists slaughtered 850,000 people in 1994, including Joseph’s father and mother. He left for the third and final time in 2000 when he was threatened with death by a political opponent; he alleges that that opponent is current Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
Sebarenzi sought political asylum in the United States, where he studied conflict resolution and wrote God Sleeps in Rwanda, a book about his experiences. He is now an American citizen but, he said, he would return to Rwanda “in a heartbeat” if he could spread his vision of reconciliation. “We are all Rwandans,” he said. “Never say, you are Hutu or Tutsi.”
He believes the country remains vulnerable to ethnic violence. “A government has to allow people to speak freely, because in their homes and in their small clubs they do talk about their grievances. Keeping anger and hatred inside is dangerous.”
Sebarenzi acknowledged that Kagame has aided survivors and brought many of the killers to trial. But, he said, he believes more must be done to effect reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu.
“We need to insist on bringing people together and discussing what happened,” said Sebarenzi. “We need to encourage people to confess, and encourage people to forgive.”
To contribute to the Darfur Education Project: Help Children at Oure Cassoni Refugee Camp Learn, Heal and Grow, visit www.njdarfur.org.