A Seething Below Rwanda's Surface
There's a saying in Rwanda: "God spends the day elsewhere, but he sleeps in Rwanda." It alludes to Rwanda's physical beauty, but also to the brutality that has sometimes haunted the country.
Both of those traits are captured in Joseph Sebarenzi's new memoir, God Sleeps in Rwanda. The book begins with him as a child, living near Lake Kivu in western Rwanda.
"On weekends, I would bring our cows [to the lake] to graze on its banks and drink from its waters," Sebarenzi writes. "While the cows rested, I would dive into the lake and feel its cool wash over me. I would turn over and float on my back, stare up at the vast expanse of blue sky spread above me and listen to the waves lap against the shore."
But even then, in the early '70s, violence marred the landscape. His family, ethnic Tutsis, had to hide from a Hutu mob that destroyed their home. After attending college in Burundi, Sebarenzi went back and forth between Rwanda and other countries. Each time, he was fleeing from violence, and each time, he felt compelled to return.
By 1994, Sebarenzi had found refuge in Canada. Thousands of miles away from his family in Rwanda, he watched the horrors of genocide unfold on the evening news. When his brother Emmanuel returned to their village after the violence had ended, Sebarenzi's worst fear was confirmed. His mother, father, seven of his siblings and several other relatives had been killed.
Less than a year later, he made the difficult decision to move back to Rwanda. The horrors had ended, but the country was in shambles. "It was a very difficult decision," Sebarenzi tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "But I felt that I had survived for a reason. I felt I had to go back to Rwanda and help with reconstruction."
He became a leading politician. Although he was reluctant at first to enter into politics, his rise in the post-war government was astronomical. By 1997, he was appointed speaker of parliament, making him the third most powerful man in the country.
Sebarenzi describes what it was like trying to lead in a country so severely shaken: "It was so hard, because people were still angry; there [was] revenge going on. We were under basically a military regime."
At the time, the country was largely controlled by Vice President Paul Kagame. In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front in its takeover of the government after the genocide. Now president of Rwanda, Kagame is regarded internationally as a reformer who has done valuable reconstruction work for the country.
But Sebarenzi has a very different view. He argues that Kagame is an autocrat who refuses to tolerate dissent in government or in the media. Although he says his political relationship with Kagame was amicable at first, it eventually deteriorated until Sebarenzi was pressured to resign as speaker, which he did.
"A few days after I resigned, I learned from many sources that there was a plan to kill me, and I decided to leave," he says. His book recounts how he hid in the bed of a truck filled with furniture to escape his bodyguards, who he suspected were Kagame's spies. He drove north until he reached the river at the border to Uganda and waded across to safety. There, he came under the protection of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and was allowed to move with his wife and children to the United States.
Since his exile, Sebarenzi has been unable to return to Rwanda. But he remains passionate about the politics and reconstruction of the country.
"If you look at Rwanda today, people live in peace with each other, but underneath, it's boiling. You cannot have reconciliation if you don't have justice on both sides," he says. "We need to come up with a formula that will make Hutu and Tutsi part of the system. That way, we can have a hope to have a lasting peace and reconciliation in Rwanda."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.