After the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 that killed most of his family, Dr. Joseph Sebarenzi found himself looking for forgiveness as his mind filled with bitterness. Dr. Sebarenzi spoke on Tuesday November 6 at Keene State College about his journey from bitterness to forgiveness and how it’s easier to forgive then it is to stay angry.
As the Rwandan Civil War started in 1990, the Hutu, an ethnic group that overthrew the Tutsi monarchy, began to take over the government which then led to the genocide of 1994. Once the Hutu had control of the government in Rwanda, they began the mass killing of around 800,000 Rwandans in only 100 days. 70 percent of these people were the Tutsi population, an ethnic group targeted by the Hutu. By July of 1994, there had been 800,000 casualties and 2,000,000 million had either fled or been displaced as refugees. These refugees were mostly Hutu.
Dr. Sebarenzi fled to Ontario, Canada, as a refugee before the genocide began on April 7, 1994. It was there that he tried to convince his family to flee the country and find safety and refuge in other countries but despite his efforts, his family did not leave Rwanda. He learned in July of 1994 that most of his family had been killed when his brother had called him to tell him about what had happened in his home country.
Dr. Sebarenzi said he had to face the hard truth that his entire family had died when he kept naming off family members who had stayed in Rwanda, and his brother cut him off, saying: “Stop asking names, they’re all dead,”.
Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dottie Morris said it’s a real privilege to have Dr. Sebarenzi speak at Keene State College and share his wisdom. “We’re very fortunate to be able to have Dr. Sebarenzi speak in front of us because he offers and teaches one of the most valuable lessons in life, and that’s forgiveness. It’s incredible watching him speak because you know that he’s a man that’s really been through so much, yet he’s able to forgive the people that have hurt him in order to maintain a healthy life. And that’s the message that he teaches,” Morris said.
After finding out his family was killed by the Hutu, Dr. Sebarenzi said he found himself getting headaches, stomach aches and not being able to sleep at night. He said he soon realized that these things were happening to him because the anger and bitterness he felt towards the Hutu was starting to take over his mind and body. “I started noticing things were happening to my body but I wasn’t really sick. It wasn’t until I came to terms with what had happened back home that I realized that I was feeling this way because I was so angry and bitter about my family being killed. I knew I could not live like this anymore,” Sebarenzi said.
Once Dr. Sebarenzi found out anger was the source behind his problems, he decided it was time to go back to Rwanda to try to find peace and closure. “When I got back to Rwanda, I quickly found out that the situation was unbearable. People were walking around using crutches while they still tried to bury the people who had died. My Tutsi friends had been killed and my Hutu friends had been exiled. When I got to my house, all I found was my home destroyed to the ground. It was a very sad moment for me,” Sebarenzi said.
Dr. Sebarenzi said throughout his journey to forgiveness, he had to first work in Rwanda to provide for his family. It was there that he visited a prison and spoke with a Hutu prisoner that killed Tutsi in his village that he felt compassion. “I felt for this man because he had made mistakes in the past, but now he was living in terrible conditions. I didn’t feel angry or bitter, I felt compassion. He had no money for food, so I gave him some. It was in this moment that I realized it was easier to forgive this man then to be bitter over his actions for the rest of my life,” Dr. Sebarenzi said.
“To free yourself from bitterness and anger, you must accept that what has happened has happened, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. Once I realized this, I felt like myself again. I could sleep, and I didn’t get stomach aches or headaches anymore. My mind was healthy and it was all because I chose to forgive those who had hurt me,” Dr. Sebarenzi said.
First-year Maddelynn Buckley said the lesson of forgiveness is something very important to learn because you can’t stop yourself from getting angry, but you can change how it affects you. “Learning how to go from bitterness to forgiveness is helpful for everyone because everyone gets angry in life. It’s something you can’t help, it’s a human emotion we all have. But learning how to change that anger into forgiveness is a valuable lesson that not that many people fully grasp because it’s a hard thing to do. I think if school systems spent more time teaching students how to solve conflict effectively, it would be a lot easier for people to go from bitterness to forgiveness,” Buckley said.
After leaving Rwanda once again as a refugee, Dr. Sebarenzi came to the United States where he got his doctorate degree in Human Rights Law. He now focuses on and speaks about spreading awareness on forgiveness, reconciliation, and peacebuilding.
Emily Carstensen can be contacted at