“Can you forgive the people who killed your parents?” That is the most searching question in former Rwandan legislator Sebarenzi’s memoir.
As a boy growing up on the shores of Lake Kivu, the author had no conception of Hutu or Tutsi. Only as a teenager in the early 1970s, as a fresh spasm of ethnic violence swept across Rwanda, did he learn those ethnic distinctions and the history of colonial division that underlay them. Oppressed under Belgian rule, when the Tutsi were given preferred positions, the Hutus had attacked their compatriots many times before. It will be news to many Western readers that the genocide that finally settled on the nation in 1994—when Hutus killed some 800,000 Tutsi (and perhaps many more)—had already been experienced several times, albeit on a less comprehensive scale. Sebarenzi fled to Congo in 1974—“If you get an education, you can escape. If we are killed, you will survive,” his father told him—then traveled abroad before returning to Rwanda following the genocide. On the strength of his education, he was elected to Parliament in 1997, then quickly elevated to speaker, only to encounter the chaos and corruption of the federal government, whose every member, it seemed, opposed Sebarenzi’s efforts to impose a system of checks and balances. As the Parliament’s powers grew under his guidance, Sebarenzi was increasingly threatened and was finally forced to flee the country. His account—assisted by freelance writer Mullane—is valuable to readers seeking to understand the mechanics of ethnic violence, but also the difficulty of securing justice following so enormous a crime. As to the answer to that initial question, Sebarenzi answers, “It is the genocide that is unforgivable, not those who perpetrated it.”
A worthy contribution to the literature of both genocide and conflict resolution, bookending Jean Hatzfeld’s The Antelope’s Strategy (2009) and Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains (2009).