Photo by Brian Moody
Three years prior to the Rwandan genocide, Jean Paul Samputu, at the time a rising star on the East African music scene, spent six months in jail alongside thousands of other Tutsis who had been arrested in their homes. The jails were overflowing, so the government finally released the prisoners but the situation grew increasingly tense. In April 1994 over a 100-day period, nearly one million Rwandan Tutsis lost their lives at the hands of their fellow Rwandans, the Hutus. Among the dead were several of Jean Paul’s family.
When the government started teaching Hutus how to hate, my father warned me to leave the country as I was a well-known Tutsi musician and therefore an obvious target. At first my parents didn’t realise that they were also in danger because in the Butare south we lived side by side with our Hutu neighbours and my father would say, “I trust them, they are my friends.” Even when I begged him to leave he said, “I’m 86 years old, I want to die here”.
It took a long time in my village to mobilise the Hutus to kill because some were married to Tutsis. Imagine being told to hate this person you love and who you have been together with for so long.
So I left on foot through the forest and started a music tour in Burundi and Uganda. The news spread abroad quickly that Hutus were killing all Tutsis – that’s how I learnt that my parents, three brothers and a sister had been killed.
I returned as soon as the killing had stopped and went straight to my village. The survivors didn’t know how my mother or siblings had been killed but they said, “Your father was killed by Vincent, your best friend, your father’s friend.”
I didn’t expect this and when I heard the truth my life changed for ever. The fact that it was a close family friend who had done this destroyed me. He was two years younger than me and my closest neighbour, my closest friend.
The shock was so great that I started drinking and taking drugs to forget. I wanted to take revenge. I wanted to kill Vincent. But I couldn’t find him, and so I started killing myself.
It took 9 years for me to deal with my anger, bitterness and desire for revenge. As I moved between Rwanda and Canada, where my wife and disabled daughter lived, anger and bitterness took hold to the point when I could no longer sing or show up on stage. I was an addict, an alcoholic.
All the time some of my friends were praying for me because they knew I was going to die. Then, one day, this miracle happened. In the midst of all this hell, I suddenly felt a strange peace in my heart.
Faith helped me to stop drinking. I had tried many things – drugs, witch doctors, but none of it worked. So I took a bible and I went to a prayer-mountain, and spent three months away from everyone just to discover God’s healing. During this retreat I heard a voice telling me that even if you become a Christian it’s not enough, you need to forgive the man who killed your father because you cannot love again if you still have hatred in your heart. And that voice was telling me forgiveness is for you not for the offender.
Of course it took time to accept that message, but in the end I had no choice and one day I said YES! I’m ready to forgive.
Since that time the songs flowed again; thousands of them. And that year in 2003 I won a Kora Award– the most prestigious music award in sub-Saharan Africa. It helped me to go to America with my music where I started to tell everyone about this most unpopular weapon – forgiveness. It’s unpopular because it’s a hard topic and a difficult process. Some people don’t want to teach it to their children, even in the church, because they look in the mirror, and they cannot preach what they cannot do.
By the time I returned from America in 2007 Vincent had been released and I went to my village to speak at the gacaca (a traditional court) trial saying the reason I was there was not to accuse him, but to forgive him and to set myself free. I hadn’t known Vincent was actually present until he stepped forward from the crowd and we met for the first time since the genocide. I then told him I forgave him. Telling him this gave me a great peace in my heart. I was a healed man. Afterwards we went to share a meal together and since that time we are often together.
He told me he was surprised that I’d forgiven him. Even though he had repented and asked for forgiveness he didn’t expect my forgiveness. I asked him to tell me where my father was buried. He told me the place and then he explained to me the law of genocide. The law of genocide is that you must kill your closest friend first because if you don’t then you will be killed. When Vincent told me this I began to understand how genocide can create a monster from any of us.