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Ambassadors for Peace

Portrait of Peace: Jean Paul Samputu

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Jean Paul Samputu is one of only two members of his family to survive the atrocities that took place in his homeland of Rwanda. Samputu lost his parents, three brothers and a sister. In October of 1990 he had been imprisoned along with other Tutsis for six months. Upon returning to his village he was warned by his father to leave because as a well-known musician his life would be in danger in the outbreak of violence that would only be a matter of time.

It took almost two days, but he managed to cross the border to Burundi. He paid people along the way to help him, traveling by night and hiding in the forest during the day. To confront his fear, he began drinking, a habit that haunted him for many years to come.

After moving to Uganda, he listened to the messages of hatred spread over the radio. He was horrified by the reports emerging in April 1994 of one million people murdered over a period of 90 days.

It was difficult to get any information as to who exactly was responsible and how they could commit such atrocities. Samputu learned that his mother was not at home when they killed his father, but when she found out, she ran back home screaming, "Kill me! Kill me!"… and they did.

The news of his sister’s death was most disturbing, as Samputu was told she was killed over a period of three days. "Imagine someone who kills you slowly,” he says. “They start to cut your arm, then your nose… That's how they killed my sister. How can a human do such things?" His questions included "How can people you grew up with, your own neighbors, kill your family?" And "why?"

A year passed, and in 1995 Samputu married Henriette, and they began a life together, but his anger continued to destroy him. He could not get any answers that could help him overcome the past, and he found himself in a state of self-destruction—taking drugs, alcohol and even attempting suicide.

The journey of healing

Eventually he asked someone, "Where can I go to have the word of God every day, every night, and not go back home and forget it?" They told him to go to the Mountain of Prayer in Uganda. There he sat in God's presence for twelve hours every day and even learned how to fast. He became aware of the power of God and realized “I can change things. I can live without anger. I can forget I suffered. I can forgive the ones who killed my parents… I can teach others peace!"

After three months he recognized that he had been set free. "I was totally healed the same day God helped me to forgive," he remembers. God told him, "You are healed now, you are free now. Go and teach the children. Rwandans need healing."

To forgive the people who killed his family and to spread his message he founded the Mizero Children of Rwanda, a group of 100 young orphans spreading hope through traditional Rwandan music and dance.

Samputu says many people deceive themselves when they say they forgive each other. He explains, "Forgiveness is not between you and the other. It's between you and God.”

To illustrate his point, he opens the Bible, and from underlined and marked pages, he reads Matthew 5:44: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." Continuing on he reads from Matthew 6:14: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Meeting the killers

That is what pushed him to go to the Gacaca Tribunals in Rwanda in August of 2007. When he got there, he had not yet met his “enemies,” and yet at heart, he was already prepared to forgive.

He addressed the tribunal stating that God had spoken to him and told him to forgive, but he didn't know if the people who killed his family were present that day. He met two of them, Eugene Nyirimana and Vincent Ntakirutimana, who had grown up with him as friends and neighbors. They went to share a meal and talk.

Nyirimana told where they buried his father, where he was killed with the others, and even who took his clothes and wore them. He also said that when his father asked the person who was going to kill him: "Look, I am 86, why kill me?" the person replied: "Because you are Tutsi."

Ntakirutimana was hesitant at first to believe he had been forgiven. Eventually, it led to reconciliation with his wife, who after learning that Samputu had forgiven him, decided to forgive her husband. She had separated from him after learning he had secretly taken part in the killing. Forgiveness allowed their family to reunite, which has helped him heal as well.

Samputu says he also forgives the Belgians, the colonizers who caused divisions between the Hutus, Tutsis, and even the Twa. He accepts the apologies that Belgium has given to Rwandans. He concludes, "Forgiveness is the most powerful unpopular weapon against terrorism and atrocity."

Looking up from where he sits in the living room of his home in Montreal, Canada, he points to the top corner of the wall, where his most recent award hangs: "Ambassador for Peace," recognition from the Universal Peace Federation, given to him in 2007. When asked why it is placed so high up, he replies that it is an offering to God, to remind himself that whatever he accomplished has been because God has guided him. "Some things you do because it is the right thing to do," he says. "You can't get awarded for that."

For more information see websites www.samputu.com and www.mizerochildren.org. Monica Lafon is a student of journalism and political science at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and a member of In Their Shoes, a non-profit organization based in Montreal. See also a video interview with Jean Paul Samputu.

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