“But for me, when I came to forgive him, it was like I won,” said Samputu, who is now based in England. “It’s the right thing to do because we cannot continue hating each other. We have children who follow us and if we don’t give them a good education in love, another genocide will happen.”
There are millions of genocide survivors with stories similar to Samputu’s, but it is often the case that the trauma consumes them for life.
“People like Jean Paul who’ve suffered unspeakable circumstances don’t always recover,” said Payam Akhavan, a law professor at McGill University who also served as the first legal advisor to the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague.
“There are many survivors who are broken for life, but his is a story that gives us hope because somehow he found redemption through forgiveness.”
Samputu’s family is Tutsi. He grew up believing that there wasn’t any difference between Hutus and Tutsis. But in 1991 he was rounded up with other Tutsis and put in jail for six months as the anti-Tutsi campaign began to mount.
As soon as he was released from prison, his father encouraged Samputu to flee Rwanda. He reluctantly left his village behind, reassured that his friend Vincent would keep an eye on his father and the family.
Samputu was in Uganda when the genocide erupted on April 6, 1994. Over the course of the next 100 days nearly a million people were brutally slaughtered — among them Samputu’s mother, father, three brothers and a sister.
“I lost my mind,” said Samputu. “Every day I drank to forget. It was like I was in hell. I wanted to kill Vincent, and since I couldn’t kill Vincent I started to kill myself.”
On July 20, 1994, Samputu made his way back to his home village and found his family’s house empty. He soon found out from his neighbours that his friend Vincent had killed his father and was among those responsible for killing his family.
He moved to Kigali and then back to Uganda. His drinking and drug use got in the way of his music career - he says he would show up for gigs but would be so intoxicated he couldn’t get up on stage. Samputu soon found himself in and out of prison for provoking fights and not paying bills at hotels and bars.
“It took nine years dealing with anger, bitterness and resentment,” said Samputu. “I realized I couldn’t continue. By being angry, I couldn’t bring back my family.”
Samputu cut himself off from drugs and alcohol took a meditation retreat where he spent three months in prayer and relative silence. He came to the conclusion that the only way for him to move forward with his life is to reach out to Vincent and forgive him.
In 2007 he went back to his village and spoke at the gacaca (a traditional court) where he met Vincent and publicly forgave him.
“Just as the victim of genocide suffers, so does the perpetrator,” said McGill University's Akhavan. “This doesn’t mean that the person is not criminally responsible, but it is a negation of the humanity of the perpetrator to take another human’s life.”
Samputu and Vincent spent the next few years speaking publicly about their reconciliation in hopes that it would inspire other Rwandans to do the same.
Vincent is now living in Kampala. He initially agreed to do an interview with the CBC Radio program Ideas, but declined at the last minute citing concerns for his safety, as he doesn’t want anyone in Kampala to know about his past.
“People often [think] that forgiveness is a gift to the offender. But forgiveness is for you, not for the offender,” said Samputu, acknowledging it was difficult to convince many Rwandans of his decision.
Akhavan agrees forgiveness post-genocide is a way for a victim to come to terms with the horror they faced and that is a personal choice. But beyond the individual level, he says the international community must place emphasis identifying the symptoms of a pending genocide and acting on it. It’s the machinery behind human atrocity that must be identified and shut down, he says.
“People don’t pick up machetes overnight and start killing the father of their best friend,” said Akhavan who was commissioned by the UN to investigate and report on its failure in Rwanda. “It takes effort to make people hate and kill. It is not a spontaneous outburst of primordial hatred.”
[April 9 on CBC radio's Ideas starting after the 9 p.m. news, listen to the full documentary featuring Rwandan musician Jean-Paul Samputu telling his story of heartbreaking loss and breathtaking reconciliation with the man who killed his family. And Ideas host Paul Kennedy asks whether 20 years later we have taken any lessons in preventing genocide today.]