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Immaculée Ilibagiza: Forgiveness Amidst Despair
By Peter Feuerherd
Hiding in a small bathroom for 91 days helped this woman to survive the Rwandan genocide. Her Catholic faith helped her move past it.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Terrifying Experience
The Rough Road to Forgiveness
Moving Forward With a Message
Far-reaching Effects
Spreading the Message

PORTRAIT BY J. SALVATORIE TANGORRE, COURTESY OF HAY HOUSE, INC.; SKY PHOTO© ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/ LAWRENCE WEE  

For college student Immaculée Ilibagiza, the horror didn’t end after she left the bathroom she shared with seven other women for 91 days. They were hiding in the sanctuary of a pastor’s house, stuck in a hidden bathroom that they couldn’t leave for fear of being discovered.

They were quiet while Hutu murderers regularly passed by, chanting slogans that described the women as cockroaches who should be stamped out the way thousands of Tutsis were during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. She could only guess at the fate of her mother, father and two brothers—all of whom were murdered (one brother was spared because he was studying in Senegal at the time of the genocide).

The aftermath included more struggles. First, she needed to find sanctuary with French troops sent to protect Tutsis and their Hutu supporters from the genocidal rampage. And then there was the matter of her own spiritual well-being, something she took seriously as a devout Catholic. The easy way out, she admits, would have been to be swept up in the anger and hatred, returning the venom that victimized her family.

A simple rosary, a gift from her father, got her through the ordeal, Immaculée says during an interview from the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, more than a dozen years and thousands of miles removed from the calamity. She was raised as the university-trained daughter of a prominent and well-respected Tutsi farmer. Her father, like most Tutsis, never expected the wrath of Hutus to descend upon him and his family. Up to the end, he was working toward negotiating with the killers.

A Terrifying Experience

The murderers—in a ghastly echo of the Nazi Holocaust—included former friends, fellow students and even one of Immaculée’s teachers. They were everyday people swept up in evil, whipped up by radio broadcasts that blamed Tutsis for the death in an airplane crash of the Hutu president and the presence of a rebel army poised to take over the country.

Experts on Rwanda’s history point to the long history of discord between the two main tribes, aggravated by colonial powers that placed the Tutsis, generally known for their tall and elegant appearance, in possession of most of the important jobs. Resentments proceeded to fester for decades, occasionally breaking out in sporadic violence. But few predicted what would come.

Immaculée, in the language of Christian faith she cites regularly, describes the genocide as being caused by the devil, a presence of evil she views as real and concrete. For those reared in a different culture, it might at first sound implausible. From her mouth, however, the claim has credibility. No one can doubt that Immaculée has encountered evil in its most terrifying form and lived to tell about it.

The murderers killed Tutsis and their Hutu friends in churches, schools and camps where they huddled for protection, even during negotiation sessions. It was not a clinical or long-distance mass killing. Many were ripped apart by machetes.

As the world watched, or never even heard—Americans at the time were absorbed in the O.J. Simpson trial—the roads in Rwanda ran with blood. The bloated bodies of the dead were everywhere. At the time, the modern holocaust rarely rated a mention. Years later President Bill Clinton apologized for both his administration’s and the world’s inaction.

That was the background when, forgotten in the midst of chaos and death, Immaculée clung to the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, those prayers said in conjunction with meditation upon the sufferings of Jesus and his mother. Reflecting upon the notion of God as one who suffers like Jesus, Immaculée bonded the sufferings of herself and her country to the Rosary she recited regularly in the bathroom.

“I found a place in the bathroom to call my own,” she wrote about the experience in her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House). That place, she says, “was a small corner of my heart” where “I retreated as soon as I awoke, and stayed there until I slept. It was my secret garden, where I spoke with God, meditated on his words, and nurtured my spiritual self.”

She says she didn’t pay much attention to the Rosary and the Bible when she was growing up. But as a 22-year-old woman in the bathroom confronting death, she became forcefully reacquainted with her Catholic spiritual resources.

“The rosary beads helped me concentrate on the Gospel and kept the words of God alive in my mind,” she wrote. “Even as my body shriveled [she lost weight rapidly during her ordeal], my soul was nourished through my deepening relationship with God.”

In this graphic case of faith under fire, Immaculée found herself in a give-and-take dialogue with God throughout the genocide, particularly as she discovered the truth about its extent. She found herself frequently referring to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion, and wondered why he didn’t assert his power to end his suffering.

“You are God,” she remembers thinking. “You couldn’t blow them away?” she asked about how Jesus responded to his tormentors.

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The Rough Road to Forgiveness

Forgiveness did not come easily. In her book, she notes that at one point she silently wanted friendly soldiers who captured a murderer to set him on fire. At another point, a friendly soldier offered to kill anyone she would point out as having participated in the genocide. She refused, even though she knew many of the perpetrators.

Whenever she found herself overwhelmed with thoughts of hate and revenge, she reflected anew upon Jesus’ sufferings.

“If Jesus was dying for everybody, he was dying for even the killers,” she reflected. As the killers continued to stalk her and her friends, she latched on to the recorded words of Jesus before his death on the cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

The prayers of the Rosary, particularly the line in the Lord’s Prayer calling upon Christians to forgive those who do wrong to them, resonated throughout her tribulations. The Rosary became a passionate plea for understanding, not a simple rote recitation.

“I really had to mean the words I was saying. I couldn’t say them half-heartedly,” she says.

Moving Forward With a Message

Thirteen years later, Immaculée has moved on, at least in some ways. She is married to an American Catholic, Bryan Black, who works at the United Nations, and they have two children. (She prayed that the man she would fall in love with would be a Catholic.)

But she is still a messenger of her experience, giving talks around the United States and the world about forgiveness and reconciliation. A foundation she began supports efforts to help African children, including those in Rwanda, which she still visits regularly.

Her book has earned lavish praise from the likes of Wayne Dyer, best-selling author and public television self-help guru. She was featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes in December 2006. Her story has inspired thousands. One Jewish woman in her 90s, whose family was murdered in the Nazi Holocaust, came up to Immaculée after one talk and told her, “Now I can be at peace. I wanted to see someone who lived it and could tell me it was possible to forgive.”

Readers and listeners marvel at her focus on forgiveness. Immaculée cautions, however, that forgiveness does not entail opening the prisons and freeing those who have done evil. She supports justice for those who have killed, including those who have been convicted of genocide in Rwanda.

“You have to face the evil in the world,” she says, adding, “My forgiveness is rooted in reality.” She emphasizes that sometimes forgiveness is misunderstood.

“Forgiveness scares people. They think when you forgive, you condone.” She doesn’t forget, and neither do her people. Yet the Gospel message of forgiveness is the only way out of self-destructive hatred, she believes.

Far-reaching Effects

Today’s Rwanda, although scarred by evil, is one of Africa’s most peaceful nations. The government is led by the leaders of the rebel movement. Many of the killers have been tried and are serving long sentences.

In interviews, her story tumbles out in a free association, mixing the complex history of Rwanda with a Catholic faith that brings to life old pieties about the power of forgiveness and God’s justice. Relatively few have experienced the full horrors of genocide, but Immaculée’s story has inspired thousands to reflect upon the power of forgiveness and fortitude.

One man, after hearing her talk, was able to forgive a slight that he had kept in his heart for 54 years. A woman who was sexually abused as a child found the message inspiring. “I told her that it is O.K. to move on, even if you were hurt,” says Immaculée.

Others tell tales of persevering through school and of marriages bolstered by her ideas on forgiveness. Some say they are only now able to pray after hearing Immaculée’s story.

Deacon Ray Kroger of St. Margaret of York Church in Loveland, Ohio, has never met Immaculée but feels he knows her through her book. He started reading it one morning, upon the advice of a parishioner, and wasn’t able to put it down until he finished its 214 pages.

“If I had put it down, I felt like I would lose where I was with her,” he says of the book’s elegant yet simple style, in which the reader is thrust into the agony of the Rwandan genocide and her escape. The topic is heavy, yet the style is warmly personal. “I felt it was her journey and it was made into my journey,” says Deacon Kroger.

The book, he says, is a way to reflect upon faith and forgiveness. “I know I couldn’t have the kind of faith she had,” he says. “The hardest thing for me would be to come face-to-face with people who murdered my own family.”

Upon finishing Left to Tell, Deacon Kroger says he was left with a single question: “Where in my life do I need to forgive people?”

That is a common response. The book has made its way around the parish and has been the focus of the church’s social-justice discussion group.

Jeff Perkins, of the parish Social Action Commission, notes that Left to Tell became a lesson for parishioners in the spiritual gifts of prayer and forgiveness. “The book generated a great deal of excitement and sharing,” he says. “No one held onto their book but rather passed on their copy to someone else; it touched everyone deeply enough that they felt compelled to share it.”

Before the Left to Tell study group, programs sponsored by the Social Action Commission at the parish attracted no more than 20 people. This year, close to 30 signed up for more than half a year of committed study. Perkins thinks Immaculée’s story might have generated the increased interest.

Spreading the Message

For Immaculée, the overwhelmingly positive response to the book makes her feel as if God is using her to spread a message of reconciliation. When she meets someone affected by her message, she says she prays to the Holy Spirit to take the person and heal her.

“I am just a channel,” she says. “God will do the miracles he wants to do. It’s not you. Hand it to God.”

She is now writing a new book, titled Led by Faith, which is expected to be out in 2008. It tells the story of her life after the genocide, miraculous in itself. Part of her bathroom time was spent studying English, in the hope that the language skill would help her to land a job at the United Nations, a dream that she realized.

She no longer works at the U.N., instead devoting her time to her writing, lectures and her Left to Tell Charitable Fund. She has found an audience that wants to hear her story.

While Immaculée describes a unique story of overcoming a rare horror, her message of forgiveness is a universal one, affecting those who have not experienced genocide. Perkins says the book has had an impact on his ministry to prisoners, where he finds forgiveness to be a difficult concept to accept.

It also continues to have a strong impact among parishioners at St. Margaret of York Church in Loveland, a Cincinnati suburb. Whether we come from Rwanda or Ohio, says Perkins, “We all have some hurt in our past which continues to gnaw away at us.”

It’s no wonder that Left to Tell has found an audience. Ever since she left the crowded bathroom, Immaculée Ilibagiza has been addressing that pain, in herself and everyone she meets.

For more information on Immaculée Ilibagiza, her books and the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, visit www.lefttotell.com. Immaculée’s story is also told in the documentary The Diary of Immaculée.


Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer/editor from Rego Park, New York, where he is also an adjunct professor of journalism at St. John’s University.

 


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