Forgiving the unforgivable: One survivor’s incredible story
“I heard the killers call my name.
They were on the other side of the wall, and less than an inch of plaster and wood separated us. Their voices were cold, hard, and determined...
There were many voices, many killers. I could see them in my mind: my former friends and neighbors, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name.
‘I have killed 399 cockroaches’ said one of the killers. ‘Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.’
I cowered in the corner of our tiny secret bathroom without moving a muscle. Like the seven other women hiding for their lives with me, I held my breath so that the killers wouldn’t hear me breathing...”
It was April 1994 in Rwanda – the start of the Tutsi genocide, one of the bloodiest holocausts in human history.
For Immaculée Ilibagiza and more than a million other Tutsi tribe members, the next three months would be rife with unimaginable suffering.
Within a span of 91 days, in a country 1/8 the size of Minnesota, 800,000 Tutsis would be killed – two thirds of the total Tutsi population in Rwanda.
The brutality was staggering. Entire families, from great-grandparents to newborn babies, were tortured and massacred – often right in front of each other’s eyes. And often at the hands of people who, only weeks earlier, they considered their friends; people they shared meals with, laughed with across the dinner table.
The only difference between the victims and their killers was the tribe they belonged to.
The minority tribe, the Tutsis, and the majority tribe, the Hutus, often looked the same, talked the same, worked the same jobs and practiced the same religions. After generations of intermingling and intermarriage, many families were comprised of members of both tribes, and over the years the two had become nearly indistinguishable.
Yet some Hutus harbored longstanding resentment against the Tutsis. A core group of conservative political elites blamed the Tutsis for the country’s increasing social and economic problems, and they feared that the minority tribe would take control of the country.
This extreme group began to spread hate propaganda throughout Rwanda, encouraging the killing of Tutsis and promising rewards to ordinary Hutu citizens who followed through. With prodding by local officials and the support of the Hutu government, hundreds of thousands of regular citizens were stirred up to take up arms against their friends and neighbors.
A mob mentality took over, and every Tutsi became a target, along with moderate or sympathetic Hutus.
With stunning speed and cruelty, the genocide spread throughout Rwanda. No community or corner of the country was spared.
By early July, a Tutsi-led rebel group managed to defeat the Hutu mobs and gain control of the country, but immeasurable damage had already been done.
Crouched in that cramped, 3x4-foot bathroom with seven other women, afraid to let out so much as a whisper, Immaculée had little clue as to the horrors happening outside her hiding place. But from the bits and pieces she gathered, she knew that her life – and the lives of everyone she loved – was in grave danger.
A 24-year-old college student, Immaculée planned to be home for just a few days over Easter break, to visit her family, when the genocide began. She heard the anti-Tutsi threats and propaganda on the radio, but thought they were too outlandish to ever be taken seriously.
She didn’t see the attack on the Tutsis coming.
When the violence began, Immaculée’s father insisted she seek refuge at the home of a Hutu minister and family friend who lived in their village. Many Hutus remained sympathetic to the Tutsis, and risked their own lives to protect them. Fortunately for Immaculée, the minister was one of them.
Never dreaming that the violence would escalate as quickly or as horrifically as it did, Immaculée’s father assured her that he would retrieve her himself once the danger ebbed.
Sadly, his promise would go unfulfilled. Less than two weeks later, he was shot on the steps of the government office after requesting food for starving refugees. His body was left lying in the street.
It would be another three months before Immaculée would learn what happened to her father.
Or her mother.
Or two of her three brothers.
Or her countless other family members, college buddies, longtime friends and neighbors who were also killed.
While hiding out in that dark, silent bathroom, all Immaculée could do was hope and pray.
Fighting against her own demons – pain, anger, resentment and fear – Immaculée hoped and prayed.
Facing starvation and deterioration, Immaculée hoped and prayed.
Grief-stricken and anxious over the probable loss of her loved ones, Immaculée hoped and prayed.
Knowing that any moment of any day could be her last, Immaculée hoped and prayed.
And it was that hope, and prayer, that got her through it.
Freedom and forgiveness
When the violence was finally over, and the door to that tiny bathroom could at last be opened, Immaculée weighed just 65 pounds, and was so weak she could barely hold herself up.
But she felt the light of the day on her face, and she felt blessed. She believed her prayers had been answered. She was saved.
Hers isn’t just a story of survival: it’s a story of faith.
Without her prayers and deep spiritual connection to God, Immaculée believes she wouldn’t be alive today. And without the compassion and forgiveness that she prayed God would grant her, her soul would have shriveled under the weight of her own hatred and bitterness.
Despite all she went through and lost during the genocide, Immaculée says that what has stayed with her the most, years later, “is the grace of God.”
In a recent telephone interview with the Focus, Immaculée explained that “the silence, the pain... made me come out a completely different person.” But not a person filled with fear and anger.
Instead, today, when she looks back on that time in her life, “There’s a wave of bad feelings that come,” she said. But through prayer, “I’ve grown. I’ve learned to give and not to be a slave of anger. It’s a choice to be happy every day.”
Though it’s sometimes tempting to give in to those bad feelings, she’s realized that she has the freedom to make decisions and judgments for herself, with God as her guide. She’ll ask herself, “Is this something loving that God would be OK with? Am I being led by love?”
Immaculée’s capacity to love has not only helped her lead a happy, productive life after the genocide, it’s also led her to give her blessing to others to try and do the same – even to those who have wronged and hurt her most.
As a remarkable example, after coming face-to-face with the man who killed her mother and one of her brothers – the same man whose voice she had heard in that bathroom, the one who had hunted her down for three months – she realized she wanted no revenge on him. Instead, she was overwhelmed with pity for the man.
Seeing him imprisoned after the Tutsis had gained control of Rwanda, emaciated and in tatters, defeated and fully expecting the worst from her, she touched his hand lightly, and quietly told him, “I forgive you.”
‘Progress has been made’
Today, 20 years after the genocide, both Immaculée and Rwanda are moving on with grace, forgiving but not forgetting the events of the past.
Rwanda “has completely changed for the best,” Immaculée said. “The economy is 10 times better than it used to be, people are learning to sustain themselves, people are working. A lot of progress has been made.”
Best of all, she said, whether people are Tutsi or Hutu no longer matters. When Tutsis took over power of the country, they did not retaliate against the Hutus with further violence or discrimination. Instead, they focused on prosecuting those responsible for the genocide, and on rebuilding their country and moving forward.
After the genocide, Immaculée worked for a time at the United Nations, assisting with humanitarian efforts. She lived with a friend’s family and volunteered at an orphanage for children who lost their parents in the slaughter. She mourned the loss of her parents and two brothers, and reunited with her one surviving brother. She spent many evenings in prayer and meditation. She continued to seek a strong connection with God, and in time, she began to heal.
Four years after the genocide, she emigrated to the United States and began working at the UN in New York City, where she lives today with her two children.
In 2007, Immaculée established the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which helps support Rwandan orphans. She also wrote a book about her experiences, called “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” and she travels the country to share her story and unique perspective. She’s been interviewed hundreds of times, for major news media across the globe.
“It is so rewarding,” she said of sharing her story with others. “When I lay down at night, I feel good that I’ve used my strengths. I like feeling like I’m doing something with my life. I can’t tell you the joy I get out of this.”
Her best piece of advice?
“Remember there’s always hope,” she said. “And please forgive, always. If I can forgive, anyone can.”
Immaculée will tell her story of faith, hope and forgiveness at St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Perham on Thursday, May 1 at 7 p.m. Doors will open one hour prior. For tickets, call 346-4240. For more information about Immaculée, visit www.immaculee.com or www.lefttotell.com.
Editor’s note: The quote at the beginning of this story is an excerpt from Immaculée’s book, “Left to Tell.”