Rwandan genocide survivor, author, Immaculee Ilibagiza to tell her story of love, hate and forgiveness in Vail Valley school
EDWARDS — Immaculee Ilibagiza was a Rwandan college student when she crammed herself into a 3-by-4 foot bathroom with seven other women, praying silently as her fingers clung to her rosary beads.
She prayed silently to keep the Hutus from hearing her. If they heard her and the others, they would slaughter her and the six women with her.
“We know she’s here somewhere,” the Hutus shouted as they stomp through her pastor’s house breaking furniture and upending everything they touched, trying to find her so they could kill her.
Ilibagiza, a member of the Tutsi tribe, had faced death at the Hutus’ hands before, and would again.
“Every time they came looking for me, I thought I would be found. I thought I would die,” Ilibagiza said.
This time, she and the six others spent 91 days hiding in that bathroom while tens of thousands were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide.
“The only thing that got me through was my faith in God,” she said.
Ilibagiza lived to tell her story, which she will do twice on Thursday, Oct. 4, at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic School in Edwards, at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Ilibagiza’s first book, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” was published in March 2006 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. The book received a Christopher Award, “affirming the highest values of human spirit.” A movie based on her story is in the works.
She has written seven books about the Rwandan genocide, faith and forgiveness.
“Kill Them All”
Ilibagiza was a 23-year-old electrical engineering student when the genocide began. It was April 1994, and she was home in her small western Rwandan village from the National University for Easter break.
On April 7, the simmering ethnic tension between the majority Hutus and the Tutsis, her tribe, erupted when Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down. Hutus called on each other to kill Tutsis. The Hutus answered that call immediately.
Ilibagiza’s father knew his only daughter would be raped and murdered if caught, so he pushed some rosary beads into her hands and told her to hide at the house of a nearby Protestant Hutu pastor. She and six other women hid in that bathroom for 91 days. The pastor brought them food when he could, but her weight dropped from 150 pounds to 65.
The Hutu mobs repeatedly came just inches from the wardrobe that hid the bathroom door.
Outside she heard the killers’ chants: “Kill them big, kill them small, kill them, kill them, kill them all!”
One night, she heard screaming outside the house, and then a baby crying. The mob killed a mother and left her baby to die in the road. The child cried all night. The next day its cries grew frail. By the evening, the child was silent.
The Hutus carried machetes, spears and garden tools — anything they could use to kill. They killed her friends, neighbors and family: her parents and two of her three brothers. Her oldest brother, Aimable, was abroad during the genocide and is still alive.
She could hear the cries and screams of people being slaughtered — any member of Rwanda’s minority Tutsi tribe that the murdering mobs could find.
“I said the Lord’s Prayer hundreds of times, hoping to forgive the killers who were murdering all around me,” she said. “Every time I got to the part asking God to ‘forgive those who trespass against us,’ my mouth went dry. I couldn’t say the word.”
When they were done, 1 million were dead.
Meeting killer face to face
That war ended, although her hatred for the killers did not. Only God could heal her and her country, she writes.
“I would always turn immediately to the source of all true power: I would turn to God and let his love and forgiveness protect and save me,” she writes.
Ilibagiza returned to Kibuye, where she visited a prison to meet the leader of the gang who killed her mother and her bother, Felicien. Before the genocide, he had been a successful Hutu businessman known for his expensive suits and impeccable manners who enjoyed playing with his children. It was Felicien’s voice that she heard calling her name when the killers searched the pastor’s home.
In prison, Felicien, sobbed before her, his clothes hanging like rags from his emaciated body. He couldn’t make eye contact.
“He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret,” Ilibagiza wrote.
She touched his hands and said: “I forgive you.”
His Tutsi jailer was furious. “Why did you forgive him?” he shouted.
“Forgiveness is all I have to offer,” Immaculee said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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