Photo: Felix Carroll
How Does Immaculee Ilibagiza Forgive?
She heard the killers call her by name with contemptuous, determined voices.
"She's here ... we know she's here somewhere. ... Find her — find Immaculee," one of them said.
They were carrying machetes, spears, hoes — anything that could strike a hard blow into human flesh. Some were her former friends and neighbors — people with whom Immaculee Ilibagiza had grown up, played, and went to school.
She was hiding in a 3-foot-by-4-foot bathroom with a group of other women, powerless as she heard the cries and screams of people out on the street being slaughtered — fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, every member of Rwanda's minority Tutsi tribe that the murdering mobs could find.
Twelve years ago, over the course of just 100 days, more than 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were brutally killed by Hutu mobs in one of history's worst cases of genocide. The murdered included nearly all of Immaculee's family. Her father and younger brother, Vianney, were shot to death. Her mother and her most beloved brother, Damascene, were hacked to death. Only Immaculee's oldest brother, Aimable, abroad during the genocide, was still alive.
Yet, here Immaculee is today, a survivor, dedicating her life to spreading God's message of mercy — His call for us to trust in Him, and His call for us to forgive those who have hurt us.
But how does she do it? How does she forgive?
Immaculee, a Catholic with a strong devotion to Divine Mercy, explains it all in her new book, Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House, 2006). She visited the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass., on Oct. 5, to share her story of the spiritual lessons she learned while hiding in that tiny bathroom for 91 days.
"Being spared is much different from being saved," Immaculee said. "And this lesson forever changed me. It is a lesson that, in the midst of mass murder, taught me how to love those who hated and hunted me and how to forgive those who slaughtered my family."
'We didn't know what to do'
Immaculee was a 22-year-old college student when her country unraveled in the spring of 1994. It was Easter vacation. She went home to her small village in the western Rwandan province of Kibuye to spend the week with her parents and two older brothers. On the morning of April 7, the long, ethnic tension between the nation's majority Hutus and the Tutsis, her tribe, had reached a boiling point.
"I remember in the morning, my brother came to me," she says. "When I saw him, my mind went, 'Oh my God, is there something wrong?' He told me, 'You don't know what happened!'" What happened was Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana had been killed the previous day when his plane was shot down.
The radio stations had begun broadcasting delirious hate speeches from Hutus making a call to arms to kill all Tutsis. Within hours, the killing of Tutsi families had begun in Kigali, and soon it spread to Kibuye. Eventually, the Hutus mobs massed near Immaculee's home. Knowing full well that if Immaculee were caught, she would be raped and murdered, her father shoved his rosary beads into her hand and urged her to go into hiding at the house of a nearby Protestant Hutu pastor.
The pastor hid Immaculee and seven other women in conditions that were nearly insufferable, though he brought them food whenever he could. The women could barely move. And they could not speak to each other for fear of being overheard. All the while, they could hear the shouts and laughter of the Hutu killers outside as they slaughtered villagers. The killers would chant: "Kill them big, kill them small, kill them, kill them, kill them all!"
For three, horror-filled months, the Hutu mobs repeatedly searched the pastor's house for hidden Tutsis, sometimes coming just inches from the wardrobe that hid the bathroom door.
A battle for her soul
While in hiding, Immaculee struggled to cling to her sanity. She endured an intense internal battle between trusting in God and succumbing to paralyzing fear and despair. Nearly all of her waking hours were spent in prayer. But she realized that some of the words she recited rang hollow in her heart, particularly the words in the Lord's Prayer about forgiving "those who trespass against us." She felt hatred toward the killers and had dreams of revenge.
"My own prayers were about 'Kill them! Kill them back! Take them to hell.' I looked at them as animals; they weren't people," Immaculee said in her talk at the Shrine, which drew an audience of about 300 people.
Indeed, at one point, she wished she had a gun "so that I could kill every Hutu I saw," she writes in her book. "No, not a gun â€¦ I needed a machine gun, grenades, a flamethrower! â€¦ If I'd had an atomic bomb, I would have dropped it on Rwanda and killed everyone in our stupid, hateful land."
"There were all sorts of conversations going on inside me," Immaculee said. The devil, she said, would whisper in her ear with terrifying and unspeakable images. At one point, she said she heard in her mind the words: "Why are you calling on God? Look at all of them out there â€¦ hundreds of them looking for you. â€¦ You can't possibly survive — you won't survive â€¦ they're going to find you, rape you, cut you, kill you!"
Immaculee said, "I was fighting inside my head: 'But God, You said that you can do all things, that we can ask and we will receive!' But the voices were saying: 'Oh, please, who do you think you are? They will kill you. Why do you think God will save you? Have you seen Him?"
The voices of doubt continually crept into her thoughts. Yet she prayed more and more intensely. "Please open my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive," she would pray. "I'm not strong enough to squash my hatred — they've wronged us all so much â€¦ my hatred is so heavy that it could crush me. Touch my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive."
One night, she heard screaming outside the house, and then a baby crying. She realized the killers must have killed the mother and left the baby to die in the road. The child cried all night. The next day its cries grew frail. And by the evening, the child was silent.
Immaculee writes: "I prayed for God to receive the child's innocent soul, and then asked Him, 'How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?'"
Then, something amazing happened. She says she heard an answer: "You are all My children â€¦ and the baby is with Me now." She writes: "It was such a simple sentence, but it was the answer to the prayers I'd been lost in for days."
She had reached an epiphany. Suddenly, the words that once rang so hollow to her — "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" — now resounded in her soul as the chimes of salvation. She realized that hating the killers was preventing her from trusting God.
"Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren't evil," Immaculee writes. "Despite their atrocities, they were children of God â€¦ I knew that I couldn't ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children."
At that moment, she prayed for the killers, that their sins be forgiven and that they recognize the horrific error of their ways before their time on Earth expired. She held onto her father's rosary beads and again heard God's voice: "Forgive them; they know not what they do."
She had found peace. She writes how Jesus spoke to her heart: "Trust in Me, and know that I will never leave you. Trust in me, and have no more fear." And, indeed, each time the killers came to ransack the house, miraculously, they never discovered the women.
By the time she emerged from the bathroom, her weight had gone from 115 pounds to 65 pounds. She and the other women fled to a nearby French military camp for protection. There, she learned in brutal detail the fates of her family members.
Immaculee set about rebuilding her life as the violence in Rwanda ended. She worked for several years with the United Nations helping Rwandan refugees. She has also established a foundation, the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, to continue that work. She lives in the United States now and is married with two children.
Meeting killer face to face
Immaculee acknowledges that since the war ended, feelings of anger and hatred for the killers sometimes tempt her at weak moments.
"But I resolved that when the negative feelings came upon me, I wouldn't wait for them to grow or fester," 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."
At one point, just as the violence in Rwanda had been quelled and talk of UN-led tribunals had begun, Immaculee returned to Kibuye. There, she visited a prison to meet the leader of the gang who killed her mother and her bother, Damascene.
His name is Felicien. Before the genocide, he had been a successful Hutu businessman known for his expensive suits and impeccable manners. Immaculee recalled in her talk how she used to play with his children. It was Felicien's voice that she heard calling her name when the killers searched the pastor's home.
Now, here was Felicien, sobbing, his clothes hanging like rags from his emaciated body. Shamed, he could barely make eye contact with Immaculee.
"I wept at the sight of his suffering," Immaculee said. "He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret."
She reached out and touched his hands and said: "I forgive you." His Tutsi jailer was furious at this, hoping that she would spit on the man. "Why did you forgive him?" he demanded.
"Forgiveness is all I have to offer," Immaculee responded.