July 27, 2012

Genocide survivor offers faith-filled testimony of love and forgiveness

Immaculée Ilibagiza clutches a rosary as she shares her story of surviving the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 during a July 20 keynote speech at the National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis. Some of the proceeds from the sale of her books benefit children in Africa. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Immaculée Ilibagiza clutches a rosary as she shares her story of surviving the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 during a July 20 keynote speech at the National Black Catholic Congress in Indianapolis. Some of the proceeds from the sale of her books benefit children in Africa. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber) Click for a larger version.

By Mary Ann Garber

God answered Immaculée Ilibagiza’s desperate prayers by keeping the door to her cramped hiding place in a Protestant pastor’s home closed for 91 days to save her life.

Then God opened up the world to her to share her story as a survivor of the horrific 1994 genocide by Hutus in Rwanda that killed more than 1 million ethnic Tutsi men, women and children.

The genocide ended when Paul Kagame led the RPF, the rebel Tutsi army, into Rwanda then became the country’s new president and restored peace.

Ilibagiza went from hiding in the Hutu pastor’s tiny second bathroom with seven other terrified Tutsi women for three excruciating months to a refugee camp and finally to New York, where she worked for the United Nations.

In New York, she met author Wayne Dyer, who helped her publish an unforgettable account of the senseless, politically motivated slaughter of most of her loved ones and other innocent people in a well-organized genocide just because they were members of the Tutsi tribe.

In 2006, her book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, was published by Hay House Inc., and quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

Some of the proceeds from the sale of her first book and If Only We Had Listened—the story of the Church-approved prophecies foretold by Our Lady of Kibeho during the 1980s—benefit the work of her Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which helps children in Africa build better lives.

On July 20, Ilibagiza shared her faith-filled testimony of love and forgiveness with National Black Catholic Congress participants in Indianapolis.

Clutching a rosary and blinking back tears, she recounted her spiritual journey and faith struggles during the bloody holocaust.

“Rwanda is a tiny country in central Africa,” Ilibagiza said. “It was and still is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Yet, her beloved homeland and village near Lake Kivu became a killing field when Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated in 1994 and chaos reigned during a brutal, three-month civil war.

“The most important lesson I have learned is forgiveness,” she said. “I never knew that you could forgive somebody who is trying to kill you. … The genocide happened because our people failed to treat each other as human beings. We failed to love one another, to care for one another.”

Only love can prevent wars and genocide, Ilibagiza said. “Love lasts forever.”

She was 24 and home from college for the Easter holiday when violence erupted after the president’s plane was shot down and decades of tribal tensions sparked widespread fighting.

“The killers were breaking down doors and hacking people to death,” Ilibagiza said. “The [Tutsi] people went to the houses of God for protection, but they were shot there.”

By the second day of the conflict, more than 10,000 Tutsis had been killed by Hutus.

Twelve years earlier, she said, apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho had warned Rwandan Catholics that a horrible thing was about to happen, and that they should pray the rosary for peace and forgiveness.

“She said this does not have to happen,” Ilibagiza said. “One of the things she told us to do was pray the rosary sincerely with love from your heart. … She said God will help you if you do your best. … We are so blessed to have God. Our Church gives us a great message and we have to listen to that. Take the Bible seriously as the commandments of God.”

When her beloved father sent her into hiding, he gave her a rosary and told her to pray fervently.

“I didn’t want to go,” she said. “I left out of obedience.”

For the next 91 days, Ilibagiza prayed the rosary often to keep her sanity while hiding with the other women in the 3-foot by 4-foot bathroom.

“We had to sleep on top of each other,” she said. “He told us not to speak to each other and not to flush the [toilet] until somebody else is flushing [in the other bathroom]. He said he would tell his children that he had lost the key to that [second] bathroom. He said if we say something and [the Hutus] hear you it is over.”

Each time the men came to search the pastor’s house for Tutsis, she clutched her rosary in fear and faith, and prayed silently that no one would hear the pounding of her heart.

“I felt like a thousand needles were going through my body,” Ilibagiza said. “I was frozen. I couldn’t feel where my fingers were and my legs were. … One voice was telling me to open the door and end the torture. … Then there was another voice telling me, ‘Don’t open the door. Ask God to help you.’ I asked, ‘Where is God? What can he do?’ Then this beautiful voice said ‘God is almighty. … It means he can do anything.’ ”

She asked for a sign that God would protect her and the other women. It came seconds later when one of the men decided not to force open the locked door to their hiding place.

“They literally came within five inches of us,” Ilibagiza said. “I fainted. … I couldn’t remember anything that happened. Five hours later, the man who was hiding us told us what happened.

“Now I know that God looks into my heart,” she said. “Prayer has the power to change us. It does. Our Lady always said, ‘Pray. Pray. Pray. The grace of God will come to help you.’ For the first time in my life, I understood the meaning of surrender. I went down on my knees and put my hands out and said, ‘Jesus, please help me to forgive.’ ”

Ilibagiza asked the pastor for a Bible because she wanted to better understand why Jesus chose pain to save God’s people.

“I felt in my heart he was saying, ‘Because I love you. Because I care for you. Because I want you to see what is possible in this life and to teach you. Learn from me. I was rejected to the point of being crucified.’ ”

She began to pray for a change of heart, thought about her future and learned to speak English with a French and English dictionary during her final days in the cramped bathroom.

When she met Dyer in New York, he asked her how she could still smile after suffering so much during the genocide.

“There is heaven,” she told him. “It doesn’t end here. I just want to live my life the best I can. I hope I do what is good with it.”

Ilibagiza prayed and fasted in the weeks leading up to the publication of her book on Ash Wednesday in 2006.

“If we know how much we are loved, there is nothing to fear,” she said. “There is no more pain if we know we have a mother who watches over us day and night, and is ready to help us, not judge us. I want to remind you, please, please, no matter what happens to you, know that God is always there. … We can put our trust in God no matter what we go through. Reach out to him.” †

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