“They never found me, but I found myself.” Thus Immaculée Ilibagiza began an hour-and-a-half lecture at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., on the evening of December 4 (advertised as "An Evening with Immaculee") before an audience of some 400 persons, including Salesians, Salesian sisters, seminarians, DBP parents, alumni, school children, and the general public.
Earlier in the day, Ms. Ilibagiza had addressed a student assembly, speaking for the same hour and a half.
“They” were the Hutus hunting for and massacring any Tutsis they could find in Rwanda between April and July 1994, and “me” is, of course, Ms. Ilibagiza, a 21-year-old Tutsi college student who spent 91 days hiding from the hunters in a tiny bathroom.
Fr. Jim Heuser, director-president of the Prep, introduced Ms. Ilibagiza with an Advent image: it’s a dark season of the year in which we’re preparing for Light to burst in, and she tells a story from a dark period that’s a story of grace, of God’s light overcoming that darkness.
After a short video gave the listeners an overview of what happened in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, Ms. Ilibagiza stated that the genocide happened “because we failed to love one another,” adding that all such horrors, like the 20th century’s Holocaust, happen when we are selfish and greedy. But, she said, we have the capacity to be loving people. This is the challenge that we face every day, and it’s the only way to end war and its related tragedies.
Recounting her own experience as a Catholic who wasn’t terribly fervent, the speaker said it’s a gift to know that there is a God. She came to know that he was there even during the genocide, which began on Wednesday of Easter week and continued into July. Nearly one million people were slaughtered—men, women, and children—for no reason except their ethnicity.
The genocide was prepared by hatred spewed by government propagandists, Ms. Ilibagiza alleged. Everything for its execution was ready whenever some offense might trigger it. Such an offense occurred on that Easter Wednesday when Rwanda’s president was killed, with Burundi’s president, in a plane crash near Kigali, capital of Rwanda.
All of that might have been avoided, Ms. Ilibagiza claimed, had Rwandans listened to the Blessed Virgin. Some years earlier she had appeared at Kibeho and warned of a coming disaster if the people didn’t return to God. She returned several times to that theme, which was related to her earlier remarks about love as the way to avoid grave offenses against humanity.
In the first days of the genocide, Ms. Ilibagiza recounted, as what was happening began to be known, thousands of people from her village and the wider area came to her father, a respected teacher and elder. He told them that if there were just a few people coming after them, they could resist them; but if it is the government, the police, the army—they could only prepare to die—prepare by repenting and offering themselves in atonement.
But her parents and brothers ordered her to leave—to go to the home of a nearby Protestant pastor who happened to be Hutu, and seek shelter with him. He ushered her into a bathroom that measured three feet by four feet, not even enough room to stretch out full-length. And then he brought in five more women, followed not long after by two more. He warned them not to talk, not even to flush the toilet except when the one in the next bathroom was being flushed. He fed them table scraps left by his children, since he couldn’t openly bring a lot of extra food into his house.
The eight women spent 91 days in those quarters. Although Ms. Ilibagiza described in great detail what she was thinking and feeling and even doing, she didn’t say anything about the other women, nor whether they passed the entire three months without talking.
How quickly our lives can be turned upside-down! Ms. Ilibagiza said. One day, she was a college student in Kigali enjoying peace in a beautiful country. The next, she was in fear of being butchered by a machete-wielding mob.
“The devil took over the country,” she asserted. The genocidal murder even of children was being promoted by the government’s own well-educated ministers, with Tutsis being called snakes and cockroaches, to be exterminated.
Mobs were going house to house hunting for Tutsis. They came to the pastor’s home several times. The first time, a week or two after the women went into hiding, there were hundreds of them. They secured the perimeter of the house, searched the roof and the attic, the rooms and the closets, even checking suitcases. In her terror, Ms. Ilibagiza was tempted just to open the bathroom door and surrender as a way to end the torture of waiting to be discovered. Instead, she prayed that God give her a sign that he was present.
One of the searchers put his hand to the bathroom door, paused, and said to the pastor, “We know no one is here. You are a good man.” And they left.
Ms. Ilibagiza had her sign. God was present, even in the genocide. She reflects: God has given us his commandments to follow, and in this we find peace. When we disobey them, there are awful consequences.
She began to pray more fervently than she ever had at Mass, praying the Rosary many times a day. As she prayed, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” she realized that she was praying a lie. She wanted the killers rampaging through her country to suffer and to die. But if God is present everywhere, she reasoned, he knew she was lying in her prayer. She started to omit that part of the prayer. After a while, she felt very uncomfortable editing a prayer that Christ himself had composed.
So she surrendered herself to God, admitting her powerlessness, her utter need for him. She asked him to help her learn to forgive. Reading the Gospels, she observed Jesus on the cross, forgiving.
Furthermore, she came to see the world as divided into two sides. One loves—she listed among its inhabitants Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi. The other hates; she listed Hitler and those who were massacring hundreds of thousands of people in her country. She said that each of us has the power to choose which side we’ll stand on, and that even those on the evil side can change; “even killers can learn to love.” That’s a reason to pray for them!
When the genocide finally ended in July with the overthrow of the government, the women emerged from their bathroom. Ms. Ilibagiza learned that her entire family had been murdered.
Ms. Ilibagiza offered many more details about her spiritual experience and the power of prayer, especially the Rosary. She also went on to tell how she came to write and publish her book Left to Tell—with more signs from God.
And she concluded, “If I can forgive, anyone can forgive.”