A Survivors Story: Immacule Ilibagiza's passage to forgiveness
Forgiving the men who killed my parents and brother was a process, a journey into deeper and deeper prayer,” Immaculée Ilibagiza told me as we sat in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel last June. Intense prayer, she said, had helped her survive the three months that she and several other women lay crammed into a small bathroom in the home of a Protestant pastor near her home in the western province of Kibuye, on Lake Kivu. Pastor Murinzi, a Hutu, did not share in the ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi that burst forth in Rwanda in 1994. He took in the eight Tutsi women who begged for refuge at his home. Immaculée’s father had sent her running to the pastor’s house when a crowd of machete-armed Hutu bore down on the family’s home in Mataba in western Rwanda. But her father did not survive, nor did her mother, who was chopped down in front of their house, nor did a beloved brother, Damascene, who was tracked down and murdered weeks later after a presumed friend betrayed his hiding place.
Led by Faith
Ms. Ilibagiza has described her experiences in two books, Left to Tell and Led by Faith. During our interview, she described some steps of her interior journey: from hatred and a desire for revenge to compassion and forgiveness. Her faith, she said, was rooted largely in devotion to Mary. As she recited the rosary, a verse from the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”) helped to begin an inner transformation even as she lay in hiding. Those days were filled with terror, because machete-wielding Hutu frequently searched the pastor’s house.
“They searched everywhere, even in the ceilings,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine that they would not notice the door of the bathroom in the pastor’s bedroom, behind which we lay crouched.” They came very close. One day, as they were about to open that door, which was all that stood between the women and sudden death, Immaculée heard the searchers say to the pastor, “We trust you.” They left, but returned frequently in a less trusting mood. In the bedroom Immaculée had seen a large wardrobe closet; she asked the pastor to push it in front of the bathroom door. At first he refused, saying it would make no difference. But sensing that the wardrobe might be the key to survival, she went down on her knees and begged him. He relented and pushed the wardrobe against the door behind which the group lay, hardly daring to breathe. Conversation was impossible except in whispers. A man working in and around the house grew suspicious and often passed by their window, listening for voices.
Immaculée still had the red and white rosary her father had given her before rushing her to the pastor’s house. Every day upon waking at 6 a.m., she recited the rosary of the seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s words to Mary that a sword would pierce her heart. In our conversation, she stressed that she said these prayers from deep within, meaning deeply each word. Again and again, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those” resonated ever more deeply in her heart. “If God really is the father of everyone, including the Hutu who were carrying out the slaughter and looking for me by name—I could hear them calling me as they periodically circled the house,” she said. “How could I keep wishing I could destroy them?” She felt she would be lying to God. She also saw an inner image of Jesus on the cross and heard his words, “Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”
The genocide officially ended with the arrival of French troops in her part of Rwanda, but Immaculée still experienced moments of terror when her faith served as protection. French soldiers loaded several dozen Tutsi into the back of a covered truck to take them to the nearest French camp for survivors. But to their horror the truck halted within a few hundred yards of the camp; a group of Hutu men with machetes stood in the way. The driver told them all to get out, for he had orders to avoid all conflict. Feeling betrayed by the French officer in charge, they got out, and the truck drove away at full speed.
As the frightened group began walking, Immaculée noticed one Hutu in particular who, machete in hand, stared at her menacingly. Instead of averting her eyes, she returned his look and prayed to the Holy Spirit, “You can do it,” the “it” meaning “preserve me.” The man seemed to be trying to face her down. “I could feel him begin to change, and I thought, You are a human being like me.” Finally, she said, “he blinked and turned away his gaze.” The group made it safely to the camp, a poorly provisioned holding area for temporary use until Tutsi could be transported to a larger and more fully equipped camp. At last they were safe.
Here, as on other occasions, Immaculée felt a strong sense of divine providence at work. In the first camp, she met Florence, a young woman who had been attacked with machetes and thrown off a cliff; Florence survived by lying motionless under dead bodies. She told Immaculée, “I can only believe that God spared me for something.” To which Immaculée replied, “You’re like me, you’ve been left to tell our story.” For her, that story involved spreading the message of God’s all-embracing love and forgiveness.
The Necessity of Forgiveness
One of the most dramatic moments in Immaculée’s journey toward forgiveness occurred after the genocide finally ended. Felicien, the man who killed her mother and who was personally known to her family as an upstanding member of the community, was in a local jail. Immaculée felt impelled to visit him. By then, she said in the interview, “the work of forgiveness was almost done.” Forgiveness had to apply to the Hutu killers in general, but especially to Felicien. She described waiting for the jailers to bring Felicien into the room: “I wasn’t quite sure whether I was still going to feel forgiving toward him—I might look at him and change my mind.” But once they were face to face, she said, “the forgiveness all became normal.” She asked him: “How can you have done this? Killing so many people, you can’t be at peace.” In rags, he seemed small and confused. “I wanted to reach out to him,” she said. “I cried, and then he himself started to cry.”
The official in charge of the jail, a Tutsi who was a survivor like Immaculée and who was present during the meeting, grew angry, saying: “How can you do this, forgive the killer of your own mother? Are you crazy?” He gave her permission to slap him and spit on him, but she refused. Instead, her act of forgiveness began to affect the official himself. Later, she heard that he had said, “I will never forget that woman.” While she was working at the United Nations office in Kigali, the capital, the official came to see her. “You don’t know what you did to me, when you went to the jail and forgave Felicien,” he told her. “I was shocked.” But he had learned from her encounter with Felicien the necessity for forgiveness.
While in Kigali, Immaculée first felt a need to write about her survival and her journey toward forgiveness of those who took part in the genocide. Co-workers urged her to write it down. Good schooling and two years of university education had given her the skills to undertake the project. One morning, she said, “I just woke up and started typing on a computer, imagining what it would be for someone who knew nothing of the genocide—but also for surviving family members, like a brother who had been studying in another country when the killing began.” The first draft took only three weeks. “I’d jump up at 2 a.m., cook a little food and sit right down to write. It was like an obsession,” she said. “I couldn’t stop.” When she finished, however, she put the manuscript away and did not look at it again for four years. Something she called “a voice of discouragement” gnawed at her: Who do you think you are, an African woman, getting a book published? The same voice of discouragement almost led her to abandon herself to despair while hiding at the pastor’s house. But another voice, of hope, proved stronger.
The possibility of publication never left her. On moving to New York in 1998 to work at the United Nations headquarters, a friend invited her to a workshop given by Wayne Dyer, an author and speaker in the area of self-development. After his presentation, she spoke with him. Learning with surprise that she was a Rwandan genocide survivor, he said, “You look happy, after seeing so much horror there.” She told him, “It was God who protected me.” He asked if she could write a book. “When I told him I had just finished the latest draft, he asked me to send it to him.” He in turn sent it to a publishing house that assigned her an editor who has continued to work with her—on four books so far.
Immaculée travels to Rwanda several times a year. She said that the government is emphasizing forgiveness as a national priority to ease ethnic tensions. But on a personal level, she said, “for Tutsi to be able to forgive is an individual matter, at the level of the heart.” Many survivors still have visible machete wounds on their bodies, in addition to wounds of the human spirit from that time when neighbor often turned against neighbor. A report last year by the British Broadcasting Corporation noted that even in the town of Mataba, ethnic hatreds were evident in secondary schools, with Hutu students often harassing Tutsi students. Last year, a parliamentary committee researched 32 schools and found ethnic hatred prevalent in most of them. The report concludes: “Rwanda has made considerable progress in promoting co-existence between its people, but there is obviously a long way to go.” Through her message of forgiveness, Immaculée is part of that “way.”
In June, Immaculée was working on her latest book, The Seeds of Forgiveness. In talks around the United States and in other countries she has emphasized that her own personal experience in Rwanda has ramifications far beyond forgiving the perpetrators of genocide. Instead, the message of forgiveness needs to be fostered in the human heart on a broad level that touches people’s everyday lives, not just in times of crisis. After a presentation in the United States, said Immaculée, “One woman told me that she had not spoken to her mother in 20 years. ‘But now, I want to call my mother and be reconciled,’ the woman said.” That comment underscores the universality of Ms. Ilibagiza’s message and the eager response of some who hear it.