Immaculee Ilibagiza, a survivor of the mass killings in Rwanda in the 1990s, lives to tell her story of forgiveness.
Immaculee Ilibagiza was a carefree, 24-year-old college student when her beloved Rwanda was plunged into madness.
One of four siblings and the only daughter of middle-class educators, Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which killed an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people. Out of a family of six, Ilibagiza and her youngest brother were the only survivors.
Speaking at Walsh University on Thursday, Ilibagiza said her goal is to teach people that forgiveness is not only possible, but necessary if one intends to be truly free.
In her best-selling 2006 autobiography “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” she details how she and seven other women hid for three months in a bathroom the size of a food pantry, even as people around them were being raped, shot and hacked to death.
Campaign of fear
The atrocities began after the Belgian colonialist government in Rwanda issued identity cards, dividing the Rwandans by tribe, the Hutu, and the smaller but more powerful Tutsi, of which Ilibagiza was a member. When the Belgians withdrew from Rwanda, it created a power vacuum and triggered civil war. In 91 days, hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, systematically were killed.
Ilibagiza said the killings were the result of a well-organized government campaign, aided by Rwanda’s “culture of obedience.”
“We grew up respecting our parents, our elders and the government,” she said. “We trusted and believed them. When it happened, people believed what they were told (about the Tutsis). Imagine here, if all the newspapers suddenly decided that a certain group of people were terrorists. People would try to do something to protect themselves.”
Ilibagiza gently suggested more Americans might have been aware of the atrocities had not the nation been transfixed by the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
“I think if more people had known, individuals would have tried to do something,” she said.
Faith and hope
Ilibagiza and the women eventually were rescued by French soldiers, who moved them to refugee camps; but their harrowing experience did not end there. They were left to fend for themselves as the French withdrew, but were saved by the RPF, the rebel Tutsi army, which stopped the carnage.
Ilibagiza said she found solace in her Catholic faith, which also gave her the courage to face and forgive her family’s killers.
Though fighting theoretically could resume should the 1 million Hutus who fled return, Ilibagiza said she’s optimistic her homeland will recover.
“We now have good leaders, which is a blessing of God,” she said. "People are trying. They know the consequences ... . I can’t say some people don’t want revenge, or that everything has been done according to the Western justice standards; you need to know your people. But I can only see the fruits. To not see the progress is to ignore the progress.”
She points out that Rwanda, which had two universities in 1994, now has 14, and that 50 percent of its parliament is made up of women, the highest in the world. Rwanda also now has the second-fastest-growing economy in Africa. Ilibagiza also noted that rape, a weapon regularly used during the genocide, is now virtually nonexistent because it means life in prison. Crime, such as theft, also is rare.
Good from bad
Ilibagiza also credits the current government with encouraging people to move forward, though when President Paul Kagame called for the elimination of identity cards, some people initially resisted because they viewed them as a source of cultural pride.
Ilibagiza said her book was instrumental in helping her surviving brother to heal. At the time of the war, he was in school in Senegal.
“He was very angry and never talked of forgiveness,” she said. “After the book came out, it was the first time he thought of the death of our parents as a positive, that some good actually could come of it. That really put it in perspective for him. He realized there was no such thing as whole groups of people who were bad.”
Married to an American, Ilibagiza immigrated to the United States in 1998, where she worked for the U.N. She left the agency in 2007 to establish the Left To Tell Charitable Fund to aid Rwandan orphans.
A mother of two, Ilibagiza said she doesn’t share many details about the mass killings with her children because, “I don’t want to wound their hearts.”
However, she takes them to Rwanda every summer, where her brother still lives with his family.
“Left to Tell” has been translated into 15 different languages. Ilibagiza also has written a sequel, “Led by Faith.”
To learn more, visit: www.immaculee.com.
The Repository (Canton, Ohio)