Rwanda Survivor Speaks Of Faith

Susan Page
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Wednesday - January 09, 2008
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Immacule Ilibagiza will speak in Hawaii on Jan. 14-15
Immacule Ilibagiza will speak in Hawaii on Jan. 14-15

Three months in total terror can seem much longer, especially when the screams of excruciating death by machete - perhaps your parents’ or brothers’ - resound all round you.

Immacule Ilibagiza, a miraculous survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide understands time: how it can torture ... and also how it can heal.

Imagine for a moment that, like Ilibagiza, you’re an eager, erstwhile university student, 22, working toward a degree in electronic and mechanical engineering. You come home for Easter break to be with your parents and brothers and then, in a confusing turn of politics, neighbors turn on neighbors, the government turns on its citizens and the evil act of human extermination begins. Macheteand club-wielding Hutu forces swoop into your village to wipe you and all who share your Tutsi tribal heritage from existence.

For 91 horrifying days Ilibagiza and five other female strangers, including a 7-year-old-child, took refuge in the cramped 4-by-3-foot bathroom of a neighbor, a Hutu pastor. Petrified that during one of the repeated Hutu militia searches of the home their secret hideout would be discovered, they endured hunger, fear, deprivation and uncertainty.

Outside there were chants: “Kill them, kill them, kill them all; kill them big and kill them small; kill the old and kill the young ... a baby snake is still a snake, kill it too, let none escape.”

And these killers, Ilibagiza realized, weren’t soldiers, but family friends and acquaintances, some who’d been to dinner at her home.

Seeing the quietly serene Ilibagiza today belies the fact that this happy, “together” woman could ever have endured such horror and the deaths of family and friends, but her very manner assures that she’s made peace with the genocide that confounded the world.

And, after wrestling with her faith, she came to discover God’s character. In her book Left to Tell, Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust and in a documentary by the same name, forgiveness is a healing thread running throughout.

And this winner of the 2007 Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace believes that others can find healing in her story, which she will share with Hawaii audiences Jan. 14 and 15 at Blaisdell Concert Hall, a program sponsored by Waterhouse Lecture Series, Chaminade University, the Roman Catholic Church and Hawaii Family Forum.

Thanks to films such as 2004’s award-winning, eye-opening Hotel Rwanda, the genocide Ilibagiza survived is fairly fresh on people’s minds 13 years later. Hutu and government orders were to search and destroy all Tutsis, carrying out a systematic “cleansing.” The Rwanda genocide proved that evildoers with weapons and a calculated plan can be very efficient. (More than 800,000 were slaughtered in just 100 days.)

I, for one, am eager to meet a survivor and hear a true eye witness story - not just Hollywood’s fictionalized effort - of the horrific event that shocks us still.

The year 1994 was a year of shame on a world that only watched.

Despite a secret State Department intelligence report issued at the end of April affirming a Rwanda genocide, U.S. leadership and the U.N. still debated over the word “genocide.”

The U.N. Security Council condemning the killings, but left out “genocide,” and therefore wasn’t legally obligated to act to “prevent and punish” the perpetrators. U.N. peacekeeping head Kofi Annan bemoaned in a May, 1994 speech, “... here we are watching people being deprived of the most fundamental of rights, the right to life, and yet we seem a bit helpless ...”

The genocide finally ended in July, 1994, after more than 400,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been hacked to death by machete, and another 400,000 had been bludgeoned, blown up, drowned or shot to death, while the U.S. and U.N. still deliberated the meaning of “genocide.” In 1998, President Clinton made a weak apology while in Rwanda.

Yet, it is in the context of today’s continuing ethnic and tribal conflicts in many parts of the world that Ilibagiza’s profound story of faith and forgiveness needs to be heard.

Because once again, since 2002, the world watches and debates, while another genocide occurs. More than 200,000 tribal people of the Darfur region of the Sudan have been brutally killed, and thousands of women and children have been raped, tortured, burned alive and forced to flee their homes.

And just now in Kenya, where I recently served on a mission, political protests have turned deadly in violent attacks against those of the Kikuyu tribe. The potential for widespread killing is an eerie deja vu of 1994 Rwanda.

But Ilibagiza’s realization that forgiveness of the unforgivable and reconciliation with the perpetrators are the only way to win over evil, provide hope for the hopeless, including those on this side of the pond, those in her audiences that have been eaten up with bitterness, blame and anger in their lives. Also, her book and speaking have enabled her to raise money through her “Left to Tell Charitable Fund,” which has relocated more than 60 Rwandan orphans and helped support emotional healing of the genocide scars. “I hope that one day we can laugh and move on holding hands despite the past,” Ilibagiza says. “Life has a lot to offer and a lot of love to give.”

Ilibagiza, who lives in New York with her husband and two children, says, “Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland.

” And that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all -humanity was wounded by the genocide. The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda-and our world- by healing one heart at a time.”

For more information about Immacule Ilibagiza’s Hawaii programs, which include special performances by Na Leo, call 203-6733 or 263-8855. Book information is at


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