Immaculee Ilibagiza brings message of faith, hope and forgiveness to Charleston
It is a story so heartbreaking that it is almost unimaginable. A loss so great, so painful, that one cannot begin to comprehend the depth of suffering brought on by acts of human hands.
Rwandan native Immaculée Ilibagiza wondered at times if it might just be a horrific dream. Tragically, for Immaculée and her fellow Rwandans – every bit of it was real.
In 1994, nearly one million people in the African nation were brutally killed in a house-by-house massacre that would be called the Rwandan genocide. Two warring tribes – the Hutus and the Tutsis - would wage a gruesome battle for three months. In the end, men, women and children of all ages were slaughtered in the unrest, including Immaculée’s parents, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. But Immaculée, a college student at the time, miraculously survived while hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women. The experience would be the catalyst for a life-changing faith journey.
Immaculée went on to share her story in her book, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” Three days after it published, it was listed on the New York Times bestseller list.
Immaculée made her first visit to Charleston last Friday, Feb. 2, to speak at a program sponsored by Daniel Island-based St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church entitled “Immaculée Ilibagiza on Faith, Hope & Forgiveness.” More than 1300 people attended the event, which was held in the Bishop England High School gymnasium. After introductory remarks by Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Father Gregory West of St. Clare of Assisi, Immaculée took to the stage to address her captive audience. Sitting on the front row with other dignitaries was the Rev. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife, Myra Thompson, in the Mother Emanuel Church shooting in 2015.
“I can feel in my heart just very close to you,” said Immaculée, who clutched white rosary beads in her hand as she spoke. “You are a community that understands what I have gone through…You have faced all I have faced. And may still be facing, some of you, the struggle to forgive, the grieving for your loved ones that just does not end.”
Immaculée went on to tell the audience what happened during the darkest days of her life nearly 24 years ago. It was April 7, 1994. She was home on Easter break when her brother awoke her early one morning to tell her the president of the country had died after his plane was shot down.
“I will never forget, the moment, the second I heard the news,” she said. “…You knew you would never be the same again. I felt like the sky had changed color.”
The president’s death sparked a killing spree, as the Hutu tribe jockeyed for power.
“We put on the radio and we started to hear that the leaders of the country had shut down every activity in the country, the borders,” Immaculée continued. “The only thing being done was killing people, family by family.”
Her father, a man devout in his Catholic faith, told her to run and hide at a local pastor’s house. When she got there, the pastor showed her a 3 by 4 foot bathroom and told her to stay there. Immaculée said she started to complain, wondering how she would ever fit into the tiny space.
“As I was complaining, he came back with five more women!” she added. “Then he came back with two more…It was another big lesson. When you think things are bad, they can get worse.”
They were told not to speak to one another, to not make any noise, to not even flush the toilet. A total of eight women, ranging in age from 7-years-old to 55, stayed in that space for three months, said Immaculée, as horrific conditions raged outside and all around them in their country.
“They went to churches, stadiums, public places,” she recalled, of the murdering tribesmen. “They burned houses. They were giving prizes to people who killed more people. The news was going morning to night talking about how people died…and then after they had finished killing people in public places, they gave the order to go home by home to see if anyone was hiding.”
Somehow, in the worst of times, Immaculée found hope by reading a Bible, praying, and saying the rosary. In the midst of her desperate fear, and anger at those conducting the killings, she found peace.
“I started to think from my heart,” she told the audience. “And I started to speak to God as I am talking to you.”
As she prayed, Immaculée said she felt God’s words come alive…and she felt a peace she had never known before. When the rebels reached the home, she turned to God and pleaded for help. She watched through a small window as hundreds gathered outside holding machetes, spears and other weapons.
“The day they came to the house where I was hiding, it was the worst pain I have known. And it was maybe the closest time I ever came to God.”
Immaculée knew her time had come.
“I started to think – how am I going to die?” she said. “…How is this going to happen?...I felt like a thousand needles were going through my body – like I was burning in fire.”
She heard two voices in her mind – one was telling her to open the door and get it over with. “They are going to find you anyway,” she added. Another voice said, “Do not open the door. Ask God to help you!”
Immaculée decided to listen to the second voice. She turned over her fate to God and asked for a sign.
“I remember asking God with every cell in my body…I am begging you, can you hear me? Just give me one sign...If you can hear me, don’t let them open the door…If I know you did it, I promise I will never lose faith in you again.”
And then, continued Immaculée, she fainted. Five hours later, the man who was hiding them opened the bathroom door and told them that the killers had left. There were 300 or 400 of them, he said, and about 50 to 100 had come into the house. They went in every room, looking under the beds, in the closets, and even went on to the roof to search.
“They even opened suitcases to make sure there were no babies hiding,” recalled Immaculée. “And then he said they came right to the door of the bathroom…One of the killers touched the handle before he pulled it…and he told the man, ‘You know what? We trust you…You cannot hide these people. You are a good citizen.’ And they left.”
Immaculée would later learn that her parents and her brothers had been killed, along with extended family members, friends, and nearly everyone she knew in her small village. She and the other survivors made their way to a refugee camp, where Immaculée’s faith lessons would continue. There, she felt God lead her to be a light to others who were suffering. She understood their losses and could offer a comforting presence. She also began to contemplate forgiveness. Once again, said Immaculée, God opened her heart as she considered the words uttered by Jesus on the cross.
“He said to forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do…I wanted to forgive, but how? How in my situation? The answer came…they don’t know what they do. They don’t measure the consequences. They are blinded by hatred. By ignorance. Fear. Selfishness. That’s what hate does to people. It blinds them and it doesn’t let them see.”
Later, she met the man who took the lives of her family members. He was in prison at the time. The first words out of her mouth were “I forgive you.”
“It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders,” she said. “…I felt free. Even if I wanted, I couldn’t hate them anymore.”
Immaculée has gone on to share her story all over the world. She has written six more books and continues to speak about what she has learned throughout her journey, ministering to people far and wide about the power of hope, forgiveness and faith. Immaculée also encouraged her Daniel Island audience members to be grateful for the people in their lives, to understand the importance of love, and to remember that earthy lives are just the beginning.
“This is not the end of us,” she said. “We just pass through…That knowledge was a gift from heaven. It gave me peace. It made me live in a different way, where every day I wake up excited and just happy….and to know that God is real. Knowing that I am not alone, no matter what trouble I might go through, only people who have faith can say there is hope always.”
In closing, Immaculée left the audience with an important call to action.
“Take every day of your life as a gift. And use it for something good, something kind, something loving...If you succeed in making them feel like somebody cares, then you have done your part today.”
For more information on Immaculée Ilibagiza, her books and her ministry, visit www.immaculee.com.