When Immaculée Ilibagiza was in college, her life was in danger. It was 1994, and a massive genocide was underway in Rwanda -- the Hutus were trying to exterminate the Tutsis. When it was over, they had killed about 1 million Tutsis.
For 91 days, Immaculée and seven other Tutsi women hid in the tiny bathroom of a pastor who was a Hutu. They hid in silence, fear, and semi-starvation. They only had scraps of left-over food that the pastor could give them, for he could not tell his family members he was hiding these women. Hutus who had known her were out looking to murder her, calling her name. They murdered her parents and all but one of her brothers who was not in Rwanda at the time.
The Hutus came to the pastor’s home again and again. Never did they open the door behind which these women hid. It was a miracle. The pastor gave her books, so Immaculée taught herself English and read the Bible. During that time, Immaculée felt the presence of God, learned the power of prayer, realized the necessity of forgiveness, and practiced unconditional love.
After the French came, ending the genocide, and Immaculée was freed, she had the opportunity to go to the prison where the leader of the gang who killed some of her family was being held. When she met him, she could only say, “I forgive you.” This incident, as well as her entire story, is told in her absolutely inspiring book, Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.
In 1998, Immaculée emigrated to the U.S. and went to work for the UN. She started the Left to Tell Charitable Foundation, which helps children and survivors of genocide and war find healing, including going back to school. Immaculée speaks throughout the world, inspiring others with her story of the triumph of forgiveness and love. Currently, she lives in Long Island with her husband and their two children.
During our interview, Immaculée shared some of her thoughts and revelations that transformed her heart, helped her survive those 91 days, and enabled her to move forward with her own life with forgiveness.
What enabled you to survive the genocide, living in that small 4x3 foot bathroom for 91 days? Did your loving, family upbringing help?
I think it was my family. They were very hard working people who cared very much about people and caused me not to hate, even though I should’ve hated, according to many people. It was my upbringing -- the care and the prayers that we said together as a family -- that got me through. Every night we kneeled down in front of the cross and said our prayers. Prayer was number one in the home.
And how were you able to survive in silence for 91 days?
You can do anything when you are surviving, I tell people. You really can. But for us women to stay together with no one saying anything -- it was the grace of God. I prayed from morning until night, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. That was my job. I was always thinking, too. I read the Bible a lot. And I learned English from the book the pastor gave me.
There was something that I was reading from Psalms and Proverbs that really made me feel that no matter what, nothing lasts forever -- after there’s pain, there’s joy. It was just a period of time until I would find the blessing. When something is hard now, I know that there’s something good happening. After every cross, there is a joy that brings blessings. And when I know I’m going to come out of something, it gives me a way to jump higher. There’s no one who is happy, happy, happy all the time forever. But knowing that good is coming allows you to be much better.
I can only imagine that your faith must have been tested. How did you keep your faith?
I thought that maybe I had been believing in God only because my parents did. I wondered why all this was happening. I was scared that He was not there. I started to doubt God’s existence. And the thought that maybe God doesn’t exist was scary. But that’s the temptation of the devil -- to make us doubt God. So I prayed to know God and to know that He was there with me, with us. I talked with God: “If You are there, if You exist; make me know You better.” I prayed, “Don’t let these killers find us. If You don’t let them find us, I’m going to put my trust in You.” I was asking a lot. I was asking and getting answers. And that kept me going.
Are there specific instances which proved to you that God was hearing your prayers?
Oh yes, especially when they (the Hutus) were coming to search for us. They searched for us many times. One time, they came up right to the door we were hiding behind in the bathroom. Someone touched the door but didn’t open the door. Instead, they told the pastor who was hiding us, “Oh, we trust you.” It was like God was holding them and keeping them back from opening the door. It was a miracle. Another time they were coming to search for me, I almost fainted. Instead, I had a dream. In that dream, Jesus was telling me, “You are scared of people, but if you pray to me, there’s no reason to be scared. Don’t worry; they’re not going to come here.” It was almost constant communication. At one point, I insisted that the pastor put a dresser in front of the bathroom door. When they came looking for us, they didn’t think about looking behind the dresser. Also, the transformation that was happening in my heart was a sign that God was answering my prayers and that I was changing.
What type of transformation was happening in your heart?
When I was believing everything was all good, I was happy inside. When I was in a state of anger and fear, my entire body felt terrible. There were times when I would say some prayers and still feel bad. Those time, I was just praying for the sake of praying. I wasn’t really believing. But when I was really talking with God in my heart, I was feeling like a person who listens. I was thinking about the life of Christ. I would just think about him being beaten and carrying the cross on his back. I wasn’t just praying for the sake of praying. I wanted to understand what the prayers meant. I would think, “You say to pray, God. What do you mean? Should I trust that anything You say is true?” It was a choice to trust God. When I chose to trust Him, everything He said became real and true.
How important was the Bible to you before and then after this tragic ordeal?
When I was young, I read the Bible for my parents’ sake because you’re supposed to read it in the morning and at night before you go to bed. But when I was in that bathroom for 91 days with seven other women without talking, I wanted to understand what the Bible really meant, what happened really. What does it mean to be protected? Daniel was protected in the den of lions (Dan 6). I thought that if God could do this for him, he could do it for me. What does it mean when Jesus says, “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you” (Matt 17:20)? Can I really trust God with my whole heart? I was really trying to understand and believe. Many times I would just think about one single idea from the Bible for hours so I could really understand it and apply it to my situation. If we understand the meaning of the Bible, we can feel God working in our lives.
Many people would like to let go of anger, resentment, and unforgiveness, but find it almost impossible to do so. How were you able to forgive those who murdered your family and friends? Do you have to keep on forgiving?
I don’t have to keep forgiving them. I’ve already forgiven them. It’s like learning that 1+1 = 2. You can’t change that. Once you know that this is the truth, then you know it. But I don’t know that everyone understands what I mean by forgiveness. I forgive everybody, but I also want people to stop the bad that they are doing. It’s like having a mother who is making food for you, and you slap her hands: the food falls down, and yet, you need the food. People hurt others and do wrong. Yet, there are consequences to all of our actions. There are consequences for doing wrong. And we accept the consequences. Why? Because many of us don’t understand that it’s better to love and forgive than to hate.
My forgiveness is based on the understanding that the person who commits a crime or hurts someone is in the state of not knowing the truth. How can you get angry at someone who doesn’t know the truth? The people who do only loving things are the ones who get the message and understand the truth. But the generous person is not the one who always wins in this world or has an easy life. Still, the truth is always better. My ability to forgive came when I contemplated the life of Christ. On the cross, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). There was a momentum in me when I understood forgiveness when I thought about Jesus on the cross.
I prayed to forgive and to love those who killed my family and friends. And I’m still praying for them not to hate. I want the killers to regret what they did and to be able to say, “Why did I do that?” If they can get to the point of wondering how they could do that to another person, then they can begin to change. My forgiving doesn’t mean I want them taken out of the prison so they can kill again. You don’t condone their actions or agree with what they did when you forgive. And you can’t be naïve about them either. Their hearts need to change. If I ever knew what was going on in their hearts and could really know that they’ve changed, it would be the best day.
Experiences such as you endured don’t leave us where they found us. How would you say you have changed?
I am a different woman. I have the freedom to forgive and to love people. I can just smile at others from my heart rather than think about what that person may be thinking of me. I do things for God and trust God more than anything. I don’t do good for other people to get things back. I understand that we need to take every moment as a blessing, enjoy the moment, and be grateful for it. That makes me live today. I know that “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). We all have God. Though other things end, we know that God’s there forever. We don’t need to be scared of losing Him.
Is it easy for you to maintain such a clear, loving, and forgiving outlook on life and others?
It all depends on the purity I’m keeping in my heart. If someone has done something to wrong me, I pray to God to have Him take over. I have to remind myself: “Let go, let go! Don’t hold onto the anger.” I do remind myself to let go every day because the temptations don’t stop. And then, sometimes I do something good and it’s interpreted as bad, and then I’m hurt. But I realize that I shouldn’t be hurt. Jesus wasn’t appreciated or understood all the time. So I try to be grateful and love God with all my heart.
What would you say to teenagers?
I really want teenagers to be strong in their hearts. They’re making decisions for this world tomorrow. I would tell them to hold onto God. I would ask them to ask God to make their decisions, to trust God. It’s not a very easy age. There’s so much that you don’t know about life as a teenager. I want them to have the soul connection with God, to trust that whatever hardship they’re in, there’s always hope. Both good things and bad things happen to you. It’s up to you to make a choice for what is best, to hold on to your dreams, and to know that God loves you.
That’s good advice for all of us. Thank you so much, Immaculée. You’re an amazing example, blessing the world.