Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 8, 2010
Rwandan miracle of forgiveness
During 91 days in a bathroom with 7 others, Immaculée Ilibagiza learned to forgive genocidal killers
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
RED DEER - Immaculée Ilibagiza is a living example of faith in action. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, she and seven other women spent three months hiding in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor's house.
Despite discomfort, sheer terror and hunger, she found solace in prayer. Clasping her fathers' rosary, Ilibagiza prayed silently to God most of the time, sometimes having frantic, albeit silent, conversations with the Lord.
As a result, Ilibagiza gained the courage and strength she needed later to forgive her tormentors and her family's murderers.
"I did hate, of course," she says. "I was very angry. During the violent time I couldn't understand how human beings can cause so much pain (to each other)."
Ilibagiza was the keynote speaker at Red Deer's Catholic Schools' March 1 Faith Development Day. More than 700 people, including Archbishop Richard Smith and the staff of the Catholic Pastoral Centre, attended the event at Notre Dame High School.
Ilibagiza learned to take seriously the Lord's Prayer, which calls on us to "forgive those who trespass against us." In a video shown prior to her presentation, she is shown embracing Alex, the man who killed two of her relatives and who would have killed her, had he found her.
"Forgiveness gives us freedom," she said. "Hatred can only prolong the pain in this world."
During the 1994 genocide, extremist Hutu militia groups murdered nearly a million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.
Radio broadcasts called day and night for the Hutus to kill Tutsis and the Hutus were told by their leaders that if they didn't join the killers, they would join the dead. Gangs of killers went neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood, home-by-home with lists of people they had to kill.
Tutsis were even killed inside churches. Thousands were lured into stadiums with promises of safe passage just to be killed with grenades and machine guns.
Ilibagiza said the Belgian colonizers who at one point divided the people into two tribes planted the seeds of the genocide. They placed the tall ones into the Tutsi tribe and the shorter ones into the Hutu tribe. By putting people into boxes, they created division.
Radicals urged the moderate Hutu president in 1994 to initiate an extermination campaign against the Tutsis. When the president refused, he was killed and radicals took over the government and closed the borders of the country so no Tutsi could escape.
Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, was a 22-year-old college student at home on a visit from school, when the genocide began. Her dad, a respected Catholic school director, sent her to hide at the home of local Protestant pastor and moderate Hutu who was a longtime family friend. He gave his daughter his rosary. "I did not want to leave but I did out of obedience (to my father)," she recalled.
Ilibagiza hid at the pastor's house 91 days with seven other women in a three-by-four-foot bathroom. "He told us not to make any noise, not even flush the toilet, unless we hear somebody flushing in the next bathroom."
The place was hot. On the third day, Ilibagiza thought that was the maximum she could take.
For days, then weeks, then months, the eight women stayed squeezed into the tiny bathroom, surrounded by evil.
Everything outside the bathroom where Ilibagiza and the others were huddled, the entire country, had become a killing field. Hutus armed with machetes searched every house and killed every Tutsi they could find.
The pastor would turn on the radio in his bedroom and the women could hear government officials encouraging the killing.
The house was searched several times but the killers always left empty-handed. "Please, don't let them find the door to the bathroom," Ilibagiza would pray in silence.
She started saying the rosary up to 27 times a day. A voice inside her said, "You aren't forgiving." The voice also encouraged her to abide by the Lord's Prayer, which calls Christians to forgive their enemies. Then she asked the Lord to help her to forgive because she could not do it on her own.
"It was at that moment that I understood what it means to forgive," Ilibagiza said. "I could not hate anymore."
When Ilibagiza emerged from hiding, she fled to a refugee camp run by the French. She soon discovered she had lost her parents, grandparents and two brothers. Yet, through an unwavering faith in the Lord, she was able to forgive.
She is now a full-time public speaker and writer. Her 2006 book Left to Tell describes how Ilibagiza discovered God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.
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