By David Lea
She has looked into the face of the man who brutally murdered her family and did the unthinkable — she forgave him.
Rwandan genocide survivor and motivational speaker Immaculee Ilibagiza spoke about the importance of forgiveness and faith Tuesday, during a presentation before hundreds of students at Holy Trinity Catholic Secondary School, 2420 Sixth Line.
“I did hate, of course. I was very angry. I couldn’t understand how another human being could cause so much pain. Why? We don’t choose our race, we don’t choose our tribe, we don’t even choose the country where we are born,” said Ilibagiza.
“I thought, ‘I can pay them back for what they have done to me’. Thank God I realized that was useless. That was only going to prolong the pain and hatred in this world.”
Ilibagiza received a standing ovation from the Holy Trinity audience before she even took the podium and began telling her story.
Born in the Rwandan village of Kibeho in 1972, Ilibagiza grew up in a loving family, which was both Roman Catholic and Tutsi.
Her parents were both teachers and were well respected in their village.
Throughout the early years of her life, Ilibagiza said she was aware there were problems between Rwanda’s majority Hutu and minority Tutsi people, but said she never thought it would lead to violence.
All this changed in April of 1994 when Rwanda’s Hutu president was assassinated.
Ethnic tensions, dating back to colonialism, exploded with Hutu extremists inside the government seizing the incident as an excuse to launch a countrywide genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population.
At that time, Ilibagiza had been attending college, but was home with her family for the Easter holiday.
She said she quickly realized the seriousness of the situation when she heard her father telling his neighbours it was possible none of them would live through the next few days and they should get their spiritual affairs in order.
“The leaders of the country, the president who took over, the ministers, they were on the radio telling the Hutus to kill the Tutsis,” said Ilibagiza.
“They had locked the country and shut down every activity in the whole country, no schools, no markets, no banks. The only thing being done was killing.”
With news of mass killings growing more and more frequent, Ilibagiza’s father told her to hide in the home of an acquaintance.
The man was Hutu, but Ilibagiza’s father trusted him, believing he would keep Ilibagiza safe.
Ilibagiza said she didn’t want to leave her family, but obeyed her father. Soon after she arrived at the man’s home.
The man took her in, ushering her down into a small bathroom that was about three feet long and four feet wide.
The man told her to stay in there and be quiet and not to even flush the toilet unless the house’s other toilet was also being flushed.
Just as Ilibagiza was reflecting on the unpleasantness of her situation, she was joined by seven other Tutsi women the man had also agreed to hide.
The youngest was just seven. The eldest was 55.
“We were literally sitting on top of each other,” said Ilibagiza.
“We would live like this for three months. From April to July.”
Ilibagiza said the first week was the hardest.
The only food the women got were the leftovers in the family’s garbage.
Eventually, the man set up a radio near the bathroom so the women could hear what was going on around them.
What they heard were horrifying stories of entire families being hacked to death with machetes and of people being herded into sports stadiums only to be blown to pieces with grenades.
Even people who sought shelter in churches were not safe with the militia blocking the exits and then setting the churches on fire.
Ilibagiza’s most terrifying experience came days later when 300-400 Hutu militia surrounded the home where she was hiding and began a very methodical search.
Looking through a tiny window in the bathroom, Ilibagiza said many of those she saw were people from her village who she went to school with, people she would call friends.
Now these people were armed with machetes, guns, grenades and were pouring into the house.
“I was frozen. At times they were inches away from finding us,” said Ilibagiza.
“The thought that you are about to be killed is about the worst thing you can ever go through. With all this fear, I felt that I had two voices on my shoulders. One was saying, ‘Open the door. End your torture. They are going to find you anyway’.”
The other voice told Ilibagiza to have faith and stay quiet.
In the end, Ilibagiza begged God for help and then fainted.
She came to five hours later and was told by the man who owned the house that the militia had searched the roof, every room, the closets and even inside suitcases.
One militiaman, he said, actually had his hand on the bathroom door, but then saw the man who owned the house. He realized he knew him and called off the search stating the homeowner was trustworthy.
Ilibagiza’s crisis of faith disappeared after this incident, stating she now knew God was real.
Ilibagiza spent the rest of her time in the bathroom learning English from a dictionary and a Bible and reciting the rosary over and over again to quell her fearful thoughts.
Despite all that she had gone through, Ilibagiza also began to pray for those committing the genocide, asking God to help free them from their madness.
People, she said, become blinded by anger, greed, prejudice and commit horrible acts, of which they don’t recognize the consequences.
“There is no such thing as an evil person,” said Ilibagiza.
“Just evil deeds. People have the capacity to change.”
When Ilibagiza finally emerged from the bathroom at the end of the genocide, she said, she weighed just 65 lbs.
She left the house and entered a nightmarish world of burned homes and shattered lives.
“Everywhere there were dead bodies. Dogs were eating people,” said Ilibagiza.
“Everybody in my family was killed. I was hoping maybe they were still hiding somewhere, but I was in a refugee camp and I found someone who knew them and I found out everyone was killed. My mom, my dad, my two brothers, my grandma, grandpa, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my neighbours, my school mates, my best friend.
Ilibagiza would eventually get a job with the United Nations and move to New York City where she would write a book about her experience titled Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.
Years later, Ilibagiza would return to Rwanda where she would visit a jail and confront one of the men responsible for killing some of her family members.
“I cried, and when the man looked at me, I told him, I forgave him,” said Ilibagiza.
“In my heart I knew it was right.”
The genocide in Rwanda claimed the lives of 800,000 people.