In the springtime of 1994 the world quietly watched as Rwanda, Africa erupted into a civil war that led to the genocide of almost a million people from the Tutsi Tribe. The Tutsi Tribe represented approximately 20% of the Rwanda population. The Hutu Tribe represented the majority of the Rwandan people and was the tribe in power.
Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Catholic, was twenty-two and a college student when the Rwandan genocide began. She had just returned home for Easter vacation when she heard on the radio the call to mass murder in the middle of the night: "Hutus, rise up and kill your Tutsi neighbors." Her family was Tutsi. When the call for mass murder was heard on the radio, her parents panicked and feared the worst. Her father urged her to flee their home and seek refuge with a local Hutu Episcopalian priest, who was a family friend.
With great reluctance, Immaculee left her home and family and sought refuge from the local Hutu Episcopalian priest. She and seven other women, ranging in age from seven to fifty-six, hid in a 3 x 5 bathroom in the priest's home for three months.
For the next three months, these eight strangers literally lived on top of each other, fearing for their lives. Every day, local Hutu tribes' people went house to house looking for Tutsi Tribe members who might be hiding out. On countless occasions, they came within inches of discovering the eight women who were hovering in the small rectory bathroom.
During their confinement, they rarely spoke to each other for fear of being discovered. They survived on minimal food, the same clothes and an indescribable faith. In her book," Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Genocide," Immaculee describes how she spent much of her time in the bathroom praying, as the screams of the suffering and those being murdered constantly penetrated the single window in the 3 x 5 bathroom that became her home.
She was raised as a devout Catholic. Her family prayed the rosary every night. As her fear intensified, she found herself praying the Lord's Prayer over and over again. Each time, she stopped at the words, "forgive those who trespass against us." Those words haunted her!
Recently, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Immaculee for the cable television program, "Reason to Hope." During this extraordinary interview, this courageous woman spoke about her deep faith and prayer that protected her from fear and despair. In her interview, she said, "so I'm praying to God to help me out, save me, but yet I've got anger. It was an obstacle in my heart."
In the midst of her fear and wavering faith, she asked God to help her overcome the obstacles that were blocking her to forgive. She said it was a moment of complete surrender.
"I gave everything to God," she said. "Later, I see Jesus on the cross, when he said, Father forgive them, for they don't know what they do. I understood what exactly he meant and what I needed to do."
From that very moment, she was able to pray for her enemies, "for this evil to come out of them," she said. "So, then that gives me a way out of my unforgiveness and my hatred. And I felt so good."
After she shared how she was able to overcome her anger, rage and bitterness. She went on to speak profoundly and simply about the gift of forgiveness and how her experience gave life and renewed her faith and courage. Now she knew she would make it. She felt the murders of her family members were not in vain.
When she and the seven other women emerged from that 3 x 5 bathroom after ninety-one days of confinement, she discovered that almost all of her friends and relatives had been murdered, hacked to death by the machetes of their Hutu friends and neighbors. Immaculee lost her parents, grandparents and three of her four brothers.
It took her almost a year before she could bring herself to return to her home village. She went back to bury the remains of her family. Everything that was once home, was completely destroyed. She was devastated beyond description.
Instead of letting her rage, grief and desire for revenge consume her life, she reached into the depth of her soul and found only forgiveness for her enemies. She made the decision shortly after, that she would spend her life sharing her story and hoping that the horror of the Rwanda holocaust would help empower others to open their hearts to forgiveness.
Immaculee believes that "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 all of 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."
"Left to Tell" is a painful reminder of the bottomless depravity of humankind. Immaculee's story of courage, hope and survival is a powerful reminder of the power of faith within the human spirit, despite all odds.
Today, Immaculee lives in Elmont, Long Island, with her two children and her husband. She recently returned to Rwanda as part of her CBS 60 Minutes special. It was the first time she had returned home since the holocaust that claimed her family. CBS worked very hard to reconnect the other seven women who shared that small bathroom space for ninety days. When they began their confinement, they did not know each other. Once they were free, they all went their separate ways. None of the women had seen each other for the past twelve years. Their reunion a few months ago was overwhelming. All but one survived and was able to connect.
Since immigrating to the United States, Immaculee has spent her time and effort traveling around the country and around the world, sharing her powerful message of radical forgiveness and healing, one heart at a time.
In the last chapter of her book, she ends with an unbelievable story. She talks about giving an address to a group of five hundred people. After the address, many in the audience came forward, telling her how profoundly she touched their lives and changed them.
A ninety-two year old woman waited on line to touch Immaculee's hand and say thank you. As she approached her, there were tears in her eyes. She reached out to her, put her arms around her, hugged her and said, "I am a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. My parents were killed in one of the Nazi death camps when I was a child, and I lived. I have spent my life angry, hating and not having peace. I thought it was too late for me to forgive. I've been waiting to hear someone say what you did. I had to know that it was possible to forgive the unforgiveable. I am at peace now."
After almost two hours, I was humbled by the spiritual depth and compassion to forgive by this extraordinary woman. She is truly a prophetic voice in a world that desperately needs to hear her message. She offers us a moral compass to navigate a human landscape that is in ruins. You will feel richly blessed for having read her book or having listened to her words. The encounter will hopefully leave you changed forever.
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