TRUMBULL—Hiding in a bathroom with seven other women for 91 days, Immaculee Ilibagiza prayed the Rosary as war raged beyond the confines of her tiny sanctuary. Though her country was ravaged and her people were killed, Ilibagiza prayed not only for her own sanity and the safety of her family but also for the ability to forgive those killers who destroyed all she knew.
This was the story that Ilibagiza, a witness to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, shared with several hundred people gathered at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull on November 15. With vivid details and anecdotes, she recounted her story of survival and forgiveness.
Ilibagiza described growing up in a traditional Catholic family with loving parents and three brothers who she said were all “very protective of me.” While in college, she returned home for Easter just as a plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down, the catalyst for a 100-day genocide in which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed.
As chaos broke out, Ilibagiza’s father urged her to hide, but not before giving her his Rosary, saying, “Take this as a chance to repent so we can go to Heaven.” It was the last time she saw him or her mother. “I wish I could have told them how much I appreciated them,” she told those in attendance. “Please be grateful for all you have.”
After leaving her parents, a neighbor pulled Ilibagiza into his home, hiding her in a bathroom of only 12 square feet. It was there, with the seven other women, that she would spend the next three months, praying, reading, eating scraps of food—and learning to forgive.
“Enemies began killing people. Everything was shut down,” she remembered. “It was organized to eliminate a whole group of people.” She even heard enemies on the radio giving orders such as “Don’t forget the children!”—comments which filled her with an anger that “became like a sickness.”
Ilibagiza told one story of the enemy coming to search the home in which she was hiding. As she and the others sat waiting to die, she heard a voice saying, “Ask God to help you. He is almighty.” Believing there was still hope, Ilibagiza prayed that the men would not open their door. Miraculously, they did not. “God can hear us from everywhere,” she said.
Ashamed of her anger after escaping death, Ilibagiza began praying the Rosary continuously, up to 27 times a day, and reading the Bible. “Every page felt like it was about forgiveness,” she said, holding her father’s Rosary. It was during a reading of the “Our Father,” when she was praying “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” that she had a realization. “Please, Jesus, help me,” she cried. “How do you forgive someone who killed your mother, your father?”
Ilibagiza remembered Jesus’ suffering and how He said, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they do,” suddenly seeing her family’s murderers as God’s children. “This brought such a peace in my heart,” she said.
Three months after going into hiding, Ilibagiza emerged from her place of refuge to find that the war was over but that her mother, father, and two brothers were dead. “I threw my Rosary on the sidewalk,” she said, filled with anger again at seeing bodies all around her. “I was crying and crying, and then I felt the hand of God on me. He was telling me that my journey was not over and that it is up to me to choose what to do with my life. He told me that we must use our time to love one another.”
Ilibagiza said that each morning when she awakes, she tells herself, “It’s a new day. How will I love somebody today?”
Despite the months she spent in fear, the loss of her loved ones, and the destruction of her country, Ilibagiza said that because she was a witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ, she has learned to forgive, even those who killed her family. It is this story—the one she shared with parishioners and guests at St. Theresa—which she details in her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.
“Immaculee has a profound faith,” said Fr. Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Church. “She teaches us about the strength to endure and to love. The most important thing we can do is turn to Jesus Christ.”
To forgive and to fight the anger are lessons Ilibagiza took from her ordeal which, she said, taught her so much about life. “Love God above all,” she said. Reflecting back on the genocide, she added, “If only we could have loved one another more.”
By Emily Clark