One of the most brutal massacres in Africa’s history occurred in Rwanda in spring 1994. Over a period of three months, the majority Hutu ethnic group murdered 800,000 Tutsi, which had held political power in the country for centuries. The killing began with Hutu militias, but Hutu civilians joined in the killing, motivated by ethnic tensions and promises of land.
Immaculée Ilibagiza survived the massacre by hiding in a bathroom with seven other women. However, her parents and two of her three brothers were murdered by Hutus. She shared her story in her 2006 book, “Left to Tell,” and has been interviewed about it by many media outlets. “60 Minutes,” for example, first broadcast her story in 2006. She also shares her story regularly in public appearances.
She recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about her experiences.
Our Sunday Visitor: You loved your family dearly. They were brutally murdered by people with base motives. In the “60 Minutes” story, you hug a man who once lived in your family’s house and murdered your cousins. He admits he did it because he was promised a land grant by the government. How can you be friendly with this man?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: He’s not a friend, but he’s someone I’ve come to understand and forgive.
First off, there’s no excuse for his actions. He committed his crimes willingly. He joined in a collective madness that overtook many people in my village. He admits that during this time he would have killed me, had I been found.
That said, I met with him twice before the “60 Minutes” interview. He feels horribly for what he has done. He told me with tears in his eyes that he can’t live with his conscience. He can’t sleep. He walks around the village and is reminded of the massacre and his part in it. So many people are gone; the village seems so empty. In fact, he misses the people he killed.
As part of his release from prison, he publicly apologized for his crimes. Today, he wants to tell everyone, “Don’t do the evil that I’ve done.” Seeing what he has suffered and continues to suffer has made me feel compassion for him. I understand what happened to him, and I’m willing to forgive him. And I believe that people can change, and that he has changed.
I actually decided back when I was hiding that I was not going to harbor anger or thoughts of revenge toward those who committed murder in my village. Harboring angry thoughts contaminates your mind; it gets into your blood. We need to learn to forgive.
OSV: In your book you talk about the huge role your Catholic faith plays in your life. Talk about how your faith helped you recover from the ordeal.
Ilibagiza: It is everything. Faith gives you the spiritual weapons you need to make you strong.My faith was tested when I was hiding. I started to have my doubts with all the ugliness going on. But, in the end, I knew God was there and that I could talk to him. That’s what I did from the time I got up in the morning until I fell asleep at night. I prayed.
The pastor who hid us gave me a Bible to read. From it, I know that there is a heaven and that our time on earth is short. When I believe in heaven, this life becomes less of a burden, and I resolve to do what it takes to get to heaven. The Bible tells me we must love and forgive one another. And, if I want to be forgiven when I offend others, I must forgive, too.
During the crisis in Rwanda, my faith became everything. It became real. It is about loving God and maintaining a relationship with him.
OSV: You have helped spread the devotion of Our Lady of Kibeho (1981-89). Mary was said to have appeared to three young people. How did this foreshadow the massacre?
Ilibagiza: Our Lady showed the visionaries images of people being killed with machetes and fighting along the river and roads. The visionaries begged her not to let it happen. But it could have been avoided had we listened to her and turned to God.
I remember talking with my mother about the apparitions. I’d ask her, “When do you think these horrible things will happen? 100 years from now? 200?” Little did I know it would come in 12 years.
Mary came to these young people as the mother of the whole world. She begged us to repent of our sins, pray to God, say the Rosary and obey the commandments. She showed us images and scenes of what our future would hold if we did not. We failed her.
OSV: What is happening in Rwanda today? Do you feel safe visiting there?
Ilibagiza: Things have improved tremendously, and I believe it’s the safest country in Africa. People are still hurting, and some harbor hatred in their hearts. But there is a great sensitivity in the country toward the tribalism that led to the massacre. Previously, you had to carry an identity card that designated you as either a Hutu or Tutsi. This is no longer the case. You have an identity card, but without a tribal designation. There are no longer tribes within Rwanda, just Rwandans.
OSV: Is it true that your story will soon be made into a movie?
Ilibagiza: Yes! We’ve raised nearly all the money we need to pay for its production. My friends are telling me I should play myself … we’ll see. I might just end up playing a small role.
Jim Graves writes from California.