How Rwandan Genocide Survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza Found Forgiveness for Her Family’s Killer

Image: Courtesy of Imaculee Ilibigaza
Image: Courtesy of Imaculee Ilibigaza

In many accounts of the Rwandan genocide, the church is cast as complicit in the killings that took one million lives in a country the size of Maryland. Indeed, since 1994, United Nations tribunals have found many church leaders guilty of murdering neighbors or aiding Hutu in hunting down Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

But Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, has a Hutu pastor to thank for saving her life.

When Ilibagiza was 23, Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over the Kigali airport, inciting Hutu–Tutsi violence the country over. In response, Ilibagiza’s father sent her to hide with the pastor, who took in seven other women and hid them in his family’s three-by-four-foot bathroom. They stayed there for 91 days while Hutu militia came by the house daily searching for Tutsi. The bathroom became the setting for Ilibagiza’s test of faith and forgiveness, which began by praying the Lord’s Prayer many times a day.

When I visited Rwanda this summer (with HOPE International, a microfinance nonprofit based in Pennsylvania), I was told to avoid asking two questions: “What tribe do you belong to?” and “What was the genocide like for you?” Rwandans—who have enjoyed a remarkable level of peace and stability under president Paul Kagame—see the topics as unnecessarily divisive. Yet Ilibagiza speaks openly about both so that others may know that forgiveness is possible and can heal both offender and offendee.

Ilibagiza spoke recently at the 2017 Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Afterward, she sat down with CT to share about the process of forgiving the man who killed her entire family.

You grew up in a Catholic family and learned about faith at a young age. You are also Tutsi. Growing up, did you know about the conflict in your country and hear the propaganda against the Tutsi?

When I was a child, I knew, but it was almost hidden. If you spoke about this as a Tutsi, they could kill you; you’re trying to go against the government. It’s not like here in the United States where people talk about how they feel. I didn’t even know what tribe I was in until the fourth grade. We heard there were wars where they killed some family members, but when you haven’t lived through it, you really don’t get it.

I was 23 when the genocide started. When I was 18 or 19, we started to hear that things were bad. There was a radio created by the leaders of the country. For two years, the hosts acted like they were drunk. Then I was sure something terrible was about to happen. They would tell people, “One day we are going to kill them. The Tutsi aren’t human beings.” They would laugh at us—“They have tails and horns.” But no one was stopping them. I remember thinking, Rwanda is normally a country where people love each other, where people are polite and manners are something you really put ahead, you can’t find people who even use bad words. But now people are acting drunk.

How do you get up in the morning and start to kill someone? How do you kill another human being? It was bewildering.

Your father knew a minister who was Hutu, and he sheltered you and seven other women in the bathroom of his house during the genocide. What was going through your mind and heart when you were hiding?

First, I’m so thankful my parents prayed and taught us prayer. Throughout the whole genocide I prayed. Before, nothing was so bad in my life that I wondered if God was there. There were two stages of prayer. I started praying, but I would forget what I was saying because of the anxiety: “Our Father who art in heaven . . . I’m dying; they’re coming!” Then the time when I realized God was there for sure, I started to pray loud inside myself, because it was the only thing I had.

What else was going through my mind? “Look, we’re done; they’re going to kill us.” The Hutu were hunting us so we were scared to death and had anger. I remember just wishing not being born inside Rwanda.

A part of me was thinking, I’m going to get revenge. Revenge for me was going to be throwing bombs all over the country, and I knew that doing that, I had to train my body and go on and fight. And I thought that was going to make me a hero—I didn’t think of revenge as wrong. But it did hurt. It physically hurt me. I had a headache and a stomachache, and my blood was running out of anger. It became obsessive. Anger and hatred become obsessive. Like a sickness literally, and it came for me. I was tired.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Katelyn Beaty

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