The Great Turning: The Miraculous Story of Immaculee Ilibagiza
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, June 3, 2007
Almost one million people killed (“cockroaches” the fanatical Hutus branded their Tutsi neighbors) over at three month period, and the world looked the other way. The United Nations pulled out the few peacekeepers it had in Rwanda. The Western powers, including the United States and Great Britain, decided it was “not in their interests” to act, and so pushed for no U.N. resolutions or action. The French, who had for years continued to arm the extremist Hutu government, did nothing, until far too late. The Belgians, who had colonized Rwanda and had created much of the ethnic division between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, pulled out immediately when twelve of their peacekeepers were slain while guarding Rwanda’s prime minister, a moderate Hutu woman, who tried to broker a peace agreement early on in the conflict. (Thousands of moderate Hutus were killed as well, as the extremist militias turned on anyone and everyone who refused to go along with their campaign to “eliminate the cockroaches”.
At the outbreak of the violence in April 1994, the estimate of the number of Tutsis in Rwanda is put somewhere in the vicinity of 1.1 million. By the summer of that same year—just a few months later-- fewer than 100,000 (perhaps 10% of the original number) remained alive. The world stood by and did nothing as those in power in Rwanda came frighteningly close to achieving their goal of slaughtering every Tutsi man, woman, and child living in Rwanda at the time. And for that, we should all be ashamed.
“Never again!” was the rallying cry of the international community when, after the Second World War, the grim reality of Hitler’s Holocaust became apparent. Never again? Not for the Tutsis in Rwanda, certainly. I pray the world’s inattention and lack of resolve will not allow this tragedy to repeat itself again in Darfur, right now, in these very days in which we live.
For all these reasons, this book by Immaculee Ilibagiza is very disturbing. It is obvious that thousands of lives could have been saved had the West acted to stop the killing in Rwanda. It is a very troubling book, too, as she relates the outbreak of the slaughter and paints a grim picture of how ethnic tensions were stoked, and long-trusted neighbors turned on each other, and just how quickly madness can descend over a land. And it is a deeply sad book, a heartbreaking book, as she relates hearing how, one after another, nearly all the members of her immediate family—her father, mother, two brothers—were savagely tormented by their killers; tortured, then hacked to pieces by machetes. (Her only other brother, Aimable, survived only because he was an exchange student and out of the country at the time).
But ultimately, Left To Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza’s miraculous story, is a heroic one—an uplifting one—and even a hope-filled one. It is also a story of the growth of a deep and profound faith which recasts all of our human travails and struggles in the light of the love of God, and reminds us of where our true power as children of this creation lies.
The centerpiece of the story is Immaculee’s experience hiding in a tiny bathroom (four feet long; three feet wide) with seven other women, for 91 days. Before the massacres began, she had been a student majoring in science at the National University of Rwanda in Butare. Her family was prosperous by the country’s standards, enjoyed a comfortable middle class life, and were active in their local Catholic church. Her father was the chief administrator for the Catholic schools in their province and her mother was the teacher at a local village school. They were hardly wealthy, but they worked very hard, and instilled in their children a love of learning and a grasp of the importance of education: indeed, all four children in the family were superior students, and all went on to college.
Home for Easter in 1994, Immaculee tells of enjoying a fine meal with her family at home, their jokes and songs and horseplay. She didn’t realize it would be the last meal they would ever share together. At the dinner table, one of her brothers argued with his parents to flee across Lake Kiva into neighboring Zaire because of growing tensions between Tutsis and Hutus. But Immaculee’s father would hear none of it: “Maybe you’re letting your imagination get the best of you,” he said, trying to calm his son down. “There is a lot of dangerous talk going on, and people are seeing danger where there is none.”
That very night, all hell (quite literally) broke loose. The airplane carrying the country’s president, Paul Habyarimana, returning from negotiating a peace agreement between the government and the Tutsi rebel forces, was shot out of the sky as it approached Kigali airport. It is still not clear who ordered the plane shot down. But militant Hutu forces took the president’s death as their excuse to unleash genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority.
Her father arranged for Immaculee to hide in the home of a local Protestant pastor, who grudgingly allowed her and seven other Tutsi women to hide in a tiny bathroom, concealed behind a large wardrobe with a suitcase on top. The four tallest women had to push their backs against the wall, slide to the floor, and put the smaller women on top of them. For hours at a time, they were forced to remain in this position, in complete silence, communicating to each other only through hand gestures and reading each other’s lips. The slightest movement or noise, they feared, would tip off the marauding Hutu gangs, intent on hunting down and murdering each and every Tutsi in the area.
Day and night, for 91 days, with hundreds of would-be killers just outside the walls of their safe haven, the women subsisted in total darkness, living on scraps of food and water that the minister would slip them when he was sure the coast was clear. Immaculee had weighed 115 pounds when she first hid in the bathroom; when she emerged three months later, her weight was under 70. She was a walking skeleton; but, unlike almost all of her fellow tribe members, she was alive.
There was nothing for her to do during all this time, she said, but pray. Prayer kept her alive. Immaculee later said that she would pray between 18 and 20 hours each and every day. Every morning, clutching the rosary her father had given her just before their last parting, she would focus on the illimitable and undefeatable power at the heart of the universe, and how she was part of that power. Nothing, then, could defeat her, and her heart turned from fear to strength. She pictured her family members (whom she assumed were dead) now reunited with God in heaven, completely at peace, completely one with all the universe. Her heart turned from sadness to joy. Most of all, and most difficult of all, she prayed for the power to forgive those evil ones who had perpetrated such dastardly things against her, her family, and her people.
“Being spared is much different than being saved,” Immaculee writes near the start of her book. She realized that even if she survived physically, her life would be a living death if she continued to carry the deep-seated hatred of her Hutu tormentors within her. “I feel I lived an entire life[time] in that bathroom for [those] three months,” she told an interviewer. “I went through so many stages—stages of anger, of being so fearful, of hating the killers who murdered my family, of wanting to kill them, and from there trying to hold on to God… So I had this major spiritual conflict. How could I pray to a God of love with a heart so filled with hatred? I couldn’t. I knew I could no longer live with a heart at war with itself.”
So, Immaculee turned to God—turned to the force at the center of the universe—and asked that power to turn her heart toward love. She felt a deep inner conversion—a great metanoia—a change of heart. “I was able to feel the touch of God,” she said—and love and joy flowed trough her: and in remembering the words of Jesus on the cross—“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”—she felt at last able to forgive those who had done such awful things to her and those she loved.
Immaculee’s story is truly an extraordinary one. But what does her experience mean to us, living under infinitely different circumstances, seeing the world from a far different vantage than she did, either crammed into that tiny bathroom, or struggling to survive in the living hell which was Rwanda?
Her example points out the importance of the Spirit in our own lives, too. In a way, she said, it was easy to nurture a well-developed spiritual life while she was in hiding. There was little else she could do but pray. It was relatively easy to develop a close relationship with her God when there was nothing to distract her from that. Even in the relative “comfort” of the refugee camp to which she went when she finally could leave the pastor’s house, she said that it became more difficult to pray as intensely or to be as focused on the way of the spirit.
We, in our busy lives, face a much different challenge. We have so many things to distract us from the Spirit: so much to do; so many enticements to enjoy; so much media to stimulate our minds and occupy our time; so many other relationships to care for.
But all of these “other” aspects of our busy lives, of course, can become weapons of our own destruction if they lead us to forget what’s really important and where our power really lies. We, too, need to turn toward that Ultimate Power, by whatever name we might call it, and through whatever means of spiritual discipline we might access it. Our survival—our spiritual survival—is at stake in this great turning.
Secondly, we need to focus on forgiveness. We need to embrace those who have hurt us as fellow children of the creation; as, truly, extended parts of ourselves. Unless the whole body is healed, we will not be healed. Unless the trespasses others have committed against us are forgiven, our trespasses will not be forgiven. One of the most powerful scenes in all of Left To Tell is when Immaculee finally has the chance to forgive the gang leader who murdered her mother and her brother. He had been a successful Hutu businessman; hard-working and prosperous like her own parents; she had even played with the man’s children when she was younger. “I shivered [when I saw him in prison],” she said, “remembering his voice has been one of the voices outside that bathroom, taunting me, calling out my name.” But now, Immaculee writes:
“When I saw him, he was emaciated, his clothes hanging from him… his skin was sallow, bruised, and broken. I wept at the sight of his suffering. He was now the victim of his victims and would live in torment and regret for the rest of his life. He looked up at me, and our eyes never met, and I quietly said, ‘I forgive you.’ Forgiveness was all I had to offer.”
Forgiveness forms a healing bridge, over which we—and our world-- have our only hope of turning toward the future. But to make that great turning, we have to let go of our need to control; our need for an even score; the need of our egos and our little selves to be in charge, and to run the whole show.
When we dare to forgive, we acknowledge a greater will than that we call our own; a greater justice than our own little games of tit for tat. People are responsible for their evil actions, certainly, and must answer for them and bear the consequences of them. But we are all also responsible, each of us, to bind up the broken, and connect ties that have been severed, and to reach out to all the living—not just those who have been kind to us—in a fellowship as wide as this whole planet.
May the heroic story of this brave woman inspire all of us as we seek to transform this world in an image of love.
“What happened in Rwanda,” Immaculee wrote, “is a wound from which we are all suffering. Replacing hatred with love is a matter of self preservation. It is the only way our species will survive. We are one race [all of us] and we share one heart. We must heal that heart with love—the love of a single heart can elevate the level of love around the world. We can heal Rwanda [and Darfur, I would add] and the world, but we have to do it one heart at a time.”
Make that great healing—that great turning-- finally begin in the hearts of each one of us.