Immaculée Ilibagiza: Forgiving the Rwandan Holocaust

Since the central teaching of A Course in Miracles is forgiveness, I love hearing about extreme forgiveness stories in which someone forgives the seemingly unforgivable. I’ve shared a few of those in these “Course Meets World” Commentaries, such as Roy Ratcliff forgiving the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Eva Kor forgiving the Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele. Recently, I came across another remarkable forgiver: a woman named Immaculée Ilibagiza. In her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, she tells the amazing story of how she survived the genocide that took nearly a million lives, including almost her entire immediate family. Above all, it is a story of the transformative power of forgiveness.

Ilibagiza begins by describing her idyllic childhood in Rwanda. The two main tribal groups in Rwanda are the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi, and Ilibagiza says that while conflicts between the two had arisen at various times in the past, during her growing-up years they got along for the most part. They intermarried and lived side by side; people in each group had friends in the other. Yet tension between the groups surfaced periodically, and when a plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda was shot down, the country exploded. The government called upon Hutus to rid the country of all Tutsis, and so began a bloodbath in which machete-wielding Hutus embarked on a relentless campaign to slaughter every Tutsi “cockroach” they could find.

Ilibagiza and her family were Tutsis. When the killing began, her father told her to flee to the house of a minister named Simeon Murinzi. He was a Hutu, but Ilibagiza’s father hoped that since he was a minister and a longtime friend of the family, he would find it in his heart to take her in and protect her. Though reluctant at first, Murinzi did finally take her in. He needed to hide her from the killers and from his own extended family, so he put her and seven other women he was hiding into a tiny bathroom, three feet long by four feet high.

As the slaughter continued all around them, the women in the bathroom miraculously survived repeated visits from Hutu killers searching for new Tutsi victims. On the very first visit, one killer actually put his hand on the bathroom door but didn’t open it; after that, Murinzi slid a bureau over the door to hide it. On another visit, the killers called Ilibagiza’s name, one of them saying, “I have killed 399 cockroaches. Immaculée will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.” The killers came and searched the house again and again, but never found the women. They ended up staying in the bathroom for ninety-one days.

Emotionally, Ilibagiza suffered exactly what you would expect someone to suffer in such an ordeal: mortal terror and bitter anger at the people who were out to destroy her and who had probably already murdered the rest of her family. (It turned out that her entire immediate family was murdered except for one brother who was out of the country.) Yet she had been a devout Catholic all her life, so in this time of turmoil she turned to God. She spent most of her time in the bathroom in prayer, and as the ordeal continued developed a deeper and deeper relationship with Him. She eventually realized that if she wanted to truly survive—not just physically but emotionally and spiritually—she would need to let go of her anger and learn to forgive.

It wasn’t easy. She struggled mightily with her anger and hatred. As she tried to call on God to help her forgive the killers, she would hear a whispering voice berating her, telling her that God would not help her because her hatred made her unworthy of Him:

Why are you calling on God? Don’t you have as much hatred in your heart as the killers do? Aren’t you as guilty of hatred as they are? You’ve wished them dead; in fact, you wished that you could kill them yourself! You even prayed that God would make them suffer and make them burn in hell.

She prayed and prayed and prayed, but felt no relief. Finally, one night, she heard screams followed by a baby crying; most likely, the killers had slain the mother and left the baby to die on the road. The baby cried the entire night and into the next day, but as time wore on, its cries died down and finally it was silent. In anguish, Ilibagiza asked God, “How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant.” This was the turning point. Immediately came a reply clear as day: “You are all my children…and the baby is with Me now.” With this answer, the floodgates of her heart were opened:

[The killers’] minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil. Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy…especially when that child was trying to kill me.

In God’s eyes, the killers were part of His family, deserving of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children. At that moment, I prayed for the killers, for their sins to be forgiven….

I held on to my father’s rosary and asked God to help me, and again I heard His voice: Forgive them; they know not what they do.

I took a crucial step toward forgiving the killers that day. My anger was draining from me—I’d opened my heart to God, and He’d touched it with His infinite love. For the first time, I pitied the killers. I asked God to forgive their sins and turn their souls toward His beautiful light.

That night I prayed with a pure conscience and a clean heart. For the first time since I entered the bathroom, I slept in peace.

As this passage indicates, this moment was one step in a forgiveness process that took time. Another major step in that process came after Ilibagiza and the other women left the bathroom. When the genocide was over, she visited her home village to give her family a proper burial and find closure. Seeing the remains of her home and the decomposed body of one of her beloved brothers brought back her feelings of anger and hatred. The struggle in her soul began anew. But one night, she had a dream in which she saw her family safe and sound. Her brother (the same brother whose body she had seen earlier) said to her, “You must love, and you must forgive those who have trespassed against us.” She says that from that moment on, though she still grieved the loss of her family, she never again agonized over their suffering.

Finally, Ilibagiza went to a prison to visit the leader of the gang that had murdered her mother and the brother who had spoken to her in the dream. The gang leader’s name was Felicien, and he was brought out of the prison by a man named Semana. She recognized Felicien as the father of some of her childhood friends, and realized that his voice was among those that had called out her name during one of the searches of the pastor’s house. He had been a handsome, well-dressed businessman before the genocide, but now he was an unkempt, limping old man with oozing sores, a shell of his former self. His face paled as he saw who was facing him; he cowered and looked to the floor as Semana screamed at him to face the girl whose family he killed. Felicien was sobbing, and Ilibagiza wept for his suffering. Their eyes met for just a moment; she touched his hands and said what she had come to say: “I forgive you.”

She reports that “my heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders.” Semana, however, was furious. “What was that all about, Immaculée? That was the man who murdered your family. I brought him to you to question…to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?” Ilibagiza’s reply: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”

Immaculée Ilibagiza has since devoted her life to helping others forgive and heal, especially those who have been victims of genocide. Countless people have learned to forgive the “unforgivable” through her words and example. She concludes her book with these words: “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. I hope my story helps.” Yes, it does. Thank you, Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Source of material commented on: Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

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