Lessons in Faith and Forgiveness Emerge in the Midst of War

Immaculée Ilibagiza tells how she learned to forgive during the Rwandan genocide

ImmaculeeWhen something really painful happens in our lives, many people find that their faith is tested and even torn. That happened to Immaculée Ilibagiza in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda that ultimately took nearly a million lives, including those of her family. But in the midst of that crisis, she found a way back to faith and beyond – to true forgiveness.

Immaculée, who shared her story with a rapt audience at the Soda Center last week, was a university student when the bloodbath began in 1994. To survive, she and seven other women hid for 91 days in a tiny bathroom in the home of a minister from the rival tribe, the Hutus.

At first, she was confused and angry that thousands of people from her ethnic group, the Tutsis, were being hunted and killed by the rival Hutus, and her thoughts were filled with a desire for revenge. Then one day, the Hutu killers came to the home where she was hiding.

Terrified, Immaculée asked God, “If you exist, save us from these men.” As the women held their breaths in fear, the killers searched the whole house and came right to the door of the bathroom, then suddenly turned and left the house.

From that moment on, her faith was restored. But she had to face the question: What sort of God would allow this bloodbath to happen? In the tiny bathroom, she embarked on a sort of Socratic dialogue with God to try to reconcile her renewed faith with the horror going on all around her.

She began by reciting the rosary but stumbled on the passage “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How could she forgive those who were brutally killing everyone she knew? She tried skipping that passage but realized sheepishly, as she said, that it “probably wasn’t a good idea to edit God’s commands.”

For the rest of the time that she was in hiding, she struggled to understand the nature of true forgiveness – and found the answer in the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Through prayer and inquiry, her ability to forgive grew ever greater.

When she finally emerged from hiding, she hoped that her family had been spared. But she found that, except for a brother living overseas, every one of her loved ones – her father, her mother, two brothers, her grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles, college friends – all had been murdered.

Still, her ability to forgive was so great that she when she met the killer of her mother and brother, she was able to say, “I forgive you.”

Later, Immaculée moved to the United States and took a job at the United Nations. At the urging of friends, she wrote down her story, which became a best-selling book: “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.”

Looking back on her time in hiding, she says, “They never found me, but I found myself.”

A Brief Q&A with Immaculée Ilibagiza

Before her appearance at Saint Mary’s, Immaculée Ilibagiza took time to answer a few questions. Here are her insights:  

What does it take to forgive?

You have to believe that people can transform from evil to good. True forgiveness is not naïve. It is seeing things as they are. People are good. It’s actually smart to forgive.

Have most Rwandans been able to forgive?

Not all have forgiven, but the government is encouraging the people to forgive because they have to. It’s a journey that you have to take. People have to be heroes to end the cycle of revenge. We have to be good for the sake of the next generation.

How could other nations benefit from learning the power of forgiveness?

We are citizens of the world. Hate and fear cripple us, and we can’t accomplish what we were meant to do. After I speak, people often come up to me and say, “Now I can forgive my mom, or  my brother who I haven’t spoken to in years. Now I can get on with my life. … I have more friends, and I have more love.”

How did your ordeal change our relationship with God and with your faith?

Oh, my God, he’s more real than ever. I love him more than ever. I can’t be mad at God because (my family) died. People die. Billions and billions of people die all the time. It just happened that everyone I loved died at the same time. Because we love, we suffer .

Now I have a new I perspective. I hope to do my job in life -- to love, to care and to serve other people.

What advice do you have for people who find it hard to forgive?

Don’t put attention on someone who doesn’t love you. It becomes a sickness, a false strength. You’re really abusing yourself. It is your heart and your body that are producing that anger.

Watch Gandhi, Mandela - find out how they did it. Was it hatred that drove them or love? Or study the life of Saint Francis. And ask God to help you to give you strength. Say, I want to heal, God. When you ask, the door will open.

What does forgiveness do for the one who forgives?

Take a huge piece of luggage and carry over your shoulders. Then just put it down.  It heals your heart. Forgiveness frees you to be fully yourself.

Learn more about Immaculée on her website: http://www.Immaculée.com