Immaculée Ilibagiza could hear the killers calling her name. For weeks, she and seven other women silently hid in a tiny shower, trying to escape the holocaust raging through their native Rwanda. The genocide had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
For days on end, she wondered if she would survive…or die like the rest of her family.
Raised in a Catholic home by peace-loving parents, Immaculée’s world was thrown into chaos in the spring of 1994 when genocide broke out in her country. Hutu tribesmen began to systematically, and brutally, murder Tutsi men, women, and children by the thousands. Hutu warriors wielding machetes – and sometimes guns and grenades given to them by the government – would break into the homes of Tutsis, pull them into the street, and slaughter them. All across Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were being killed by their neighbors, co-workers, and fellow citizens.
Being a Tutsi meant that Immaculée was forced to hide to survive. Within hours of the violent outbreak, she found shelter in the home of a local pastor who had a small bathroom attached to his bedroom. For months, she was crammed into a small space with seven other women.
During that long, soul-straining time, boasts of murder would float through the tiny window above their heads. The horrific accounts chilled the women not just because of their brutality, but also because they were being carried out by former friends. Immaculée could do nothing to help her loved ones as they suffered outside; meanwhile, Tutsi women were publically raped and killed, helpless Tutsi infants were left for wild animals to devour in the streets, and Tutsi men were decapitated.
After 91 horrific days, Immaculée emerged from the shower, half the woman she once was…literally. Her diet of scraps caused her to melt from 115 pounds down to 65 pounds. But her physical pain could not compare to the heartache she was about to face.
Immaculée soon discovered that her mother had been chopped to death with machetes, while her father was murdered after being betrayed by local governmental leaders just a few days later. Vianney, her baby brother, had been killed when the deadly and murderous Interahamwe fired machine guns into a helpless and unarmed crowd.
Her closest friend in life, her older brother Damascene, did not survive the war, either. The vibrant and talented young man with enough intelligence to warrant a Master’s degree had been betrayed by a close friend. When Damascene was captured, his tormentors stripped him of his clothes and threatened to cut his head open to see if they could find his Master’s degree inside his brain. After mutilating his body, they finally did just that.
And so, when the war finally ended, Immaculée was left with one surviving family member, an older brother who was studying abroad.
Several people tried to bring about justice in the aftermath of the horrific cruelty; Semana, a family friend of Immaculée’s was one of them. In the shadow of human carnage, he was charged with arresting and detaining those responsible for the mass murder inflicted on his fellow Tutsis. When Immaculée visited him at the prison, he knew why she’d come.
He left her in his office, and quickly returned with a disheveled looking man in his clutches. Immaculée recognized him immediately; his name was Felicien, and she had played with his Hutu children during their childhood. It was Felicien’s voice that had taunted her while she hid in the shower. When he saw Immaculée, he collapsed to the floor.
What happened next is best told in Immaculée’s own words.
“Stand up, killer!” Semana shouted. “Stand up and explain to this girl why her family is dead. Explain to her why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up, I said! Get up and tell her!” Semana screamed even louder, but the battered man remained hunched and kneeling, too embarrassed to stand and face me.
His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. His skin was sallow, bruised, and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores.
I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.
“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immaculée. We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?” Semana yelled at Felicien. “After he killed your mother and Damascene, he kept looking for you…he wanted you dead so he could take over your property. Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.
I flinched, letting out an involuntary gasp. Semana looked at me, stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face. He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculée?”
Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.
“I forgive you.”
My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders before Semana pushed him out the door and into the courtyard. Two soldiers yanked Felicien up by his armpits and dragged him back toward his cell. When Semana returned, he 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?”
I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”
Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza. Hay House, 2006, Pages 203-204.
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(Resource cataloged by David R Smith)