'Left to Tell'

Monday, October 1, 2012
Following Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza's speech Wednesday morning at St. Mary's, student Apeay Ogeli (left) receives a hug from the best-selling author (right). /Photo by Ashley Miller

"Never," her father told her during her youth, "put people into a box."

She didn't understand then, but what he had tried to teach was the injustice in trying to define people, confine people - label them and discriminate against them.

It was that kind of discrimination that got him killed. Got her mother killed, two of her three brothers, her aunts and uncles and cousins, her best friends and hundreds of her schoolmates.

Eighteen years ago, society in Rwanda sought to push people into a box - an ever smaller, more suffocating box, until there was no room for them to exist at all.

For eighteen years, Immaculee Ilibagiza has been speaking out and writing out with a message - waging war against the dark boxes of the world. Hers is a message of love - and ultimately, shockingly, forgiveness. The survivor of Rwanda's attempted genocide brought her message to Storm Lake this week, speaking to a packed crowd at Schaller Chapel on the Buena Vista University campus Tuesday night and to students at St. Mary's school the following morning.

In a golden gown, with a lilting voice and graceful, powerful sweeps of her arms, as if to embrace everyone who would listen, she told of her ordeal.

Of being forced into a box, metaphorically and physically. Her box was a three-by-four-feet bathroom, where she hid with eight other women for 91 days during the ruthless extermination of her people. In that cramped, hot, smelling box, she found faith she never knew she had.

"They never found me, but I found myself," she smiles.

She had been a young university student, like most of those in her audience. During a school holiday, her father pleaded for her to visit home for a few days. Home - it was a green, tropical place in central Africa that she describes with great fondness, but the beauty did not extend to its corrupt political leaders, who sought to divide the Rwandan people arbitrarily into two tribes, then pitted them against each other.

Her family was assigned to the Tutsi tribe, many of her friends, to the opposing Hutus. Sometimes people were assigned based on height, or the shape of their nose or eyes, sometime brothers were divided into the two different groups.

Shortly after arriving home, she was asleep one morning when her brother rushed into her room. "He said the president had been killed. He had a stick in his hand, like he was going to war."

It was day one of what became known to history as The 100 Days Massacre.

She realizes now that the Rwandan leader's plane was shot down as part of an orchestrated, evil plan, to provide an excuse for the murder of the Tutsis. Hate radio in the country had been building to it, calling the tribe "cockroaches" and seeking to teach that they were somehow less than human.

With two hours of the plane crash, lists had been circulated of Tutsi families and hired killers brought in to exterminate them. Suddenly, instead of individuals being killed for their supposed disobedience, entire families were being slaughtered - all the small children included - and their homes burned.

Her father knew what was coming. His only daughter wanted to stay, but he insisted that she flee to the home of a friend, a widowed minister. Immaculee knew the man was a Hulu and said he would kill her. "I know that man. Even if things go wrong, he will not be able to kill," her father said.

It is a deep faith in people that his daughter shares today. "Deep down, people are kind at heart. If they knew the consequences, they would not act as they often do."

She left with only the clothing on her back and rosary beads that her father pushed into her hands.

His words went with her. "Do not judge - do not put people in boxes."

The Hutu minister hid her in a small bathroom in his home, an act of kindness that would have cost him his life if she were discovered. In the hours to come, he gathered the other survivors, pushing them into the tiny room, females from age 7 to 55. As many as he could save. They were told not to talk, and only to run water when water was running at a neighboring building to mask the sound.

The refugees didn't know each other, but they were the same. "We knew that we were crying for the same reasons, laughing for the same reasons," Immaculee said.

It was not until the third day that the minister was able to bring them food. Usually it was a single plate, whatever he could scrounge from garbage dumps. Immaculee shrank from a healthy 120 pound woman to a 65-pound near skeleton.

At one point, thinking she would go mad, she asked the minister to place a radio within hearing range of their hiding place.

"I could hardly believe what we were hearing. The announcers were calling for everyone in our tribe to be killed. They said, 'Don't forget the children. The child of a snake is a snake.'"

Finally, the order came to go house to house to search out and kill anyone who may have survived. The butchers came into the man's house while scores of their peers surrounded it to prevent anyone from escaping, and Immaculee knew she was dead.

She wanted to go the easy way - to throw the door open, end the torture and invite a quick death from the guns and blades. Then she heard a voice from somewhere inside herself, she recounts - "Remember who God is. He can do anything."

She had studied religion, she said, but had no personal relationship with God.

She clutched the beads tight in her hand and said, "If you are there, I will find out who you are. If I live, I need to know you well." She then passed out.

She learned later that the men had searched every inch of the man's house, from the roof to under the beds to inside suitcases in case a baby was hidden there. One of the killers, with a bloody machete in his hand, had reached for the doorknob of the bathroom where the terrified women awaited their death, at about the same moment she was trying what she hoped was a prayer, she believes.

He grasped the doorknob to turn it , five inches from where she sat - and stopped. The man froze, then stepped back. For reasons she will never know, he turned and left.

When the minister came to tell them that the killers were gone, she asked him for a Bible. Using only the Bible and a dictionary, she began to teach herself English, grasping a single word at a time.

She sought to keep her word to God, reciting the Lord's Prayer through her waking hours, over and over. But in her heart was anger. "Putting a bomb under all of Rwanda and blowing it up, that's what I thought would be best. I thought we should kill the people who had taken so many lives from us, send them to hell."

When she came to the words, "as we forgive those who trespass against us," she could not make herself say them. She had begun to come to know God, she said. "Can you lie to a friend? I had a good idea, I would skip that part."

A voice on her shoulder reminded her that Jesus was the author of that prayer. "If I were you, I wouldn't try to edit his prayer," it warned.

She was struck by Jesus' dying words, "forgive them, for they know not what they do," and realized that Rwandans manipulated into killing their own people also did not grasp what they had done. Hating them, she realized, would save no one.

"Once you forgive, you think more clearly," she said.

When she emerged from her hiding spot after 91 days, the hired killers, known to some as devils because they sometimes placed horns on their heads, had been driven off. She hoped that some of her family and friends might have escaped and survived, but soon leaned they were all gone, save for one brother who was studying abroad.

"A million people had been killed in three months in a small country. Everywhere was dead bodies, dogs eating people. I still cry to this day, I guess tears are the price of love."

Immaculee found herself in a new box, a refugee encampment. There, a woman came to her to take her into her home. Immaculee learned that her mother had paid tuition into elementary school for the child who grew into that woman. Immaculee clung to the friends she had made among the refugees - the woman took in all five.

She would write letters to God, as a child might write to her father, saying that she needed a friend, she needed shoes, she needed a blanket. She felt that he replied each time, telling her not to allow herself to be crushed by the horrors around her. He told her that her life was her gift, and that she should use it. "You don't know how long you will be here. Your job is not over."

She felt that job was to use her considerable energy to share love and caring.

She sought out a position with the United Nations, and eventually agreed to come to the U.S. to continue her work - but before she could leave Rwanda, she said, she had to come face to face with the man who killed her family.

She found him in prison. She had known him before the massacre. He was a man with a good job, possessions and a family. Now he had nothing. She told the man she forgave him.

The jail official began to scream at her. His family too had been killed by Hulus, and he had brought her there to attack the man, not forgive him.

A year later, the jailer sought her out, told her that until she arrived at the prison, he would never have believed forgiveness was possible. He told her that his hate would have killed him if he had not witnessed her act with the prisoner. He started a new life, and still keeps in touch. Today he has a happy family of seven children.

Immaculee set out to write a book in hopes of helping someone else, thinking it might sell 10 copies, she said, although she admits harboring a secret fantasy of discovering her own book in a Barnes and Noble store one day.

She knew she was not a writer, not even very skilled with her new language. She did the best she could to break the boxes.

One day she was out and noticed a long, excited line forming. Having no idea what the line was for, she stepped into it. When she finally got to the front, she realized the line was for people having an author autograph his book. When she came to the table, the man asked her about her accent.

"I don't have an accent," she said, in her deep accent, but told him a few sentences of who she was and where she had come from.

The author knew something of the Rwandan genocide. He told her it was she who should be writing, and promised that if she ever wrote a book, he would see to it that it was published. She was too shy to admit she had already been trying.

After one sleepless week, she called the man, who had turned out to be a best-selling writer of some 40 books.

"Done," she said.

Within two weeks of publishing, her book was on the New York Times Best Seller List, though she had no idea what that meant. She then got a call wanting her. The individual said he was 60 Minutes. "Why thank you 60 Minutes," she replied, then called her publisher to ask who 60 Minutes was.

She has gone on to write six books to date, and has appeared on numerous television news programs, and been sought after to speak around the world. She had received lofty peace awards and honorary doctorates from numerous leading universities.

And she had just learned that the film-makers who produced "The Passion of the Christ" will make a feature film based on her life.

BVU professor of philosophy and religion Peter Steinfeld called her "A most remarkable woman - a living example of faith put into action."

Proceeds from her writing have gone to provide scholarships for some 1,000 students from Africa, and to fund schools in the most troubled regions. She and her brother rebuilt the house where her family once lived, making it a house of prayer for the community.

Within her story, she delivered messages to the students and others gathered to hear her - trying to softly smash holes to let the light into whatever boxes might be confining them.

"There is always hope," she said.

She reminded her crowd that no one chooses their race. She said she received thousands of emails from people in countries all over the world, all asking the same questions.

"How can people hate when we are all so much alike?" she asks.

"If we are not willing to see things in the perspective of others, there is no chance for peace. Things that are happening in Asia, Africa, we have failed to see that what affects one human being affects all of us."

One of Immaculee's books was chosen as the one text for required reading of all incoming first-year students at BVU this year.

She said she was also thrilled to find so many students from Rwanda attending the small college in Iowa. They all would have stories of pain similar to hers in their backgrounds, she said. Sixteen of the Storm Lake Rwandans stood in the balcony to greet her with emotion and enthusiasm.

"I am so grateful to see them, and to see that they are so happy," she beamed, terming them, "my little brothers and sisters."

She urged the students to seek more than education. "Growing your mind without growing your heart," she warned, "can damage you."

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