INDIANAPOLIS — Immaculee Ilibagiza’s account of the way she survived the Rwandan genocide — and found God while in hiding — inspired many who heard her at the National Black Catholic Congress XI held in Indianapolis July 19 to 21. Ilibagiza delivered the keynote address at the congress.
In 1994, she was a young college student home on vacation when the genocide started. A complex combination of political unrest and long-standing rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes came to a boiling point and set off a massacre that left close to a million people dead in just 90 days, she said.
In a desperate effort to protect her, Ilibagiza’s father sent her to take refuge in a Hutu pastor’s home. The pastor offered to hide her — along with several others — in a bathroom measuring only three feet by four feet. Ilibagiza would emerge from that tiny space 91 days later, she recalled, emaciated and weighing only 65 pounds. Once outside of the bathroom, she said, she found everyone she’d left behind had been killed.
As she and seven other Tutsi women huddled on top of each other in the tiny bathroom, Ilibagiza said, she fought a raging internal battle before surrendering to God’s mercy.
“One voice was telling me to open the bathroom door and end the mental torture, because they’d find me anyway,” she recalled. “The other voice was telling me not to give up, but to ask God for help.”
One day when a group of Hutu men, armed with machetes, entered and searched the house, Ilibagiza said, she prayed for a sign that God was real and looking after her.
“If there’s someone out there who created me,” she recalled praying, “I am begging you not to let them find the bathroom door. If they don’t open it, I will know you are there, and I will never be shaken in my faith again, even if I die.”
Her account was profound to many who heard it.
“Her testimony is one I think everybody should hear just to know how real God is,” said Bob Frazier, a member of Christ the King Church, who attended the congress. “What I’ve learned from her is you have to seek to understand God’s grace no matter how tough the challenge you’re facing.”
Ilibagiza said prayers became an escape from the anger, fear and thoughts of revenge that consumed her.
“I said 27 rosaries from morning till night every single day — not trying to be good, but to hide from my own thoughts,” she explained. “It was the first time I felt a sense of peace while in that bathroom.”
Still, she was conflicted, she said. She’d found God and turned her life over to him, yet she struggled with forgiveness.
Ilibagiza told the Indianapolis audience that when she said The Lord’s Prayer, she skipped over the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“I felt I was lying to God,” she said. “But I told myself it was okay because Jesus could not possibly understand what I was going through.”
She kept praying, she said, and soon surrendered to the faith building inside her.
“I fell to my knees, threw my hands up and told God the whole truth,” she said. “I didn’t know how to forgive. I didn’t even know how to say the words.”
Through her reliance on her newly found faith, she noted, she started seeing the killers as people blinded by anger, and she knew she didn’t want to become like them.
“I started praying for them, that they’d be able to see,” she recalled. “The anger that consumed me started to subside, and I understood I didn’t have to carry that burden.”
Mattie Little, a member of St. Augustine Church, said she felt Ilibagiza’s story changed her life.
“She has given me hope, and she has enlightened me,” Little said. “It made me think of how minute the little grudges are that we hold against each other. She has made me look at things in a new light and has changed my outlook in the way I deal with people.”
A member of Christ the King Church felt much the same way.
“Her story touched me very deeply and made a change within my own heart to be more loving, trusting and forgiving of the people I deal with on a daily basis,” said Deborah Wade. “I purchased a rosary specifically to pray for love, forgiveness and unity. Those three things came to me from listening to her.”
Thirteen-year-old Michael Wright, of St. Monica parish in Bardstown, Ky., said hearing Ilibagiza’s story made him feel as if God could do anything for him.
By Ruby Thomas – Special to The Record