Rwandan genocide survivor delivers message of forgiveness, trust in God

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PROVIDENCE — Immaculée Ilibagiza remembers the day her life, and the lives of all her fellow Rwandans, changed. She was home from the National University of Rwanda on Easter break in 1994 when her brother came into her room and told her President Juvenal Habyarimana had been assassinated.

“It was so clear. I looked through the window, it was almost like the sky had changed color. It was a clear cut from the past to the future,” she said.

Over the next three months, approximately 800,000 people, including most of Ilibagiza’s family, were killed in the ensuing genocide as Hutu extremists incited violence against Tutsi citizens and moderate Hutus. She survived by sheltering with seven other women in the bathroom of a local pastor’s house for 91 days. She attributes her emotional survival to her Catholic faith and her learning to trust God through the traumatic experience, a story she shared in her best-selling book “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” and during a presentation sponsored by St. Patrick Academy at McVinney Auditorium on Tuesday, October 10.

“I came to forgive because it was really painful actually to be angry and through that pain I begged God to help me,” she told the audience gathered to hear her witness.

Ilibagiza was born to a Catholic family in a small village of Rwanda, a country whose colonial history left it simmering with ethnic tensions and political unrest. She was 11 years old when schoolgirls in the southern Rwandan town of Kibeho first reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, an apparition later approved by the local bishop and venerated as Our Lady of Kibeho. The vision warned of violence and war, a message many saw fulfilled in the massacre sparked by President Habyarimana’s assassination in the next decade.

“When my brother told me, I thought, that’s it, that’s what Our Lady was saying,” recalled Ilibagiza.

During the next few days, the Tutsi population of her village gathered in fear as they anticipated the arrival of the wave of violence sweeping across the country. Her father spoke with the villagers, encouraging members of all faiths to ask God’s mercy for their sins. As extremists approached, she followed her father’s instructions to run to the house of the pastor and seek shelter, turning around as she walked away to see her father consoling the village with his rosary in his hand.

“Thank God for that because in my heart I still have that last image where my Dad was standing with my mom and my brothers,” she recalled.

In the bathroom where she sheltered for the next three months, Ilibagiza experienced a crisis of faith, first doubting God and then believing without reserve in his presence even through the horrific events. She found solace in the rosary and scripture but was troubled by the parts of the Bible that asked forgiveness for one’s enemies. She began skipping the part of the “Our Father” that promises forgiveness for “those who trespass against us,” realizing she couldn’t in good faith offer forgiveness to the people she hated for what they had done to her family.

“Every page I opened, I felt like it was telling me, ‘Pray for your enemies,’ and I would close the page,” she remembered. “My prayers were, ‘Kill them before they kill me,’ and I thought I was praying.”

Eventually, through meditation on the suffering of Christ, she was able to let go of her anger and trust in God to lead her to reconciliation. She recalled one day in the bathroom, praying the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, when she felt the peace of forgiveness flooding through her.

“All of a sudden, it became clear and I realized I wasn’t any better than them. It was like a huge luggage was lifted from my shoulders,” she said. “I felt so much peace. I felt freedom.”

Through the remainder of her talk, Ilibagiza recounted her experiences after the genocide, including the confirmation of the deaths of her family, life in a refugee camp, securing a job with the United Nations and her move to the United States in 1998. As the country began to rebuild itself, she visited a prison where she met the man responsible for the deaths of her mother and one of her brothers and offered him her forgiveness.

“It is truly by the grace of God that I’m standing here,” she told the crowd.

By sharing her story and message of forgiveness and trust in God, Ilibagiza hopes to offer witness not only to the importance of faith but also to the power of forgiveness and need to reconcile with others in a divided world. She encouraged those gathered to rely on Mary for her intercession in times of difficulty and urged them to pray the rosary, particularly the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows requested by Our Lady of Kibeho.

“You love her, you put your whole life into her hands to guide you to heaven, she will find a way,” said Ilibagiza.

For those in attendance, her story of faith offered a powerful witness of her experiences. Mary Arpander, a parishioner at St. Rocco Church, Johnston, said that for her, Ilibagiza’s emphasis on forgiveness was the most impactful part of her talk.

“I just thought always the message of forgiveness for someone who went through so much, just to hear her say that,” she reflected following the presentation.

Claire Briggs, a parishioner at St. Michael Church, Smithfield, who read Ilibagiza’s book and was familiar with her story prior to the event, said learning the speaker’s experiences had changed the way she prayed.

“I have to say I was not a rosary person, but I have fallen in love with the rosary because of her,” she said.