Immaculée Ilibagiza was a university student in Rwanda during the 1994 government-sanctioned genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people. As a member of the Tutsi tribe that was being slaughtered by the Hutus, Immaculée endured a harrowing effort to survive. She and seven other women hid in the cramped bathroom of a pastor’s house for 91 days. Prayer helped Immaculée get through that experience physically, emotionally and spiritually. It also helped her forgive the man who murdered her mother and brother. Immaculée joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (full podcast here) to discuss these matters. Here’s an excerpt:
TR: When you got out and you found out your family had been murdered in the genocide, was your faith challenged?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: No, it wasn’t challenged. The time that I was in the bathroom especially, I thought a lot about the passion of Christ and His suffering. It somehow taught me that pain will always exist and does not take away the power of God. It does not take away the existence of God or His love. Because that was so confirmed in my heart, it was painful (missing) my parents but I was so sure there was heaven after that. I was so sure that my parents, my brothers, are not lost. They must be in a better place.
TR: Your story has many miraculous aspects but one of the most notable is the fact that you were able to forgive the man who killed your mother and brother. How did you get to that point where you could forgive this person?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I can say it is a grace to forgive such a thing, but I also know that grace is available to anybody. It happened (for me) when I was still in the bathroom conversing with God about what is going on and why are they killing us…I remember one time especially - I was praying the rosary which I prayed 27 times a day. I got stuck on the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” All of a sudden I realized that I am lying to God. I am not saying words that I mean. That is when I remember going almost on my knees and begging God, “Help me…to forgive so that I can continue to say this prayer from my heart sincerely. Please help me out. Let me know how to do it.” After I went on my knees, I felt so happy just from wanting to ask God for help.
One time when I was meditating on when Jesus was dying, (I thought of) when He said, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they do.” Those words became almost like mine. It was at that moment when I (realized) that the people who were killing us, they don’t really understand the consequences that will come to them, to their families, to the whole country – they don’t get it that we’re innocent here. In their hearts, because we are Tutsi, we are evil. I realized my anger is not helping to change anything…When I understood that in my heart, I felt like the killers became my brothers who have chosen this evil way. I could cry for them looking at what they have chosen. Forgiving (wasn’t) condoning the wrongdoing, but in my mind and my heart, I knew that the evil being done was separate from the person that was doing it. And that same person can change anytime; can choose to love more than hate. That’s what I wished to happen – for them to choose to love more than hate.
When I met the killer of my family after, I wasn’t scared that maybe I’m going to jump on him and start hitting him. I saw this man and I cried before he even came to sit down. I really felt compassion towards him. (I wondered) “How do you choose this? How do you go from having a beautiful family to choosing to kill people and ending up in prison?” It was because he blinded himself to the truth.
TR: In that act of forgiveness, did you find that it brought him healing too?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: Oh yeah. He didn’t say much about that, but I could feel it in his actions and body language. I remember when he came in, he didn’t have any remorse. When he sat down and I reached out to him, I said, “I forgive you.” I was in tears. The guy couldn’t even face me anymore. He looked down when I told him I forgave him, and he covered his eyes with his hand. Then he told me –I could feel he was trying to reach out and say, “Thank you,” but he couldn’t say it. He said, “I took stuff from your home because I wanted to keep it for you.” Of course he didn’t want to keep it for me. He was just taking stuff from my home. But I could feel that he was trying to reach out to me. He was trying to tell me, “Thank you.” But that was his way of saying, “I’m sorry.”
The man who was standing there – he was the head of the jail – he was so mad at me, (and said) “How dare you forgive a killer?” He had lost his children and his wife. I said to him, “Well I am just one Tutsi anyway. Even if I forgive, I’m only one person while the rest seem to hate (the Hutus). I’m sure this will not have any impact.” A year later, that man came to look for me. He said, “I want to thank you for saving my life.” I said, “What do you mean ‘saving your life’?” He said, “The day you forgave that killer was the first time I even thought there was another possibility than hatred.” The man told me how he had dedicated his life to hating the (killers) and doing bad things to them – and all of a sudden he saw that I forgave, and I had gone through the same thing as him. He was able to find a way in his heart to think of them as human beings again, not animals. He stopped hating them and he started to teach them to be better people...And he told me that if I hadn’t been able to forgive that time (in the jail), it wouldn’t have happened.
(To hear Immaculée discuss how she found new hope by working with orphans, and why she wrote the book “Led By Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide,” download the full “Christopher Closeup” podcast here.)