Rwandan Genocide survivor and author Immacul√©e Ilibagiza spoke in the Little Theater on Jan. 31 to a crowd of more than 400 to bring Founder’s Week 2007 to a close.
The lecture, entitled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation: A Path to Global Solidarity,” told Ilibagiza’s tale of survival and compassion during the massacre of nearly one million Rwandans in 1994 and related the account to the Founder’s Week themes of respect, compassion and solidarity.
Rwanda is a country located in central Africa that is roughly the size of Maryland. There is a population of more than 8 million people who are separated into three main tribes, the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa.
Iligabiza’s story began as a college student at the National University of Rwanda. She originally decided to stay in school over the Easter break because she wanted to focus on her studies. However, after being persuaded by her father, she changed her mind and journeyed home to be with him, her mother and three brothers for Easter.
Soon after Ilibagiza came home, her world was turned upside down.
“On the third day of my holiday, I remember my brother coming to me and saying that the president’s plane was shot down and that he had died,” Ilibagiza said.
Tension had been running high between the Tutsis and Hutus for years.
“I told my brother ‘Oh my god, [the Hutus] are going to kill us.’ He looked at me and said ‘No, they can’t kill us. What did we do?'” Ilibagiza recalled.
With the president gone, the Hutus, armed with machetes and spears, began killing Tutsis on sight. Before the killings reached her home, Ilibagiza’s parents suggested that she stay with the pastor who lived nearby and was a friend of the family. Because the pastor was Hutu, there was a chance that she would be safe hiding there.
One day, a group of Hutus began searching the pastor’s home. Ilibagiza recalls the men turning over furniture, looking under beds, opening suitcases, all to find hidden Tutsis.
She knew at that moment that there was very little chance that the Hutus would not open the bathroom door. It was at this moment, Ilibagiza said that she made a promise to herself, that if the bathroom was not searched, she would develop the habit of prayer.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she said. “I was begging God to just save me, don’t let these people find us. Don’t let these people find this little bathroom.”
Just as the Hutus reached the door of the bathroom, they turned around and left. After a thorough search everywhere else in the house, they were convinced that the pastor would not have used a home as a safehouse for the Tutsi.
Ilibagiza initially thought she would only have to be hidden in this bathroom for a couple of days or maybe a few weeks. She would end up spending the next 91 days sharing the space of that small bathroom with those other seven women.
After Tutsi rebels were able to overthrow the Hutus and stop the genocide, Ilibagiza emerged from the bathroom to discover that her parents, two of her brothers and the rest of her relatives had been killed.
With nothing but the clothes on her back that she wore for a little more than three months, Ilibagiza, now with renewed faith and a new outlook on life, set out to build her life back up.
Throughout the lecture, Ilibagiza encouraged the audience to continue to care and forgive despite the circumstances.
“Be free in your heart,” Ilibagiza said. “Life is so short and all you can really do is try to love one another and forgive each other…Most people don’t do that until they have hit rock bottom and by then it is too late.”
Today, almost 13 years after the start of the genocide in Rwanda, Ilibagiza has written an autobiography, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Along with the book, she was the feature of a documentary, “The Diary of Immacul√©e” and was highlighted in an interview for “60 Minutes” last December.
Ilibagiza’s story left a big impression on students.
“Her story was amazing,” said junior Nicole Salomon. “You always hear how you need to trust God and pray everyday, but to see someone who’s gone through trials and tribulations and show that the power of God really does work, it really did something for me.”
Sophomore Antoni Kolev agreed.
“I learned that everyone can overcome something that happens to them and that we are all able to recover from these difficulties,” he said. “In the end, we will grow stronger and that we should share these experiences with others so they can learn and grow as well.”