Immaculée Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old engineering student at the National University of Rwanda in 1994 when life as she had known it came to a horrific end. Over the course of approximately one hundred days following the assassination of Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana, the remaining Hutu leadership, supported by the national army, local military and civil officials, mass media and ordinary Hutus, carried out the slaughter of as many as one million Tutsis.
When the killing began, Immaculée’s father sent her to the home of a nearby pastor, who hid Immaculée and seven other women in a cramped bathroom measuring three feet by four feet. There wasn’t enough room for all of the women to have their own place on the floor, so the larger ones held the smaller women on their laps. The women had to maintain silence, as the pastor was hiding them even from his family, out of fear that a careless remark by one of his children might endanger them all. To carry out this subterfuge, the pastor could feed the women only what was left on the plates of his family members. The women could not even flush the toilet unless they heard another toilet in the house flush.
Their imprisonment lasted ninety-one days but saved their lives. At one point, men with machetes searched the pastor’s house shouting that they would kill Immaculée and any other Tutsis they found. Someone came as close as the bathroom door, put a hand on the doorknob, but inexplicably, didn’t open it. By the time the killing was over, Immaculée had lost half her body weight, but she was alive. Her family wasn’t so lucky: her parents, two of her three siblings, and most of her extended family had been brutally killed.
Immaculée’s story of survival is miraculous enough; but even more inspirational is her journey from devastation to forgiveness. Encouraging others that forgiveness is possible is the work to which she has devoted her life for the last nineteen years. Her book, Left to Tell, has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide and has been made into a documentary. She speaks to audiences all over the world—to political leaders, the heads of multinational corporations, church groups, human rights organizations, universities and elementary school children, and many others. The importance of her story has been recognized and honored with numerous humanitarian awards, including an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame, and the 2007 Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.
Four years after the Rwandan tragedy, Immaculée immigrated to the United States to continue her work for the United Nations in New York City. She has since established the Left to Tell Charitable Fund to help others heal from the long-term effects of genocide and war. The fund has raised over $150,000 for the orphans of Rwanda. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: When you look back over the nearly twenty years since the genocide, can you say how your ordeal changed you?
Immaculée: Those three months changed every aspect of my life. When I went into that bathroom I was a child. I trusted people for who they said they were. I trusted our leaders. I trusted them to follow the laws they put in place—to be the first to uphold the first law of society, which is not to hurt anyone. But those three months in the bathroom taught me that those laws and those people—everything I trusted and believed in—were changeable. People didn’t necessarily believe or follow what they said. Even those people who told others to do good were capable of doing bad. What I found when I came out of that bathroom made me turn in on myself and search my heart to see what were my values; what did I believe. It made me figure out how could I contribute to the peace I believed in—even if the people in charge were not living by those values. I came out of the ordeal more my own person.