In April of 1994, one of the most horrific events in the history of humanity occurred in the nation of Rwanda as nearly 600,000 Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutu were murdered at the hands of soldiers, gangs and their own neighbors. This massacre led to the continuation of the Rwandan Civil War, a conflict that involved the surrounding nations of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Uganda.
Nearly 600,000 people were executed in three months.
In her autobiography “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust”, author Immaculée Ilibagiza illustrates the horrors of the war and her survival — as a Tutsi herself — through the genocide.
By hiding in a bathroom with an area of barely 12 feet, Ilibagiza was able to survive the genocide with seven other women. They hid there for 91 days.
During this time, her entire family (except for her brother Aimable, who was studying in Senegal) was murdered by the Hutu extremists and government soldiers. Perhaps the most difficult part of the autobiography to read is her descriptions of how each family member died, making the reader feel like it is their brother being slain by a machete, their friends and family members being gunned down in churches with no escape.
Even with the atrocities committed against her and her family, Ilibagiza has found the strength to forgive her family’s murderers.
“I knew that my heart and mind would always be tempted to feel anger — to find blame and hate,” Ilibagiza writes. “But I resolved that when the negative feelings came upon me, I wouldn’t wait for them to grow or fester. I would always turn immediately to the Source of all true power: I would turn to God and let His love and forgiveness protect and save me.”
I once had the opportunity to hear Ilibagiza tell her story live. I saw a scale replica of the bathroom she hid in. It shocked me to think that the someone who had been subjected to so much pain and suffering could forgive so easily.
But upon reading her autobiography, I realized that none of what she experienced was easy, least of all her offering of forgiveness.
It was in her hour of need that she found the power of forgiveness, not for the sake of others, but for her own personal healing. She knew that if she did not forgive the genocidaires — those who committed the horrific atrocities during the genocide — she would become just like them: twisted by hatred.
The relevancy of her experience is powerful twenty-six years later. The United States stands on the edge of a knife, waiting to see if Donald Trump — a man who has sworn not to accept the results of a “rigged” election — will peacefully hand over power to the victorious Joe Biden, or if he will call on his supporters to “save true democracy” by fighting to protect him after he “won” the recent election.
Already, rumors of reprisal attacks against minorities and presumed Biden supporters have gripped the nation.
The parallels between today and Rwanda of 1994 are frightening. The Rwandan Civil War was recommenced by the murder of the current president a Hutu which drove Hutu extremists to target their Tutsi countrymen. Identifying Tutsi was more political than racial, as people of different tribes were mostly physically indistinguishable and therefore mandated to carry identity cards that signaled their tribal affiliations.
What we must take away from “Left to Tell” is not a single one of us, can say that atrocities like those of the Rwandan Genocide “will never happen to us” and that “that’ll never happen here, not in this town.” When we think like that, we dismiss the dirty looks our neighbors give us, the dehumanizing propaganda coming from governmental leaders and the sight of people stockpiling weapons, only realizing the danger too late when the weapons are pointed right in our faces.
Let us instead find common ground in this time, taking Ilibagiza’s lead by forgiving the ill we have all experienced up until this very moment. For in her words in Left to Tell, “[The] battle to survive. . . would have to be fought inside of [us].”
Immaculée Ilibagiza now resides in the U.S.