116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - When the Rwandan genocide broke out in April 1994, Immaculee Ilibagiza spent three months huddled in a tiny bathroom with seven other Tutsi women.
They feared for their lives as many of their former friends and neighbors hunted and killed their families. More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, including Ilibagiza's parents and two of her brothers, died over the course of 100 days. A third brother survived because he was out of the country, attending college in Senegal, when the fighting broke out.
While Iligazia hid, sheltered by a Hutu pastor, she was overcome with anger and the desire for revenge against the killers. But when the genocide ended, she traveled back to her village, looked at the man who murdered her mother, and forgave him.
Ilibagiza documented her story of survival, forgiveness and hope in a 2006 memoir, 'Left to Tell: Discovering God Amid the Rwandan Holocaust.” She will share her experiences at a free event at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids Sept. 22.
'When I came to really understand forgiveness, I was still in the bathroom,” she says, remembering the long days in hiding. 'I couldn't find a reason not to pursue revenge and become a monster.”
Finding a way past the anger became a matter of keeping her sanity and holding on to her will to survive, even while her physical survival was still at risk.
'I was so tired of my own anger. Anger consumed me. I couldn't remember how to smile. I couldn't remember how to be happy,” she says.
A devout Catholic, she prayed, asking God to show her how to forgive the killers. She spent the weeks cramped in the bathroom in prayer, and she says her faith was never deeper despite the horrors raging outside.
The story of Jesus forgiving his killers as he hung on the cross inspired her, she says, especially the line, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
'When we lack love, compassion and understanding, we don't get it. We are blind,” she says.
The people who took part in the genocide didn't see how they were ravaging their own country, their own communities and ultimately, themselves, she says. In her book, she writes that when she confronted her mother's killer, who was imprisoned and broken in spirit as a result of his actions, she was filled with pity instead of hatred.
'Forgiveness is a gift,” she says. 'It's a grace.”
Twenty years after escaping the genocide, Ilibagiza lives in New York with her two children. Last year, she became an American citizen, and she has started the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which aids Rwandan orphans. She travels the country, giving talks to spread her message of forgiveness and compassion.
'I want people to live free, knowing we are passengers on this earth. Any day can be the end, so we should live a life of integrity,” she says.
Even now, she says she works everyday to live the lessons of faith and hope she learned twenty years ago.
'I am learning to love, to forgive, all my life,” she says.
IF YOU GO
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 22
Where: St. Pius X Catholic Church, 4949 Council St NE, Cedar Rapids
More information: Immaculee.com