Immaculée Ilibagiza: Rwandan genocide survivor and best-selling author

“Hold onto God! Hold onto hope!”

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By Kathleen Stauffer


The crash of furniture could be heard just inches away, through the wall of the bathroom where Immaculée Ilibagiza huddled with five young women and a 7-year-old. “Where is Immaculée!?” a soldier shouted. They would kill her if they found her. Immaculée prayed harder as she hid with the others in the tiny room, waiting for the men to leave.

Tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda escalated the late 19th century, when first Germany and then Belgium moved in and established rule, stoking the already racially divided tribes. By 1994, the battle lines were clear. After an airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing both men, the Hutu unleashed a swell of violence that left 800,000 Tutsi dead and sent as many into exile. When the killing was over, the young woman who had studied engineering on scholarship at the National University of Rwanda had lost her mother, father, and two brothers. Her father’s rosary, which Ilibagiza prayed nonstop, got her through. In her immediate family, only Immaculée and her brother Aimable, who had been attending school in Senegal, survived.

Today, Ilibagiza shares her story worldwide. She recently chatted with Catholic Digest while awaiting a flight at Orlando International Airport. A sincere young woman quick to use her hands for expression, Ilibagiza passionately encourages faith, prayer, and tolerance in our global community.


How big was the bathroom?
Three-by-four. We sat like this to sleep (tucks head under her arms). We couldn’t stretch out. It was a really small room. The 7-year-old had to sit on our laps. The minister (a clergy friend who hid them) put mattresses on the floor, so it was comfortable to sit on. But there was no room to lie down. When you are hiding for your life, you just hide. You can take it.

At the beginning of the conflict, your friend said she didn’t care if you lived or died. Can you explain?
I had told her I was coming to her house. She said, out of the blue, “We don’t have Tutsis [over].” And that was that. It really cured me of my naiveté. How could they do that? If she needed a pencil, I’d break mine in half and give her half. When my mother bought me a T-shirt, I’d ask her to buy two because I knew my friend wouldn’t have one. I loved her like a sister. I was there for her my whole life. That is how the craziness became clear. To behave like that, something is wrong. There is some kind of madness there. The craziness of it made it possible to accept. It was not about me. It was madness.

What do you tell your children about Rwanda?
I don’t tell them anything. I waited for them to ask [about the genocide]. My daughter, at age 4, asked, “Mommy, why don’t you have a mother like other people?” I told her, “My mother is in heaven, a beautiful place.”

“You can’t see her anymore?”

“She comes to me in my dreams. It’s very beautiful.”

My daughter cried. “You mean you will go away, too, like that?”

“No, but when it happens, God can make it OK for us.”

“It makes me cry that you don’t have a big family like everybody else.”

“It’s OK. Not everybody has everything. We all have different blessings.”

I try to instill for my children the lessons I learned in the genocide. When something goes wrong, I tell them, “Take it to Jesus, to the Blessed Mother, to God.” Every night my children pray. They started with three Hail Marys. Now my daughter says, “Mommy, I think I can say the whole Rosary. I sleep better, Mommy, [when I pray].” Recently, a person they prayed for got a job. I tell them, “God doesn’t always say yes, but God is always there for us.”

“She comes to me in my dreams. It’s very beautiful.”

My daughter cried. “You mean you will go away, too, like that?”

“No, but when it happens, God can make it OK for us.”

“It makes me cry that you don’t have a big family like everybody else.”

“It’s OK. Not everybody has everything. We all have different blessings.”

I try to instill for my children the lessons I learned in the genocide. When something goes wrong, I tell them, “Take it to Jesus, to the Blessed Mother, to God.” Every night my children pray. They started with three Hail Marys. Now my daughter says, “Mommy, I think I can say the whole Rosary. I sleep better, Mommy, [when I pray].” Recently, a person they prayed for got a job. I tell them, “God doesn’t always say yes, but God is always there for us.”

Do you talk to your brother [in Rwanda] often?
Every day. We text and we e-mail. To this day, we have not been able to talk about the genocide. The whole family took him to the airport to go to school in Senegal. He came home only to me. He was always very generous. If somebody needed a coat or a watch, he’d take off his own and give it to them. My mom would say, “Immaculée … don’t let him give everything away today!” He is such a sweet, kind man. It is so hard for him.

After the killing, you met with a man named Felician, who had killed your mother and your brother. You looked him in the eye and you forgave him. “Forgiveness,” you said, “is all I have to offer. Anyone in the world can learn to forgive.” You say this as if it was easy. But it isn’t…

Oh my. It is not easy. I went through hell. I was out of my mind with anger. My stomach would ache with anger. I would imagine putting a bomb out to kill people. Shoot them. I was so bitter. I wished I could smile again. I fell on my knees and begged God to help me. It’s hard to imagine: Unless you’ve fallen in love, you can’t imagine what love is like. That is what it is like to surrender to forgiveness. I said 27 Rosaries a day. Imagine. From 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., until I fell asleep. I would cling to my father’s rosary: “…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The hard part wasn’t getting God to help me. It was trusting that God would help me. The moment I trusted, I felt the hatred fall off my body and I couldn’t imagine hating anymore. They killed a mother, and the child lay in the street crying. I realized the killers were like children breaking toys. Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” And they (the killers) did not know what they were doing. The only way you can be is to not be like them. If they hate innocent people and children and I hate them back, what am I doing? I am doing the same thing. And I cannot. You don’t have to be blind and say they are good when they are bad. You don’t have to be a victim.

If the other side is still doing wrong, they can still kill me! You don’t have to deny the danger. But I don’t have to do the same. If you believe God is real, God will be there for you. If I believe all is possible with God, then I have to behave like I believe that. If you ask God for a job, get ready for the job! Having faith is about trusting: Be ready! Sometimes I send e-mails to God: “Dear God, please come help me.” By the end of the e-mail, I feel God is there.

You have an interest in Fatima and Lourdes. Do you identify with Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco … and with Bernadette?
I’ve seen all the movies. I’ve read all the books. I identify with them in a way because I come from a country where an apparition did happen, in Kibeho (in Rwanda). I heard the story of Fatima at age 10. I would ask my mother, “Does God really know everything?” And she would say, “Yes!” It was so hard for me to understand; the start of my faith began with Fatima. It made such an impression that I went with my girlfriend behind some bushes (in Mataba, Rwanda) to have an apparition! Then we said, “Wait! We need a boy!” (laughing) We couldn’t find my brother, so we caught our friend Clement. We made him come with us and pray behind the bushes! Now, we had the place for an apparition. I thought, We need some flowers! Every day, we eagerly took the goats into the hills to eat their grass. My mom wondered why we were being so helpful! And then a village priest said, “I have some news for you! The Blessed Mother has appeared at Kibeho!” I knew she would come to us! But it was not in our town! I knew it was because we had forgotten to bring the flowers! Of course, we wanted to know all about it, every detail! The priest brought us tapes. Today, as I listen to the messages, I know [Our Lady] was warning about the genocide. The Blessed Mother said, “Don’t be greedy. Share!” In the second message, she told the priests and bishops, “Have people pray the Rosary and love one another!” The third time, she was crying: “Say the Rosary together in your villages for the peace of the country!” But we didn’t listen. Imagine. The Rosary could have prevented 1 million people from dying. Whatever she says in Fatima, do it. Whatever she says in Lourdes, just do it!

What does the world need most right now?
We need heart. We need a foundation of love. People lose the true sense of things. I fear that we end up generalizing based on race, based on money…. We stereotype people, and we forget the human side of individuals. If you don’t do something for the one in need, there will be consequences. My father always said, “Just because a lot of people are doing wrong does not make it right.” After the genocide, I found myself hoarding. I grabbed a pair of expensive shoes. I couldn’t even buy the polish to clean them! So I put everything in a bag and put it back where I got it. It feels so good to be empty and open to accept daily what you need. We receive more when we give.

What message do we need to take into our hearts?

Hold onto God! Hold onto hope … no matter what. God will take care of you!  CD


APPARITIONS AT KIBEHO
When Mary visited Rwanda
Even with approval by the Church, the story of the Virgin Mary’s visit to the remote Rwandan village of Kibeho still remains largely unknown, says Immaculée Ilibagiza. With her latest book, Our Lady of Kibeho, Ilibagiza tells the story of the visits by Mary to African schoolchildren in the 1980s. The visionaries said Mary asked Rwandans for conversion of heart and unceasing prayer, and predicted the brutal and bloody war that devastated Rwanda in 1994 and 1995 and resulted in the deaths of 800,000 people. Today, thousands continue to make the pilgrimage to the shrine built in honor of Our Lady of Kibeho to find healing and hope.

News Update:
After a trial that lasted 400 days over more than six years, the former leader of the Rwandan military who was alleged to have masterminded the 1994 Rwandan genocide was found guilty in December of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The United Nations-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sentenced Théoneste Bagosora, the cabinet director in the Rwandan Ministry of Defense, and two of his senior officers, to life in prison. Bagosora is said to have organized the plan in 1994 to wipe out the Tutsi population in Rwanda. More than 800,000 people were brutally murdered in the 100 days that followed.

Kathleen Stauffer

Kathleen Stauffer was president and publisher of Bayard’s Consumer Magazine Division.