Left To Tell – Discovering God Amidst The Rwandan Holocaust

Updated: Apr 24

An interview with Immaculée Ilibagiza by Joanna Francis, USA

Immaculée Ilibagiza was born in Rwanda. Her life transformed dramatically in 1994 during the Rwanda genocide when she and seven other women huddled silently together in a cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house for 91 days! During this horrific ordeal, Immaculée lost most of her family, including her mother, father and two brothers, but she survived to share the story in her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

Four years after the Rwandan tragedy, Immaculée emigrated to the United States and began working 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.

Proceeds from her book go to the charity and have already supported orphaned children in Rwanda, and she hopes the charity will also help other children of Africa to build better lives. She also gives talks and does what she can to help people feel the hope for the human race that she feels and the spirituality of being human.

It is a profound book to read. Immaculée writes very openly and honestly. She takes the reader inside the horror of what happened in Rwanda through how it affected her and her family. It is very moving as she shares the fear she experiences for her life and how she struggled not to hate those who are out to kill her and who killed her family and friends. Locked for so many days in a space one can’t imagine spending 15 minutes in she goes inside herself and examines her reactions and responses and finds a place of deep spirituality. This leads to an amazing and profound relationship with God and a great humanity, compassion and understanding that brings her to a miraculous forgiveness. It inspires and offers hope that the greatness of humanity can be there even when humanity seems to be at its darkest, and attests to the fact that spirituality can win though whatever the circumstance.

“Everyone should read this story—survivors as well as perpetrators. I hope that all can experience Immaculée’s profound spiritual transformation and be inspired to work for a united and lasting nation.” -Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of the Republic of Rwanda

JF: I want to begin by thanking you for finding the time to talk to me and also for sharing your story. It was a very moving book and I also saw the documentary movie. That must have been a very difficult book to write.

II: It was, but not really. When I was writing it, it was more like calming the emotions. I wrote it at a better time. There were tears, but it was good, it was bitter-sweet.

JF: Maybe I could ask you first about your life now because I am sure our readers would be interested to know what has happened to you since you wrote the book, because in the movie you mention that you are supporting orphanages in Rwanda. Is that your main job at the moment?

II: It is really. But the main thing is speaking, sharing the message—so many people have told me how it has changed their life. So I do a lot of speaking and I am writing my next book, which is coming out next March (2008 – ed.).

JF: Great! What is that about?

II: It is about the years after the genocide—the next five or six years, describing how the country came back together. Many people wanted to know how did you heal after this sort of thing. It is one thing to tell about the experience, but how do you heal after that? I tried to put together how I understood it, what I saw.

JF: Very interesting. With all this speaking and with people telling you how your story and your book have changed their lives, do you feel you have a mission in life? And can you define what that is?

II: Definitely. First is to see that what happened to me had some meaning, a lot of meaning actually. When I saw what it does in people’s lives, at first I thought I could never understand what they did to me. God knows how He touches people. That gives me a good sense of, I know why that is behind me now. Most of it is to feel that—you want to be able to love God, to just know that everything is possible and to have hope. And that doesn’t just stop at Rwanda; it is a worldwide need. We all need to feel that no matter what you go through, there is hope, and you can be free and be happy. With God everything is possible. I love to talk about those things and just to hear people telling me how they can change everything around them. Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland.

JF: Are you still haunted by the visions of what you have been through and how do you deal with that?

II: Not really. I am not. I do think about it, like every human being thinks about their past, I can cry and I miss my parents, I miss my brothers, but I don’t think about it or have visions of what happened. I can sit down and just start to wonder, how can that happen? What went wrong with people? How can we do this? I keep asking myself these questions, but it’s not like being haunted by visions that keep playing in my mind—no. I think the thought of God being alive was much more mind blowing. For me it was thinking, oh my God, can He be here? Can I feel this kind of way?

Can I feel this way when I am going through this, losing my weight and becoming a skeleton—yet God is all that is. When things were getting worse, God is what stayed in my mind more than anything. I kept seeing His love and then to see how He put things together ¬one line after another. It does make me think that God is alive. He is there.

Everything is a choice. And it is so great to know that we can choose things that we are not capable of doing and then in a strange way it comes home, only God knows. You say, I choose to be bad or I choose to be O.K. I am going to be OK, I am going to have a life and then life helps you to make that happen. Life is a journey. Even in such an extreme circumstance, even if you have nothing. And then you see God building it around you, slowly. That’s why I am so sure that God is with us. And He listens.

JF: How do you tell your children about your story?

II: I don’t.

JF: You don’t?

II: No. I don’t tell them. In my mind I want children to be children, I want them to enjoy their life. My parents never told me much about what had happened to them. It’s one thing to tell them what happened to some country, but what happened to their grandma and knowing that they don’t have grandparents, it becomes more like a history and something to talk about. My children ask me, “Mom, where is your mom?” “Where is your dad?” “Why don’t you have a mother like everybody else?” It’s still raw and I have seen my daughter cry, just asking me that. It’s something real, like you have a family member die in a terrible way—it’s not something you enjoy to talk about all the time. However, I enjoy talking about the lessons I learned, like I will choose the right movie to show them. Sometimes I will show them a picture or play a CD; I make them see the life of good heroes, like saints, so they can learn the lesson that with God all is possible. If they ever get in trouble, they know who to call upon before I even get there. I want them to know that; it is so important to care for people and I teach them to care.

I don’t like to tell my story but I definitely want to share the lessons I learned.

JF: I understand. I lost my grandparents in the Nazi holocaust so I do understand.

II: You did? I am sorry.

JF: Your extraordinary journey to forgiveness—what would you say was the hardest obstacle to overcome to actually embody that forgiveness?

II: The obstacle was to imagine how a human being can reach that. You think you know these people, it is so hard to wrap up your mind to theirs, to try to understand them. And then, when you don’t understand them, it is like an emptiness in my mind because there is no explanation I can ever find. I wished they were sick or crazy. I wished that we had a problem and then they hated me. But it is like you have been living with somebody, near their home, coming to their house and all of a sudden, what goes through their mind so they can decide they want to kill you? That was hard, hard, hard to take. It was hard to imagine, how can somebody get there? It is not like a sickness; how can someone want to take another person’s life? I wish my brain could find an explanation. I was thinking of God and talking, “If I decide to believe the Bible, I have to decide to believe every message that is there. If God exists, He also exists for people who are my neighbours. I have to agree with it. They have had to say yes to the trace they were making. It is beyond you. So that was hard, to try to understand them. I still don’t want to understand them. To understand someone like that means that you can do the same thing. I hope that one day we can laugh and move on holding hands despite the past. Life has a lot to offer and a lot of love to give.

JF: Was there a single moment when that feeling of forgiveness got the upper hand in you? How could you embody forgiveness?

II: I think I did. There was a moment. I remember a