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Left To Tell – Discovering God Amidst The Rwandan Holocaust

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

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 moment — it was a process. At first I was so angry and then there was a next stage when I was so hurt. It was too hard to take. And then I imagined how, if I was going to be hating everybody, I didn’t know how I was going to live in this world. And how was I going to smile again if I carried on hating so many people? And that was the moment. So I decided that I didn’t want to give up smiling, I didn’t want to give up my joy. I remember the struggle, just knowing what it would do to me if I continued in this way. And then, because it was so painful, I came to another stage when I thought, “You know what, I don’t remember how you can forgive, or how to do it” and I surrendered. I said, “God, if you can only show me a way to do it, I will give anything for me to be able to smile again. When you are angry, it goes together, you have to watch who you smile to because you are holding this painful thing, like poison in your chest. Especially when it was for me, when I didn’t have anybody any more. So then the next stage was. “All right, I surrender. I just wish this can go out in a magic way, take it out.” And then the last stage, I remember, when I really saw the face of Jesus on the cross, when he said, “Forgive them Father, they don’t know what they do.” It wasn’t “Oh, forgive them,” it was more a knowing that they don’t know what they do. And I started thinking about myself, sometimes I apologise to people, even to God, so why do I apologise if I have done what I did? If I knew I had better apologise means that I knew better.

It is because there is a moment when we don’t get it, we don’t understand fully the whole truth of what we are doing. The temptation becomes stronger than us, so that gave me a way to try and understand these people. I get it. They are doing wrong, but they cannot be thinking about the consequences that will come back to them because they are so much taken by such evil. They can’t be thinking, “What are the consequences that will come to me, even to my own children?” They know it is bad but do they really conceive the whole thing? That alone helped me so much to know that I am a person who cares for peace. I have to try to be that, not to be a person that is avenging and hitting back. It is almost like I could see two lines—on one side was love and on the other side was hate. And I was so much on the side of hate, it felt like hitting somebody. And all of a sudden I realised, I can stay on the side of love and then try to pull people to this side so this world can be a better place. Otherwise if I take my own vengeance, what is it going to serve for the rest of the world or even for me? Because if I am doing bad things, I know the consequences will follow me.

So I thought, no, I cannot go to that extent. They don’t get it. Whatever is coming, they don’t get it. Whatever is going to befall our world, this country, they don’t get it. And how is it that cabinet ministers, people who had power can be doing that? And me, I am a person, I can understand they are doing wrong but they don’t get it. Not only they are doing wrong, but it is going to follow them. They are going to suffer consequences. And if you see what has happened to them after the genocide, you would just know that. It was so clear to me and it wasn’t clear to them. It was blindness in the truth of their heart.

JF: So what do you think we can do so it doesn’t happen again? I mean we, the human race. And can we?

II: I think we can. I think we can all try, because you can never control another person’s mind. What we can do is to teach each other and care for each other. I really try to approach people; I try to do that a little bit. I try to approach people and to explain to them that instead of being angry they can be happy or go and watch a movie! A friend of mine last week was telling me, she was not feeling too happy and she said when she was not happy, when she was lonely, she would go and buy a fashion magazine that would make her smile, so she could laugh again. That is one way of her saying, just find something to distract you, a program. If we really care about each other, something will happen to this world. When we care in a loving way, when you really care about someone, this is peace, even if you don’t know it. To teach a child, like this—writing about what happens. People need to know what happened. You cannot hide it. If people in Rwanda knew what had happened to the Jewish people during the Second World War, they would not have participated in the genocide. If they knew the consequences that had come to people who did it, even to the whole world, they would not have taken that route. It was so new. I met a man in my country who told me about the people he had killed. Almost like he never knew, he never realised that they would be dead forever. It was so new, in my country they never taught us about that. They were never educated or saw anything about the holocaust and genocide, so people did not know what was going on, because one day they were being prepared to do the same thing.

So to talk about it of course calls for love. Be on the side of love no matter what. Care for people. And what I mean by love, I mean the smallest thing possible. Like if a co-worker loses something, a pen, pick it up for them. Find out what is going on in their life. Look at them, listen to them, listen to the troubles they are going through and respond if they are crying. Be able to communicate with another person because they are a member of the human race. We are people. We have to care. There is no problem that concerns just one person. We are all connected.

JF: It is wonderful to hear you say that. You know, Feminenza, which is the organisation which I work with and that produces this magazine, we organise conferences about forgiveness, reconciliation and peace and we recently held one in Kenya. We work with refugees from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I think this is a wonderful message for all those people as well.

II: Thank you. We all need to feel that no matter what you go through, there is hope, and you can be free and be happy.

JF: Looking back on your experiences, was there a certain quality that allowed you to survive? Would you say it is above all love?

II: I think it was that. I think it was more than love; it was to have that humanity and knowing that another human being still has the right to live and to be a human. I never gave up hope in people. I have seen so much goodness in people—in my parents and my grandma, my family—it was so hard to just give up. And then, the greatest thing is to really know the element of God, for Him to be there. It was God, it was because I craved God when growing up, because people were speaking to me about God. To bring Him into the picture changed everything. It was like somebody taking over and knowing that He wants the best. He is all good, He is the excellence of all that is good. And to want that no matter what. He is the one who knows, He has told us that He is God Himself. To have Him there for me was everything… And then I decided to start to pray every second, really to have that constant communication. It took away a lot of my pain and the way of my anger. It changed things.

JF: In the movie Wayne Dyer mentions your will to live and that it was your will that allowed you to come through the experience with so much strength and resolve. What would you say about that?

II: I think everyone has such will power. It was so sweet of him. Everyone has something; we all want to live. We all want peace. I think that there is a little click that pops somewhere when somebody says “I want that.” I think what matters to everyone, even to God, is to be able to want something and to have the courage to want it to happen. And we need to say it, “I want that to happen.” Like, “I want to live, I don’t want to die.” And to be able to say “I don’t want to die.” And then ask Him, be able to surrender, be able to hand it to God and know that you can trust Him and I think there is no stress at all. It is more than a human being, who makes me strong. I can do all things.

JF: I really do think you have an important message for people who have been through any kind of trauma. One last thing I’d like to ask you about is that amazing moment in the book when you meet the leader of the gang that killed your mother and your brother Damacen—Felicien was his name. And you said “I forgive you.” What was going through your mind when you did that? That is such an amazing moment.

II: You know, when I saw him, it was something like a confirmation. This guy didn’t know what he was doing, but when I remembered him, it was always as a good man, dressed in a suit. And all of a sudden he is stripped of everything because of the decision he had taken. It was that moment that made me realise, he can’t get it. If he had loved himself, he would not have brought himself to this. He could not have loved me and he could not have loved himself; he simply did not have any love in his heart. He did not know how to love. If people don’t care for themselves, how can they care for other people? So when I was able to see that, and when I told him, “I forgive you,” it was more like, don’t take me as any excuse to not see the truth. And it wasn’t in a mean way, like, “Oh, yeah, don’t think about me.” It was more like, “I forgive you. I just want you to take me out of the picture. You seem to have a long way to go and I hope you can find that. And I want to redirect you from me, from you having me as an extra luggage.” It was more like that. I wished I could just tell him, “Don’t worry about me. It is really nothing. Don’t care. Find a way to grow and then I will be out of your mind.” Not, “I am angry, I did this to…” It’s more like, “What went wrong in your mind? What went wrong in your thinking and your heart?” How can that be fixed and please don’t have me there as a part of somebody who can help you fix it.” I wish I could do something, so he could say, “I wish I had done differently.” That would be the best day of my life. If he could honestly say, what the heck did I do? But he couldn’t do that and he doesn’t understand where he was, why he was there and I just wanted to bid him from me being his excuse of not seeing the truth. If people don’t care for themselves, how can they care for other people?

JF: That’s wonderful. And one very last question. I think it is a really important point you make about the difference between forgiveness and the fact that it does not mean accepting the deed that you are forgiving. I just wanted to ask if you could say something about that because when we work on forgiveness with people, that is a question that often comes up. People say, “If I forgive, does that mean that I condone the action that I am forgiving?” If you could help in explaining that absolutely it does not.

II: Definitely. The way I understood it, forgiveness is like that thing you are holding inside when you let go of that anger. You can only let go of that because you are able to think of the other person as a human being, maybe who needs help, who maybe needs to go through the justice system to learn what had happened or maybe just who needs forgiveness, purely because they want it so badly, so you can offer it to them. Or even sometimes when they don’t want it. So for me it is never to condone what they are doing. It is not for them to come out of the prison or justice system because I forgive them. It is more about being able to think about this person with love; to want good to happen to them. You know, most of the time we think about them and wish something bad could happen to them so they can know what they did. You want instead something to happen to their mind so that they can see the truth they never saw before. That is what came to me. It is like wishing a child to be able to have peace, to have blessings. I even want him to be OK, happy, but I want even more for him to learn the lesson of what he had been doing wrong to other people, even to me. It’s being able to come to peace and to have that freedom of letting go of that bitterness.

If you think that bitterness is still there, you see that person and the anger is rising in you and coming out, just know that you haven’t forgiven them. And ask God to help you forgive them. It is just the willingness and the choice to want to forgive them that will really take you out of that mess of feeling so bitter, which will end up being like a physical sickness. I have tested it. Being bitter is such a poison that it is like having a headache—your stomach is turning.

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.

JF: It is amazing how what you process, be it anger or compassion, it ends up turning against you or for you, depending on what it is. And it is so important to be on the side of love, as you say. Thank you so much for your time. I wish you all the best in your endeavours; I think it is really important work that you are doing.

II: I appreciate that. Thank you and I wish you the best for your work too. Thank you for helping me spread the message.

Find out more about Immaculée Ilibigaza

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