Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Immaculée Ilibagiza

“The love of a single heart can make a world of difference.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza.

I’m staying in central Africa again this week, to pay my respects to a woman who Dr. Wayne Dyer referred to as a “Saint walking” and hailed by others as Africa’s Anne Frank: Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Fortunately her traumatic and gripping real life story has a happier ending…

Many tissues were soaked as I revisited her inspiring tale of survival and forgiveness. It’s not a lighthearted post I’m afraid, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Immaculée was just 22 when she found herself caught up in unimaginable conditions. She waited – starving,  silent and cramped for 91 days in a three by four foot bathroom in a local pastor’s house, hiding from Hutu thugs on a murderous rampage during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

I read her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a few years back, it was one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read.

On the 6th April 1994 the president’s plane was shot down during its descent into Kigali airport and his death ignited long-standing acrimony between Rwanda’s two ethnic groups: the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.

Before Belgium relinquished Rwanda as a colony in 1962, it bestowed positions of power to those from the minority Tutsi group. After independence the Hutu population took back control, but simmering resentments of the preferential treatment shown to the upper class, intellectual Tutsis ran deep.

The government armed the Interahamwe, a malevolent Hutu paramilitary group, and made frequent radio broadcasts with instructions encouraging Hutu citizens to down their farm tools and abandon their everyday lives so they could assist the militia by killing their Tutsi neighbours and friends.

Their goal was total annihilation.

Photographs of genocide victims at the memorial centre in Kigali.

Racial tension and rancour was stirred up by the government’s evil propaganda, deliberately exploiting collective feelings of animosity that the Hutu’s may have felt since the nation’s independence. Hate preaching fuelled their anger. The Tutsi population were dehumanised as “cockroaches” and a killing frenzy was unleashed in Rwanda.

The West, the United Nations and UNAMIR, to their great shame, did nothing to stop it, which allowed the most horrific slaughter of the 20th century to take place.

Peace keeping units stood by and witnessed mass murders where desperate crowds had gathered. Immaculée’s brother Vianney was shot in a stadium massacre.

No mercy was shown to Tutsi victims; many of whom were hacked to pieces in their homes, on the streets, in the fields, in churches, in schools and wherever they were found.

In the madness that lasted 3 months around one million human beings were slain.

Men, women and children, (including moderate Hutus and those who sheltered Tutsis) were viciously murdered. Their killers callously notched up their death tallies. It’s as though they lost all shred of human decency, dignity and kindness overnight and became machines – devoid of compassion and emotion as they went about their systematic and organised ethnic cleansing.

“I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

It was so barbaric that it’s hard to comprehend. I remember being frequently in tears as I read about Immaculée’s plight for survival in the midst of the hateful carnage that was sweeping across the land.

Two of Immaculée’s brothers, her mother and father and other relatives were butchered as she hid nearby (as instructed by her father), when news of the killings first broke out. Of her immediate family only one of her brother’s survived. Aimable had been away in Senegal at the time.

A sympathetic pastor hid (in secret from his immediate Hutu family) Immaculée and seven other women in the tiny space for 91 days. They were so cramped that the four tallest stood with their backs to walls and some laid on top of each other on the floor. They could only flush the toilet at the exact same time as the main toilet was flushed so as not to be discovered. Hutu gangs frequently searched the house, taunting and singing of their intended victims.

“They can only kill us once.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

The women were packed in like sardines, unable to move and barely able to breathe for fear of being heard. Immaculée heard her name being called on many occasions and she prayed as she stood just inches behind plaster board from where her would-be killers skulked around hoping to find their next Tutsi victims.

She described the agonising fear of them being discovered, raped and murdered and talked of how her faith in God had given her strength to endure such horrors.

Nyamata Memorial Site

The priest had also risked life and limb to shelter these women, and he took scraps of food to them when he could safely do so. He covered the doorway with a wardrobe that had a suitcase on top. He would also leave the radio on so that Immaculée and the women could hear what was happening on the news.

They had to listen to the terror and live in constant fear of being found and wondering what had become of their loved ones.

After 91 days they heard that a refugee camp policed by French soldiers had been established for Tutsi survivors and left in the dead of night on their perilous journey to freedom.

It’s a powerful story, best told by Immaculée herself:

Immaculée lives in New York and married Bryan Black,  whom she met when they worked for the UN in Rwanda. He is now the head of Special Operations at United Nations Safety and Security Service. They have a son and daughter. She wrote her tale of survival and redemption against all odds and became a motivational speaker. What’s so remarkable about her is her grace in the face of such trauma.

Immaculée did not allow what happened to her, her family and her Tutsi compatriots to make her bitter or become a victim, but instead transformed her struggle into hope and inspiration for others. If that’s not the definition of a remarkable woman then I don’t know what is!

Most of us would be psychologically scarred for life after such a terrifying experience, but Immaculée forgave her family’s killers. She let go of her pain and her anger. There was no talk of revenge, only healing.

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” ~ Alexander Pope

It seems that 23 years on Rwanda has come a long way to healing the collective pain, suspicion and deep rifts between the two ethnic communities. Inhabitants are now encouraged to say that they are all Rwandans, with no mention of Hutu or Tutsi.

Reconciliation has been ongoing and with some miraculous outcomes:

Fortunately women are getting more involved in politics. Under the 23 year rule of president Paul Kagame fifty six percent of MPs in Rwanda are women, the highest proportion for any country in the world.

Immaculée Ilibagiza is truly a transcendent soul, as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. I wish her a long and happy life as she teaches humanity that it is possible to recover from the worst experiences life can throw at us and to thrive in the wake of such terrible grief and injustice.

“Faith moves mountains, if faith were easy there would be no mountains.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

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