The Healing Power of Forgiveness

January 2009

Immaculée Ilibagiza

Immaculée Ilibagiza speaks on the genocide in Rwanda, forgiveness, and her books Left to Tell and Led By Faith

Four years after the tragedy in her homeland, Immaculée Ilibagiza immigrated to the United States. In 2007 Immaculée was awarded the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Peace and Reconciliation. For more information, visit www.immaculee.com

In the spring of 1994, I was a college student, home for Easter. As the protected daughter of loving parents and cherished sister of three wonderful brothers, I was enjoying life in my homeland of Rwanda.

Although we were of the Tutsi ethnic minority in a country run by an extremist Hutu regime, we could not have imagined the genocide that was about to begin. On April 6, the president of Rwanda, a Hutu, was killed in a plane crash, and Tutsi rebels were accused of shooting down the plane. My family, along with millions of other Tutsis, knew there would be retaliation.

We were ordered not to leave the country, and business as usual stopped. When the killing of Tutsis began, my parents sent me to hide in the home of Pastor Simeon Nzabahimana, a sympathetic Hutu. Different family members then hid in other places.

Seven more Tutsi women were taken in by the pastor. Our hiding place was the small second bathroom of his house. Eight of us were wedged into that 3- by 4-foot space. We would spend the next three months there. Occasionally—and only at night—we would come out of the bathroom and go into the adjoining room to lie down. There was a window in this room, so we didn't dare stay there in the daytime.

The pastor told his two children that the key was lost to the small bathroom. The other women and I listened to a radio that Pastor Simeon had placed outside the bathroom door. The BBC reported daily of the growing number of Tutsis who had been brutally killed. Many entire families were wiped out.

For three months, not daring to make a noise that might cause us to be discovered, we women used hand signals to talk to one another. Once a day or sometimes once every other day, Pastor Simeon brought us food and water. We flushed the toilet only when we would hear the other toilet in the house being flushed.

Hutu killers came to the house and searched. During the search, I silently prayed and said the Rosary. I held my breath when I heard the men approach the bathroom door. I believe it was nothing less than a miracle that they turned and left, never opening the door.

Knowing that they would return, I begged the pastor to move a large armoire in front of the bathroom door. He did and then stacked suitcases on top of it. Listening from the silence of the bathroom to the BBC radio reports of the genocide that was happening, I grew angrier each day. I imagined myself as a soldier, seeking revenge.

My anger grew to the point that I became upset with myself. I questioned how I could pray to God for help when I was so angry. I believed that someday I would be able to walk out of that cramped bathroom and start living my life again. But how could I have a life if I were still angry and feeling the hurt that hating others caused me?

I prayed and read the Bible, gaining a better understanding that all people are children of God. I accepted that those who were doing the killing didn't understand the truth of this. They had been blinded by anger and hate. I knew that in order to continue with life once I was free, I had to forgive.

When the Hutus were defeated and the genocide finally stopped, we were rescued. I learned from others about who had survived and who had not. All my family—except one brother who was out of the country—had been killed: my mother, father, two brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Many of my friends and neighbors were also gone. Later we learned that nearly one million people had been killed in the genocide—most victims were Tutsis, but some were moderate Hutu sympathizers.

Forgiving the Unforgivable

I was told that one of our former Hutu neighbors was the leader of a gang that had killed my mother and my brother. When I heard that he was being held in a local prison, I decided to go see him. I didn't know what I would do when I saw him face-to-face.

When a guard brought the man from his cell, I hardly recognized this former neighbor, the father of children I had known as I was growing up. His hair was disheveled, and bits of food clung to his unshaven face. He stared at me defiantly. Then when I quietly but sincerely said three short words: "I forgive you," peace swept over my soul. I wanted to be free of hatred because I had seen what the hatred of this man and other Hutus had done. His defiant look melted away, and he bowed his head. I'm sure it was in shame for what he had done.

As I walked out of the prison, the Tutsi man who ran the prison turned to me in anger. "How could you forgive him?" he said. The man had lost his children during the genocide. A year later, I met him again, and he told me that I had changed his life. He had been so full of hate and anger that he was miserable. When he saw that I could forgive and move on with my life after all I had been through and lost, he knew this was also what he wanted to do.

With the healing of my own heart, and after I was able to start anew in the United States, I wanted to reach out to help heal the hearts of others, to help heal my homeland. I told my story in the books Left to Tell and Led By Faith and founded the Left to Tell Charitable Fund to assist children left orphaned by the genocide. Through the fund, many of them have been placed in homes.

Everyone goes through difficulties in life. It's important that we don't give up. I believe that it's only when we have the peace of mind that forgiveness brings us, we are able to move on to live our lives fully.