Part of an occasional series on living with hardship
Note: This column contains descriptions of violence.
Immaculee Ilibagiza enjoyed an idyllic childhood in a close-knit Catholic family. Her parents were hardworking teachers whose kindnesses touched nearly everyone in the village. Immaculee had a promising future as an educated young Rwandan woman, studying electronic and mechanical engineering at the university.
But civil unrest was brewing between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda. When Hutus seized power in 1994, they instituted a campaign of Tutsi annihilation. Hutu death squads slaughtered one million Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers in a span of just 100 days. Neighbor murdered neighbor, often by hand or with a machete. No one was spared.
As the genocide began, Immaculee’s father sent her to the home of a local Hutu pastor, who hid Immaculee in a tiny bathroom along with five other terrified Tutsi women. The pastor bluntly warned the fugitives, “If you make any noise, you will die.”
The bathroom was 3 feet by 4 feet – so tiny that they could neither sit nor stand, but had to crouch almost on top of one other. Outside the high window, the women could hear the blood-curdling screams of their countrymen being hacked to death by lifelong friends, as the genocide reached a fevered pitch.
Immaculee expected that the violence would quickly subside, allowing her to return to her beloved family within a few days. But days became weeks. Two additional Tutsi women arrived, bringing the number to eight in the tiny bathroom. Day and night, they crouched in total silence, terrified that the slightest move would alert the Hutu death squads to their presence. Angry Hutu killers routinely ransacked the house, screaming Immaculee’s name and vowing to rape and dismember her when they found her.
The only possession Immaculee carried into hiding was her father’s rosary beads. During the early days, she clung to the rosary for solace as she begged God to save her parents and three brothers. As time dragged on, however, negativity overtook her. Anger and resentment about her situation ate away at her faith. She began to pray the rosary as a way of drowning out the negativity inside her. Gradually, she began to feel peace. Immaculee resolved to pray every waking moment in captivity, and yet she could not bring herself to pray for the killers. Finally, after weeks of sleeplessness, she relented and began to pray for her enemies. Only then was she able to sleep soundly.
In addition to praying nearly constantly, Immaculee taught herself English using two books and a French/English dictionary, translating one word at a time. She hoped to work for the United Nations if she survived the genocide, and English was required. She knew she’d also need proof that she was formally educated, but her documents were hundreds of miles away at a university that lay in ruins.
After 91 days in the bathroom, Immaculee escaped to a French refugee camp. She weighed 65 pounds. All along the roads, bodies were stacked as high as buildings. Land mines were everywhere. Villages were decimated. Commerce had come to a halt. Shortly after her escape, Immaculee received the crushing news that her entire family had been slaughtered, with the sole exception of a brother who was studying 1,000 miles away in Senegal.
Immaculee was able to secure a ride to her university. Her dorm room had been ransacked and badly damaged, but miraculously, she found $30 of her scholarship money. Even more wonderfully, she unearthed her high school diploma and university progress report that were buried in the rubble. With proof of education, Immaculee was eventually hired by the U.N. to do clerical work, and later, to track relief supplies coming into Rwanda from around the world.
Immaculee’s final step was to visit the local prison to confront the man who had butchered her mother and her beloved brother, Damascene. Before the genocide, the killer had been a successful Hutu businessman whose children had been Immaculee’s playmates. She remembered him as tall and handsome, with expensive suits. What she saw at the prison appalled her. He was a filthy, emaciated shell of a man. His skin was sallow and bruised; his feet were covered in open sores.
Immaculee was overcome with compassion for this man whose life had been destroyed by sin.
The killer never said a word. He slumped on the floor sobbing as the warden screamed and insulted him, expecting Immaculee to do the same.
When Immaculee finally spoke, she said simply, “I forgive you.”
With God’s help, it is possible to forgive the unforgivable.
Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.