In spring, 1994, at the start of what become known as the Rwandan genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old college student, home for Easter. She and her family were Tutsi. At the urging of her parents, she fled to the home of a local Episcopal priest--a Hutu--and hid with seven other women in his 3’x4’ bathroom for three months.
When they emerged 91 days later, it was to discover that almost all their friends and relatives had been murdered, hacked to pieces by the machetes of their Hutu friends and neighbors. Ilibagiza lost her parents, grandparents, and three brothers.
But instead of letting rage, grief, and a desire for revenge take over her life, Ilibagiza reached inside herself and found only forgiveness. She is nominated as Most Inspiring Person of the Year for forgiving the unforgivable--the murder of her family, friends, and fellow countrymen.
Ilibagiza has written a book about her experience, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Genocide” (Hay House, 2006). In it, she describes how she spent much of her time in the bathroom praying--as the screams of the murdered seeped through the single window. Yet when reciting The Lord’s Prayer, she stopped dead at “forgive those who trespass against us.”
“So I am praying to God to help me out, to save me, but yet I have got anger,” she told Tavis Smiley, the talk show host, earlier this year. “There was an obstacle in my heart.”
She asked God to help her overcome that obstacle and forgive. It was, she said, a moment of complete surrender.
“I gave everything to God,” she said. “Later when I saw Jesus on the cross, when He said, ‘Forgive them, Father, for they don't know what they do,’ I understood what exactly he meant and what I needed to do.”
From that moment, she was able to pray for her enemies, “for this evil to come out of them,” she said. “So then that gives me a way out of my unforgiveness, of my hatred. And I felt so good.”
Today, Ilibagiza travels around the country with Dr. Wayne Dyer, giving lectures on the power of radical forgiveness. A portion of the proceeds from her lecture tour go to the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which Ilibagiza founded to help Rwandan orphans of the genocide.
“Rwanda can be a paradise again,” Ilibagiza believes, “but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland. And that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all--humanity was wounded by the genocide. The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda--and our world--by healing one heart at a time.”
Ilibagiza now lives in Long Island, N.Y., and is married with two children. To read an excerpt from "Left to Tell," click here.