The Rwandan genocide is one of history’s most horrific events. In 1994, nearly one million Rwandans were slaughtered over the course of a few months, mainly by militant Hutu groups (tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were one cause of the bloodshed).
This holocaust unfolded before the eyes of a young Tutsi woman home from college over Easter break. Immaculée Ilibagiza spent 90 days hiding from killers in her pastor’s 3’x4’ bathroom with seven other women, hearing how her family and many of her countrymen had been slaughtered. Incredibly, she has forgiven the killers and helped Rwandan women entrepreneurs rebuild their communities. In the process, she taught people everywhere how to overcome evil with good. The following is an excerpt from her best-selling memoir, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” (Hay House). For more information, visit www.lefttotell.com.
I was deep in prayer when the killers came to search the house a second time.
It was past noon, and I’d been praying the rosary since dawn for God to give His love and forgiveness to all the sinners in the world. But try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to pray for the killers. That was a problem for me because I knew that God expected us to pray for everyone, and more than anything, I wanted God on my side.
As a compromise, I prayed the rosary multiple times, as intensely as I could, every day. Working through all those Hail Marys and Our Fathers took 12 or 13 hours—and whenever I reached the part of the Lord’s Prayer that calls us to “forgive those who trespass against us,” I tried not to think of the killers, because I knew that I couldn’t forgive them.
During that second search, the killers’ racket reached the edge of my prayers like an angry voice waking me from a dream. Then I heard four or five loud bangs next to my head, and they had my full attention. I realized that they were right there in the pastor’s bedroom! They were rummaging through his belongings, ripping things from the wall, lifting up the bed, and overturning chairs.
“Look in that!” One of them yelled. “Now look under here. Move that chest! Search everything!”
I covered my mouth with my hands, fearing that they’d hear me breathing. They were only inches from my head . . . the floor was creaking in front of the wardrobe—the wardrobe! I thanked God again for it, but my heart still thumped against my chest.
I could hear them laughing. They were having fun while going about killing people! I cursed them, wishing that they’d burn in hell.
The wardrobe banged against the door. I covered my ears and prayed: God, please. You put the wardrobe there...now keep it there! Don’t let them move it. Save us, Lord!
My scalp was burning, and the ugly whispering slithered in my head again: Why are you calling on God? Don’t you have as much hatred in your heart as the killers do? Aren’t you as guilty of hatred as they are? You’ve wished them dead; in fact, you wished that you could kill them yourself! You even prayed that God would make them suffer and make them burn in hell.
I could hear the killers on the other side of the door, and entreated, God, make them go away...save us from—
Don’t call on God, Immaculée, the voice broke in. He knows that you’re a liar. You lie every time you pray to Him to say that you love Him. Didn’t God create us all in His image? How can you love God but hate so many of His creations?
My thoughts were paralyzed. I knew that the demon in my head was right—I was lying to God every time I prayed to Him. I was so overwhelmed with hatred for the people responsible for the genocide that I had a hard time breathing.
At least 40 or 50 men were in the pastor’s bedroom by this time, and they were shouting and jeering. They sounded drunk and mean, and their chanting was more vicious than usual: “Kill the Tutsis big and small...kill them one and kill them all. Kill them!”
I began praying, asking God to keep them away from the wardrobe and out of the house altogether.
Beneath the raucous singing, the dark voice taunted me: It’s no use...don’t call on God. Who do you think sent the killers here for you? He did! Nothing can save you. God doesn’t save liars.
I began to pray for the killers and then stopped. I desperately wanted God’s protection, but I believed in my heart that they deserved to die. I couldn’t pretend that they hadn’t slaughtered and raped thousands of people—I couldn’t ignore the awful, evil things that they’d done to so many innocent souls.
Why do You expect the impossible from me? I asked God. How can I forgive people who are trying to kill me, people who may have already slaughtered my family and friends? It isn’t logical for me to forgive these killers. Let me pray for their victims instead, for those who’ve been raped and murdered and mutilated. Let me pray for the orphans and widows...let me pray for justice. God, I will ask You to punish those wicked men, but I cannot forgive them—I just can’t.
Finally, I heard the killers leaving. First they left the bedroom, then the house, and soon they were walking away down the road, their singing fading in the distance.
I resumed my prayers. I thanked God for saving us and for giving me the idea to put the wardrobe in front of the bathroom door. That was so smart of You, God. You are very smart, I said mentally, and thanked Him again. I wondered where the killers were off to, then I started praying for my friends and family: Please look over my mother, God, she worries so much about us. Watch over my father; he can be so stubborn....
It was no use—my prayers felt hollow. A war had started in my soul, and I could no longer pray to a God of love with a heart full of hatred.
I tried again, praying for Him to forgive the killers, but deep down I couldn’t believe that they deserved it at all. It tormented me...I tried to pray for them myself, but I felt like I was praying for the devil. Please open my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive. I’m not strong enough to squash my hatred—they’ve wronged us all so much...my hatred is so heavy that it could crush me. Touch my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive.
I struggled with the dilemma for hours on end. I prayed late into the night, all through the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. I prayed all week, scarcely taking food or water. I couldn’t remember when or how long I’d slept, and was only vaguely aware of time passing.
One night I heard screaming not far from the house, and then a baby crying. The killers must have slain the mother and left her infant to die in the road. The child wailed all night; by morning, its cries were feeble and sporadic, and by nightfall, it was silent. I heard dogs snarling nearby and shivered to think how that baby’s life had ended. I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul, and then asked Him, How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?
I heard His answer as clearly as if we’d been sitting in the same room chatting: You are all my children...and the baby is with Me now.
It was such a simple sentence, but it was the answer to the prayers I’d been lost in for days.
The killers were like children. Yes, they were barbaric creatures who would have to be punished severely for their actions, but they were still children. They were cruel, vicious, and dangerous, as kids sometimes can be, but nevertheless, they were children. They saw, but didn’t understand the terrible harm they’d inflicted. They’d blindly hurt others without thinking, they’d hurt their Tutsi brothers and sisters, they’d hurt God—and they didn’t understand how badly they were hurting themselves. Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil. Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy...especially when that child was trying to kill me.
In God’s eyes, the killers were part of His family, deserving of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I was unwilling to love His children. At that moment, I prayed for the killers, for their sins to be forgiven. I prayed that God would lead them to recognize the horrific error of their ways before their life on Earth ended—before they were called to account for their mortal sins.
I held on to my father’s rosary and asked God to help me, and again I heard His voice: Forgive them; they know not what they do.
I took a crucial step toward forgiving the killers that day. My anger was draining from me—I’d opened my heart to God, and He’d touched it with His infinite love. For the first time, I pitied the killers. I asked God to forgive their sins and turn their souls toward His beautiful Light.
That night I prayed with a clear conscience and a clean heart. For the first time since I entered the bathroom, I slept in peace.