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Q&A with Rwandan Genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza

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By Maria Wyllie

In April of 1994, Rwanda’s rolling hills and lush, green landscape turned red.

Located in central Africa a few degrees south of the Equator, the country’s majority Hutu tribe had issued radio alerts ordering their members to murder all Tutsis, spreading hate propaganda and instigating the Rwandan Genocide. Conflict between the two tribes grew from the Hutus’ long-standing resentment of the Tutsis, who formed the nation’s aristocracy.

Wielding knives, spears, clubs and machetes, the Hutus slaughtered every Tutsi and moderate Hutu in sight for the next 100 days.

By the time it was over, 3 out of every 4 Tutsis in Rwanda had been killed and nearly 1 million people were dead. Few Tutsis are left to tell their stories. One of them is Immaculée Ilibagiza.

At the time of the genocide, Ilibagiza was 22, an engineering student at the National University of Rwanda. She was home visiting her family for Easter when Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down the night of April 6. His assassination escalated tensions between the two tribes, and Tutsis feared for their lives as Hutu extremists made plans for extermination.

Ilibagiza’s father, a devout Catholic, gave her a set of rosary beads and sent her to seek refuge at the local pastor’s house until the massacre was over. The Hutu pastor hid her in a 4-by-3-foot bathroom with seven other Tutsi women, and blocked the doorway with a wardrobe to conceal the space.

For 91 days, Ilibagiza and the other women crammed together, sitting in the same positions day and night. Despite their close quarters, the women remained strangers, unable to speak a word for fear of being heard by the killers who closely monitored the house. God was her only companion, she says.

After three months, the women escaped to a refugee camp. Ilibagiza’s weight had dropped from 115 to 65 pounds.

But her heart was strong. Ilibagiza sought out the man who had killed her entire family, save her brother who was studying abroad. When she found the culprit, she held his hands and said, “I forgive you.”

Today, Ilibagiza is an American citizen living in New York City, her home for the past 17 years. She worked as a member of the United Nations for eight years then began a career as a full-time writer and speaker, boldly sharing her story with others to prevent such horrors from happening again.

Ilibagiza is bringing her powerful story of survival and forgiveness to Big Sky, Montana on March 3, 2015, at the Big Sky Chapel. Mountain Outlaw interviewed her last fall to learn how she found peace in the midst of the Rwandan Genocide.

Mountain Outlaw: Immaculée Ilibagiza is a beautiful name. Does it have any special meaning?

Immaculée Ilibagiza: It does actually. They named me Immaculée after the Immaculate Conception. Ilibagiza means “shining and beautiful in body and soul.”

M.O.: It’s been 20 years since the Rwandan Genocide. How has the country changed?

I.I.: Many people call it the most beautiful country in Africa. Everyone is going to school. We used to have only two [universities] and now we have 27, so that shows you how much the country is progressing.

Photo by Phil Marino

M.O.: What lessons can be learned from such a horrific event?

I.I.: When there is a war or tragedy, no one wins. Everyone suffers. I think people really learned they have to love each other. One killer I spoke to said, “I miss people I killed.” Anger is not the way. Discrimination is what happened [in] Rwanda.

M.O.: Living in silence for three months with seven people and little food is unimaginable. What did you struggle with most?

I.I.: Fear, anger, and … not knowing what was going to happen in the next hour. It was so bad. The only remedy of listening to fear was to trust in God. When you trust, you have protection.

M.O.: How did you find the strength to carry on?

I.I.: Forgiveness was a part of that. [At first] I couldn’t understand how you could forgive someone who tried to kill you. My heart was aching and burning out of that anger…I was so sure that when I came out, I was going to avenge my family. I was going to be a soldier and do bad things, but when forgiveness came to me, it changed everything.

M.O.: Were you more at peace once you were able to forgive?

I.I.: It was almost like I was lifting up from the ground. Like there were flowers in the bathroom, smells that were beautiful, my skin was smooth. It was a completely different life in the same place after that.

M.O.: Today, as a professional speaker, how does your message translate to people of varying beliefs?

I.I.:I only describe my journey. It is a human experience. I have spoken to every group of people you can imagine – Jewish, Protestant, no faith. We have all been created in love, so even if you grow up in different families, you learn the same values. So you don’t need to be Christian in order to forgive.

M.O.: When you aren’t busy working, how do you spend your free time?

I.I.: I have a foundation called the Left to Tell Charitable Fund. I am helping orphans and poor kids go to school and eat … in Rwanda, Liberia, and South Africa. I take groups to Rwanda twice a year, and we visit orphanages [and] the memorial of the genocide.

M.O.: Speaking about such a tragedy must be a challenge. How is your job rewarding?

I.I.: People who write to me and tell me that my story touched them. That feels like God is telling me the work is useful. And as long as I can be useful, gosh, what are we here for?

This story was first published in the winter 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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