Immaculee Ilibagiza lost most of her family during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. After bravely hiding for 91 days in a three foot by four foot bathroom where she starved along with seven other women, she was eventually saved and went on to emigrate from Rwanda to the United States in 1998. She is now a popular speaker and writer sharing her faith and her message of forgiveness and peace worldwide.
I heard the killers call my name.
A jolt of terror shot through me, and then the devil whispered in my ear again: “Now they know who you are … now they know where you are…”
My head snapped back, and I was thrown completely off guard. Why did they call out my name – how did they know I was here? Were they coming to the bathroom?
I tried to call on God, but all I could hear was the negative voice blaring in my mind … along with the vicious, sadistic chants of the killers echoing through the house. Clothes soaked in sweat, I fumbled with my faith.
There were hundreds of them this time. They were yelling at the pastor, accusing and threatening him. “Where is she?” they taunted. “We know she’s here somewhere. Find her … find Immaculee.”
They were in the pastor’s bedroom right on the other side of the wall. Less than an inch of plaster and wood separated us. Their footsteps shook the house, and I could hear their machetes and spears scraping along the walls.
In the chaos, I recognized the voice of a family friend. “I have killed 399 cockroaches, “ he boasted. “Immaculee will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.”
As I cowered in the corner, the devil was laughing at me: “They know your name … they know you’re here. Where is your God now?” (Immaculee Ilibagiza, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust”, pg. 129)
Immaculee Ilibagiza survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which nearly one million – or three-fourths – of all Tutsis in Rwanda were killed. Even infants did not escape the Hutu marauders once they were found. All of Immaculee’s family were killed except for one brother who happened to be out of the country studying at college. In this picture are Immaculee’s parents (both killed), Amiable (who survived because he was away), Damascene (killed), Immaculee, and Vianney (killed).
Immaculee was born in 1972. At age 23 she was studying electrical engineering at the University of Rwanda when the genocide began. She happened to be at home on Easter break when the killing started. It turned out that this was a blessing from God for her. All of the Tutsi students at the University were massacred a few weeks later.
There had been trouble between the Tutsis and the Hutus before. In 1959 The Hutus massacred 100,000 Tutsis. There was another persecution in 1973. Hatred was seething below the surface for many years.
Then suddenly, the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down. The president was a Hutu and was on his way back to the capital of Kigali. This assassination sparked another genocide. The government seized the radios and told all Hutus to murder every last Tutsi in Rwanda. The slaughter took place throughout the entire country, even in small villages like Immaculee’s.
When it became obvious that the uprising was not going to be small or temporary, Immaculee’s father told her to run to the home of the local pastor for shelter. Though the pastor was a Hutu, Immaculee’s father would not believe that the godly pastor would participate in the killing of innocent people.
This kindly Hutu pastor hid Immaculee and seven other women during the holocaust for 91 days. He had a small bathroom off of his bedroom that was not used much. The bathroom was 3 feet by 4 feet. They had to take turns sitting on the floor. The taller women held the younger girls on their laps. The pastor fed them scraps that were leftover from meals so that his family members would not get suspicious. While in hiding Immaculee lost over 40 pounds and when finally freed weighed only 65 pounds.
The women could not speak or make any noise in the tiny bathroom because it had thin walls. Hutu marauders came by the house often looking for them. They had seen Immaculee and several others go into the house but no one had seen them come out. The brave pastor kept them hidden in the tiny bathroom and tried to steer the killers away whenever the marauders came to his house. Though the pastor was a Hutu he could have been murdered as a traitor for hiding the women. Several members of his family knew the secret of the hidden women, but not all of them. Fear of reprisals was strong and the pastor would not endanger anyone else.
The walls were only 1” thick and often Immaculee could hear the Hutus calling her name as they searched for her. Immaculee turned to God for comfort and strength. Many times she was just sure that they would be found and hacked to death as many others Tutsis were. They could hear the sounds of Tutsis outside begging for mercy only to be brutally tortured and killed. Once the Hutus were infected with the blood lust they went about seeking all Tutsis to kill. Work throughout the whole country was postponed and came to a standstill it seemed until all of the “cockroaches” (Tutsis) were exterminated. It is extremely difficult for us to understand this. It is hard to understand man’s inhumanity to man. We remember the German holocaust against the Jews, Japanese persecution of Chinese and many other events in history. This was tribal warfare. Both were black; both were Rwandan. How could this hatred exist?
The killers never found Immaculee or the other women. Living through that horror the only thing that kept Immaculee going was her faith in God. She knew deep inside that her mother and father and two of her brothers were dead. But she knew that they were in Heaven and she would see them again. They had died brutally, but she would later find out that all had died nobly while protecting others.
While in the bathroom, Immaculee had a dream that she would be working for the United Nations
someday. She knew she would need to know English. She had nothing else to do and really no one else to talk to in her situation since utter silence was maintained at all times. She asked the pastor for a French/English dictionary and some books in English. (Immaculee spoke the Rwandan dialect and French. The Belgians had brought French to the educated in Rwanda. Immaculee explains more of this history in her book, which you will not be able to put down once you start reading it.)
What wonderful hope and faith Immaculee had. In just a few weeks Immaculee taught herself English. Though the devil would often tempt her to give up on God, she would always turn to God for strength. She never gave up but actually believed that God had a future for her. There was a purpose for all of this horror, she was sure.
And indeed after the genocide ended Immaculee did get a job at the United Nations. She eventually emigrated from Rwanda to the United States in 1998. She has married and has two children. Immaculee went on to receive five honorary doctoral degrees. She has written a number of books.
Immaculee’s goal has been to promote peace. In fact, Immaculee astonished many people when she returned to Rwanda to find the man who killed her father. He was expecting her to hate him. Instead, she offered him her forgiveness. Immaculee longs for the hatred and killing to end. If one side is able to forgive the other then peace has a chance. But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Truly Immaculee has followed Jesus.
For a live interview with Immaculee that will touch your heart go to: