Surviving Genocide Through God’s Grace

This article was posted on: April 17, 2024

Through the generous compassion and power of God’s grace that Immaculée Ilibagaza experienced, she rose from the ashes of violence and widespread death and is still able to receive and give His love and forgiveness while fulfilling her purpose in life.

Immaculée Ilibagaza to Speak at “the ANSWER” Rally on June 7

We all have an amazing opportunity to hear the incredible story of Immaculée Ilibagaza, a woman who faced terror, hatred and immense loss during the 1994 genocide in her native Rwanda. Through the generous compassion and power of God’s grace that Immaculée experienced, she rose from the ashes of violence and widespread death and is still able to receive and give His love and forgiveness while fulfilling her purpose in life. Immaculée is an internationally known speaker who will speak at “the ANSWER” Eucharistic Rally on June 7 at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse. 

Immaculée was born and raised in Rwanda, a beautiful African country with endless rolling hills and lush green valleys. Her childhood was nearly ideal, growing up under the protection of warm and generous parents and three older brothers. It was later, in school, that she began to realize the prejudices, ethnic tensions and “hate-mongering politics” that were brewing in Rwanda. This was evident as all students were made to stand up regularly and identify themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, two Rwandan ethnic groups.

Hutus accounted for about 85 percent of the country’s population, while Tutsis comprised roughly 14 percent. Through generations of intermarriage, they had become culturally indistinguishable. “Politically, however, the two tribes had been kept apart with ruthless efficiency,” Immaculée wrote in her book “Led by Faith.”

Violence erupted in Rwanda when Immaculée was in her early 20s and home from college to spend Easter break with her devout Catholic family. Rwanda’s Hutu president was assassinated on April 6, 1994, three days after Easter, when a missile downed his plane. Various factions had motives to do this, but the Hutus blamed the Tutsis, and they unleashed a three-month rampage of torture and murder, with the vicious slaughter of close to a million ethnic Tutsis. Immaculée survived this bloody genocide by hiding for 91 days, along with seven other starving women, in a Hutu pastor’s bathroom that measured four feet by three feet.  

This Hutu pastor risked his life to hide the Tutsi women in the tiny bathroom. The eight women were stuffed in so tightly they could barely breathe, and the pastor had strictly forbidden them to talk so as not to be found by the murderers. So they barely spoke over those terrifying days. “Yet we had no trouble,” Immaculée wrote in her book, “hearing the crazed monsters outside… chanting while they hunted Tutsis: ‘Kill them all! Kill the old and kill the small! Kill every last cockroach!’” She continued, “For the next 91 days, those seven ladies and I huddled atop each other in that cramped little space while the killers rampaged outside … hearing international news programs, we learned that the world had turned its back on Rwanda … the extremist Hutu government interpreted this silence as a green light to commit genocide.”

I first heard about Immaculée’s remarkable story from my sister, who watched a video about Immaculée 14 times because she found the message of healing, forgiveness, trust in God and surrender to Him so uplifting and essential for a person’s spiritual life. Later, I heard Immaculée speak at a live venue during a large international conference about Divine Mercy. She spoke of what she endured, how Jesus was real to her during prayer and how He answered her many requests during and after this dreadful nightmare.  

Immaculée relates in her book, “I believed that God has spared me during the genocide for a reason: to talk to as many people as I could about how He had touched my heart amidst the holocaust and taught me to forgive. I was to bear witness to how this one act can save a soul crippled by hatred and sickened by the desire for revenge. I hoped that those who listened to my story would see that my shattered heart had been mended through forgiveness and ask themselves, ‘If her heart can recover, why not mine?’ Why couldn’t forgiveness heal a million broken hearts and revive a broken nation? The answer is that it can heal all hearts and nations. That was the story that needed to be told; that was my story.”

A Call to Trust

When the attacks by the Hutus first began, Immaculée’s father ordered her to go to the pastor’s house. As she reluctantly said goodbye, Immaculée recalls that her father “pressed his rosary into my hands and told me that my faith in God would protect me.” Immaculée began to pray with this rosary and, soon after, was praying it continually. She also requested a Bible, which the pastor provided.

It became apparent to the pastor that even though the killers regularly searched for the women, they were never able to find Immaculée and the others. Attributing this to prayer, the pastor strongly encouraged them to continue. 

During one of the searches, Immaculée heard the killers call her name. She writes in her book “Left to Tell,” “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.… 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 … clothes soaked in sweat, I fumbled with my faith.…”

The killers were on the other side of the thin wall, and Immaculée could hear their machetes and spears scraping along the walls. She prayed, “Dear God, forgive me for my lapse of faith … I trust in You, God … I know that You will save us. You are stronger than the evil in this house.” 

Then, she saw Jesus in a pool of golden light. All her aches and pains from crouching for weeks disappeared along with the hunger, thirst and fear.

Immaculée smiled, and Jesus said, “Trust in Me and know that I will never leave you. Trust in Me, and have no more fear… I will save you. I shall put My cross upon this door, and they will not reach you. Trust in Me, and you shall live.…” Immaculée shared, “a divine force emanated from the cross, which would repel the killers [because the Cross is the supreme victory over evil].  I knew that we were protected and safe, so I … thanked God for touching me with His love again.”

The Meaning of Surrender

Immaculée was asked in an interview how she survived this grueling experience for 91 days because the situation posed one life-threatening crisis after another. She explained that a vital lesson she learned during the genocide was the meaning of the word “surrender.” Through this terrible suffering, God came in and worked miracles, so she slowly began to rely on Him instead of herself.

Jesus taught her that surrendering to Him is not giving up or giving in to the worst but putting oneself completely in His care. It is not surrendering the difficulty, but surrendering herself in each difficulty. It is to say, “Jesus, I can’t do this; You’ll have to…You take care of me; You take care of everything.” Jesus responded by giving Immaculée the power of His grace to surrender herself to Him in each difficulty she faced. Immaculée survived the Rwandan genocide, as well as the rebuilding of her life, by continuing to surrender to Jesus in this way. 

To hear Immaculée’s amazing story in person and the valuable life lessons that she learned and continues to learn, register for “the ANSWER” Eucharistic Rally and join us on Friday, June 7. For more information and to register, visit diolc.org/the-answer.

Story by Ann Lankford, Director of the Office for Catechesis and Evangelization
Published in the March/April 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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