Many things about this book are hard: the violence, the history, even pronouncing the author’s name. But readers of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza will receive a gift. This gift is seeing the human heart survive and even thrive through unspeakable evil.
Post Format: Straight Talk
“I was born in paradise,” writes Immaculee. Her homeland of Rwanda with its mountains, green valleys and sparkling lakes is “set like a jewel in central Africa.” But in 1994, it was the scene of one of the worst genocides in human history. The genocidal war lasted a mere three months. Before it was over, more than 800,000 Rwandans lay dead, slaughtered by their own countrymen.
Though the war was swift, the history behind it was long. Rwanda has two main ethic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. These groups were at odds in years past with some Tutsis even exiled. But increased tolerance and intermarriages blurred ethnic lines by the 1990s. This relative peace was shattered, however, when the Hutu president was killed in a plane crash on April 6, 1994. The exiled Tutsis, now seeing a chance to reestablish themselves in the government, returned. The Hutus wanted these exiles killed as well as all their Tutsi countrymen to prevent any threat to their power. They even handed out machetes by the thousands and encouraged average citizens to kill every Tutsi they came across.
The Hutus killed Immaculee’s beloved parents and brothers in the massacre. Immaculee, who had been sent to seek help from a Methodist minister, narrowly survived by hiding for months in a tiny bathroom with seven other Tutsi women.
The women, packed so tightly they could barely move, endured hunger, filth, and fear. For Immaculee, there was also rage for the rampaging Hutus she could hear just outside the window. How could they turn on their Tutsi neighbors and commit such atrocities? She clung to her Catholic upbringing during the ordeal praying the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” unceasingly. But she knew true Christianity can’t exist in a heart filled with hate for others. How could she pray the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and not live them?
On July 16, 1994 the exiled Tutsis, along with French forces, wrested final control from the Hutus. Before the war, Immaculee was a young, pretty college student with loving parents, devoted brothers, and faithful friends. After the war, she weighed a mere 65 pounds and had lost everyone. Her heart was broken but not empty. For in that bathroom, where even a breath could give the women away, her silent, unceasing prayers revealed to her God’s love and protection. She knew she’d never be truly alone.
Shortly after the war, officials rounded up the very man who murdered her family. They asked Immaculee if she’d like to see him. She agreed. When she forgave the man instead of lashing out, one incredulous official asked how she could do it.
“Forgiveness is all I have to offer,” she said.
BONUS: Today, Immaculee Ilibagiza is an author and public speaker. She lives in the United States but still visits Rwanda. She was awarded the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace in 2007. Her inner and outer beauty is evidenced in this CBS interview.