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Rwandan genocide survivor to speak at conference

October 23, 2009

By Mary Donovan
Immaculee Ilibagiza has an astonishing story to tell. In 1994, she and seven other women hid in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house for 91 days while the Rwandan genocide raged outside. Even more astonishing than how she survived is the story of faith and forgiveness that is a major part of her experience.
Immaculee entered the bathroom a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family – she emerged weighing just 65 pounds to find her entire family had been brutally murdered. The only other family survivor was a brother who was studying in another country. She began to pray the rosary as a way of drowning out the negativity that was building up inside her. She found solace and peace in the prayer and began to pray from the time she opened her eyes in the morning to the time she closed her eyes at night. Through prayer, she eventually found it possible, and in fact imperative, to forgive her tormentors and her family’s murderers.
Ms. Ilibagiza is one of the keynote speakers at Gather Us In, 2009, the fifth biennial women’s conference of the Diocese of Worcester. She is a celebrated speaker having addressed audiences in the United States and other parts of the world. She is an author with best-selling books to her credit. Her first book, Left to Tell: Finding God in the Rwanda Holocaust was on the New York Times best seller list.
She is also a woman who realizes that, as horrifying as her ordeal was, she is not the only person who has lived through painful circumstances. Her fame is as a survivor, but she doesn’t want to be the star survivor, she said. She wants to be just one of many people who suffered and struggled and found a way.
“When I speak in Rwanda about being in the bathroom so long, I know there are women who were raped over and over again and contracted AIDS,’’ she said. “I want to be just a survivor, not highlighted.’’
But she is a star. Ms. Ilibagiza has taken her experience and the transforming effect it had on her life and has articulated in books and words her extraordinary response. She has brought encouragement and hope to people who were mired in seemingly insurmountable problems. She has found a way to make something good come out of pain.
People thank her for helping them become better people, she said. They are consoled to know their pain is not worthless. The people who hear her bring solace to her, as well.
“The audience – just listening – it’s such a healing,’’ she said. “I spoke to 50,000 people in the Rose Bowl. It was not just me; it was everybody that went through something very hard.’’
She sees people cry in her audiences, she said, and it reaffirms the fact that we are all human beings,
“We all love one another. Love exists,’’ she said.’’
Ms. Ilibagiza’s surviving brother lives in Rwanda. He has not been able to achieve the level of forgiveness she has, his sister said. According to her, part of the reason may be that he feels guilty he was spared; another part is because he is not convinced forgiveness makes sense. He is healing slowly, she said, but he still says to her – I don’t see how you do it.
She and her brother are rebuilding their family home in the village where they lived. They want to make it a museum, she said. They want to tell others of the values of the people who lived there before the genocide,
She loves to go home, she said, but she can’t sleep when she is there. She fears she reminds people of the terrible things that happened and is a symbol of their guilt. So she is very cautious. When she is in the city or the provinces conditions are different, she said.
The government of Rwanda has put a reconciliation policy in place. An abstract from a column, Reporter at Large, by Philip Gourevitch in the May 4 issue of The New Yorker explains the concept. The article is titled, “Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Genocide.’’ It is about Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s efforts to rebuild Rwanda after the genocidal violence 15 years ago.
“In the course of a hundred days beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority were massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power. On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and most orderly countries in Africa. The great majority of prisoners accused or convicted of genocide have been released. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.’’
Is the reconciliation plan working? It is working, Ms. Ilibagiza said. It is not easy to have war criminals out of prison and living in the neighborhoods. It is not 100 percent. However, she said, the effort at reconciliation in Rwanda is a concept that is applicable to other troubled parts of the world.
“Much of it can be applied,’’ she said. “We need to give a chance to somebody to ask for forgiveness.’’
Immaculee Ilibagiza said her faith remains as strong as it was when she was hiding in that bathroom. She is unable these days to spend all day praying, though she would like to, she said,
“I want to make sure before I wake up I pray and before I go to bed. I would like to spend the day praying but the things of life get in the way,’’ she said.
Among the things of life, she said, are family, work, writing books and telling her story.
Immaculee Ilibagiza is one of two keynote speakers at “Gather Us In, 2009,’’ Nov. 7 at the DCU Center. The theme of the conference is “The Triumph of Forgiveness, Sharing Stories of Compassion.’’
Keynote speakers are Ms. Ilibagiza and Paula D’Arcy, workshops will be presented by Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, Linda Gray Kelley, Sister Ellen Dabrieo and Virginia Blass The conference is a day-long event, beginning at 9:15 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m. followed by Mass.
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