Ilibagiza, Immaculée 1972(?)–

views updated

Immaculée Ilibagiza 1972(?)–


Immaculée Ilibagiza chronicled several horrific months of her life in the 2006 memoir Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Her book recounted the three months she spent hiding in a neighbor's tiny bathroom, along with several other women, during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While there, she learned some details of the grisly slayings of her parents and two brothers, who along with lifelong neighbors of Ilibagiza's were among the estimated one million Rwandans who perished. Despite her experiences, the first-time author hoped a message of forgiveness would inspire readers of her book, which became a New York Times bestseller. “Even for those countries who did not try to protect us, it gives them a chance to feel sorry, to regret,” she explained in an interview with Bookseller's Benedicte Page. “I don't want to blame anyone—it is the past, anyway—but it is a way of learning lessons from what has happened.”

Ilibagiza was born in the early 1970s into a family of Tutsi ethnicity. The Tutsi were one of the two main tribal groups in the Central African nation of Rwanda, and though their actual ethnic history is disputed, the Tutsi were tall, lean warriors and cattle-herders, and considered themselves superior to the shorter, stockier Hutu, who were farmers. This division was exacerbated during the period of Belgian control, when colonial authorities favored the Tutsi with positions of power. Conflicts between the two groups had periodically escalated into bloodshed over many generations and flared up again after independence in 1962, although by then Hutus enjoyed positions of political authority.

Returned Home for Easter

At the village level, many Hutu and Tutsi lived peacefully together as neighbors, as was the case in Ilibagiza's birthplace, Mataba, situated in an area of western Rwanda known as Kibuye. Thanks to its Belgian colonial past, many Rwandans were devout Roman Catholics, as the Ilibagizas were. Both of her parents were teachers, and she was the only daughter among their four children. As a young woman, she won a scholarship to the National University of Rwanda, located in Butare, and was an engineering student there in the spring of 1994. She had planned to stay on campus over the Easter holiday to study, but her father urged her to return home during the break to spend time with the family.

Ethnic tensions had flared once again that April, with broadcasts over the government-controlled radio stations warning Hutus that the Tutsi were planning to seize power and enslave Hutus—but like most educated Rwandans, Ilibagiza considered such polemic ridiculous and barely gave it any thought. Three days after Easter, however, Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, died in a mysterious plane crash. Habyarimana was a Hutu, but he was moderate in his political outlook and had sought to end the long-running strife between the two ethnic groups. Extremist Hutus had been outraged by his peace efforts and seized the opportunity to blame the crash on Tutsi-fired missiles and urged Hutus to retaliate. Hutu soldiers and machete-wielding civilians alike began hunting down their Tutsi neighbors, and Hutus who did not support the massacre were targeted as well by the roving civilian gangs, who were called Interhamwe, or “those who stand together”.

Ilibagiza's father learned that Tutsi women were being sexually assaulted before they were killed and asked a neighbor to hide her. The neighbor was an Episcopal priest named Simeon Nzabahimana—and a Hutu—and he agreed to take her in. For the next three months, Ilibagiza shared a bathroom with as many as seven other women, the door to which was concealed by a wardrobe unit. “It was a room measuring three feet by four feet,” she told Jerome Taylor of the Independent. “It didn't even have a sink, just a toilet sunk into the ground. There was a door on to the next room and at night we could sometimes go there to lie down. But only at night.” For safety reasons, the eight women did not speak but communicated with one another using rudimentary sign language. They could only flush the toilet when the neighboring house did so, to avoid detection, and after one week their clothes and hair were infested with lice.

Overheard Tale of Brother's Murder

Interhamwe gangs searched the reverend's house, and Ilibagiza even heard her name read off a list of missing Tutsis. In a more horrific moment, she also overheard one young man she had known for years recounting his killing of her brother Damascene. Her parents also died tragic, senseless deaths, as did another brother, Vianney; her third brother was away at school in Senegal and fortunately escaped the massacre. Ilibagiza recalled that she was so frightened for much of her hiding period—a time in which the women had very little to eat—that she actually experienced religious visions. “I was totally immersed in God,” she told Laurie Nadel in a New York Times interview. “I saw Jesus, I saw him on the cross. I grab his legs in my imagination.” She also prayed the rosary, using the set of beads her father had given her when he left her with Nzabahimana, and began to teach herself English from an English-French dictionary the reverend loaned her.

Ilibagiza and the other women emerged from the bathroom after ninety-one days and began to make their way to a military camp administered by French troops, who had finally arrived to help. Once her health was restored, she embarked on a search for the Interhamwe member whom she knew was responsible for the deaths of her mother and brothers. She found him in pitiable condition in a village jail and told him that she was there to forgive him. “He couldn't look at me, he looked down and was so ashamed,” she recalled in the Independent interview with Taylor. “Something changed in his heart. I hope it's made him realise the gravity of what he's done. Like me he had a beautiful family and home but one day he decided to go out and kill.”

During her three-month ordeal, Ilibagiza had decided that if she survived she would seek out a job with the United Nations (UN) as a way to work toward ending such bloodshed forever. When she met her future husband, Bryan Black, a UN official who had come to Rwanda to establish a war-crimes tribunal, she considered it a sign from above. She and Black married and moved to the United States in 1998, settling first in the New York City borough of Queens. She worked as a program assistant with the UN Development Program but openly criticized the UN's failure to help Rwandans when the massacre began.

"The Poison Was Gone"

Ilibagiza and Black eventually moved to Long Island and had two children, and she began writing her memoir. Left to Tell was published by Hay House in 2006 to critical acclaim. A contributor to Publishers Weekly conceded its chronicle of the genocide was “soul-numbingly devastating, yet the story of her unquenchable faith and connection to God throughout the ordeal uplifts and inspires.” Her book brought her into contact with filmmaker Steven Kalafer, who made a documentary about her titled Diary of Immaculée in 2006. Her story was also adapted for the one-woman play Miracle in Rwanda, which premiered at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007. Even the president of Hay House was so moved by her tale that he established a foundation to educate Rwanda's orphans, the Left to Tell Charitable Fund.

At a Glance …

Born c. 1972 in Rwanda; married Bryan Black, 1998; immigrated to the United States, 1998; children: Nikeisha, Bryan Jr. Education: Studied electronic and mechanical engineering at the National University of Rwanda.

Career: Worked at the United Nations, New York, NY, as part of the United Nations Development Program.

Addresses: Office—Author Mail, Hay House Inc., P.O. Box 5100, Carlsbad, CA 92018-5100.

Ilibagiza's brother who had been out of the country is the only surviving member of her immediate family. He returned to Rwanda and established a veterinary practice. Ilibagiza hoped her book would inspire others, reminding them that compassion and forgiveness were possible even after the most horrific injustices. Yet even before its publication her own personal example had seemed to move others—she was surprised one day to receive a letter from the village jailer who had allowed her to meet with the killer of her brother. At the time, he found her act of forgiveness incomprehensible, but he wrote to say that it had inspired him to forgive, too. “He openly despised them,” Ilibagiza recounted in an interview with Trish Beaver for the Star, a South African newspaper. “He would mistreat them and hit them, and inside him he would feel his hatred like a poisonous snake. When he was able to change his attitude, the poison was gone.”

Selected writings

(With Steve Erwin) Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, Hay House, 2006.



Bookseller, March 3, 2006, p. 22.

Christianity Today, October 2006, p. 141.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), April 7, 2006.

Independent (London), August 11, 2007.

Newsday (Melville, NY), April 16, 2006.

New York Times, April 16, 2006.

Publishers Weekly, January 16, 2006, p. 60.

Star (South Africa), September 3, 2007.

—Carol Brennan