Her family massacred during the genocide in Rwanda, Immaculee IIibagiza found forgiveness
By Kelle Barr | Special to the Kalamazoo Ga…
April 23, 2010, 8:59AM
KALAMAZOO — Immaculee IIibagiza spent 91 days hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women during the genocide in Rwanda — a massacre in the 1990s that left a million people of her Tutsi tribe dead.
After Rwanda’s president was killed, members of the Hutu tribe murdered entire families, including IIibagiza’s parents, grandparents and two brothers, she told an audience at the State Theatre on Thursday.
“They went from home to home, breaking down doors and hacking people to death,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave, but my father wanted to keep me safe.”
Then a 22-year-old college student, IIibagiza was sent her to a pastor’s home for protection. It wasn’t until she emerged from that bathroom three months later, weighing 65 pounds, that she learned her family had been killed.
“My family was very close and my parents were very good people,” she said Thursday. “My mother tucked me into bed until I was 20 years old. My brothers were very protective of me and we all loved each other. I couldn’t believe everyone was gone.”
With no relatives left, an emaciated IIibagiza headed for a refugee camp, where a doctor who examined her said she would never physically recover.
Not only did she recover physically, she grew stronger through her Catholic faith — which she explored and rededicated herself to during those 91 days locked up in a tiny space, reading her Bible, praying the rosary, and praying for survival. IIibagiza became an advocate of forgiveness who went on to write four books and speak all over the world about her experiences and forgiveness.
“Every day in that bathroom, I prayed,” she said, holding up a white rosary that her father gave her when she saw him for the last time. “Every bead is a prayer, and one of those beads is The Lord’s Prayer.”
Within the prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” were the words that began deep soul-searching for a young woman who wanted to pray those words honestly. Although at the time IIibagiza never could have imagined forgiving the people who killed her family, she eventually came to realize that praying for them was the only answer that made sense.
“If I didn’t forgive them, nothing would change,” she said. “But prayer does change things and that prayer taught me to really forgive.”
IIibagiza said her greatest joy is hearing that her tale helps other people in their struggles with forgiveness. “If I can forgive, anyone can forgive,” she said.
Rev. Beth Jones, of Valley Family Church, one of many religious leaders present Thursday, said IIibagiza sets a powerful example for anyone struggling with forgiveness.
“The pain she’s experienced is just incredible, and still, she’s such a sweet spirit,” Jones said. “I hope that people can take her strong message and use it. If she can forgive, who among us can’t?”