Rwandan holocaust survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza to speak in New Ulm

Twenty years ago, the African nation of Rwanda suffered through one of the worst spates of genocide since World War II.

On April 6, 1994, after the plane carrying the Rwandan president, a member of the Hutu population, was shot down by a rebel group. Tribal differences and fermenting hatred boiled over. The majority Hutu population, who had been encouraged to blame the minority Tutsis for the country’s social and economic problems, and urged on by Hutu extremists in the government, went on a killing rampage. By July, when French troops finally stepped in to restore order, some 800,000 Tutsis has been slaughtered by mobs armed with clubs and machetes.

In the midst of this madness, a group of eight women, seven adults and one seven-year-old, survived when a pastor, a Hutu, hid them in a 3×4 foot bathroom in his house. For 91 days they survived, not daring to speak as the killing mobs hunted for them outside, even searching the house.

Immacule Ilibagiza was one of the seven, a university student whose father sent her to hide at the pastor’s house as the killing started. She has become an internationally noted author and speaker, telling her story of survival, of the spiritual awakening and prayer that saw her through the ordeal, and led her to forgiveness and peace.

Immacule is coming to New Ulm on June 20 to speak at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. She will speak at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Tickets are $20, and are available at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm, and at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Sleepy Eye.

The event, sponsored by the Province of St. Paul/Minneapolis Council of Catholic Women, is open to people of all faiths, men, women and children.

This past week Immacule participated in a phone interview with The Journal. Her comments are excerpted below.

It is 20 years since the Rwandan Genocide. Has the time give you more perspective, more understanding of what happened and what caused it?

Immacule: (It was) Hatred It almost seems too simple to find a reason, but truly it was lack of love, of selfishness, and people thinking about “me” more than everybody. When we have bad intentions, that are selfish, intentions of not including everybody else in kindness and love, really, we create genocide without knowing it. The roots are in selfishness, in not caring about others’ feelings, just caring about yourself. Because what comes out of that can be a horrible thing.

Do you feel that we have learned how to prevent this kind of event from happening again? Are we doing enough now to stop it in other places?

Immacule: No, not at all. I don’t think we have, but I do have hope. When I see a human being, we have so much capacity (for change) However, the blindness that is out there in the world, the lack of love, the lack of feeling, that is still there. We have to have a unified voice of really spreading love, and encouraging people for good. Songs! When you have a song of someone hurting another person, that always shows you what is the minds of people, that those kinds of minds are still there. I think we are definitely getting somewhere, but we haven’t done it yet.

When the genocide happened, you had felt the tension and the hatred building in Rwanda. In your book (“Left to Tell”) you mention passing through checkpoints of armed Hutus, and listening to hateful, anti-Tutsi broadcasts on the radio. Did you think that this would boil over into the violence that erupted?

Immacule: It felt like that, even if it didn’t make sense… When you hear things on the radio, in a country where the culture is to love one another, where the culture is people helping one another – you can’t have an accident on the road without people rushing to help you, to take you to the doctor – and with our faith on top of that. Ninety-nine percent of the country is Christian. In a culture like that, we heard things on the radio, it sounded like the announcers were drunk. They would say, “Give me whiskey,” then they would laugh. Then they would say, “One day we will kill all of them (Tutsis).” Why did nobody do anything to stop that? That’s when I began to suspect there was something behind it, someone who is trying to spread hatred.

You and seven other women hid for three months in a small bathroom in the pastor’s house, in constant danger, in constant fear and physical discomfort. How did all of you endure this without going crazy at some point?

Immacule: It was by the grace of God, I tell you. And another thing is that, we were (ital) surviving(unital)… Anything we did, it was the difference between death and life. So, you realize you have more capacity to endure when you are surviving.

You had no alternative.

Immacule: Exactly. We were there, sitting on top of each other, we couldn’t speak. We ate from one plate, all of us, mostly at night. In normal conditions, I wouldn’t do it. Five minutes is too long. But when outside they are killing people, not just killing but cutting into pieces… It was by the grace of God. We were thankful we had nothing to fight about. Everyone (in the bathroom) was crazy, but in their hearts, inside, but on the outside they were not. On the outside we were very calm. Even the seven-year-old never cried, never said a word.

There were so many things that could have gone wrong, that would have resulted in your death. Was it luck or Providence that protected you?

Immacule: It was Providence. Anytime I see my life today, everything that is happening here, there has to be a reason why. Today, when I talk about forgiveness, and about what I went through, it has become my life. Literally. Yesterday I came from South America, from Argentina and Chile and Uruguay, and I am speaking to 20,000 people at time, in every city there were people telling me (the effect her story had on them), saying, “Oh my God, now I am talking to my wife again, we are completely back together” Like Jesus told us, we will know the tree by its fruit. He really meant it. I had asked myself why, why, why? … I remember when I was in the bathroom, I had this song in my chest, this song bursting out of my chest, you know, when a song gets stuck in your mind? And the song said, “I praise you God, I will thank You forever, I will tell everybody, I will walk all over the nation, telling them what you have done for me.” And I remember thinking, “This is the wrong time for this. They are going to kill you.” This is the first day. And I was trying to forget about it, and the song kept coming. Now I wish I had listened to it, maybe it would have given me hope.

After all your suffering and the loss of your family, you were able to forgive the man who had been responsible for their murders, who had hunted you. Where did you find the strength, the grace?

Immacule: It was through prayer. I prayed a lot during the time I was hiding. And prayer has the power for positive changes. You can ask, “I don’t know how I can forgive.” But God is love. You don’t necessarily have to know the name of God, but you can have the goodness inside, you have to choose love, you have to choose peace. You have to choose harmony. So it was possible through prayer. I had reason to be angry, but the prayer was like something that was pushing me away from the direction of hell… The prayer “Our Father” means we are part of everybody. So when I am thinking in my own mind, is the killer is going to get me, “I hope someone kills him before they kill us,” the prayer is telling me, “No, no, no, he is still a child of God,” the prayer is pushing out of the way of the bad, to accept them as people. And then the words of the Our Father, “to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I fought against this, I said, “Lord don’t ask me to do this part. I can’t forgive them.”… But slowly I began to pray, “Help me, help me to accept your will.” And it took me to the words of Jesus on the Cross, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing,” and it took away all my anger.

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