Immaculee Ilibagiza - A Story of Forgiveness

Ilabagiza_1Photo credit: Geoff Oliver Bugbee /

In a short film shown before she speaks, it is clear that what happened was an organized and planned slaughter.

Imaculee Ilibagiza arrives to a standing ovation, and opens by expressing astonishment that she would be asked to share her story at a festival of ideas.

She begins by saying that she has arrived after much heartache, to "a state of forgiveness."

So what happened, this genocide, she asks. In a country that is very small, many people live. Whoever decided to divide the country left it with two tribes, Tutsi and Hutu. Leaders in the country pitted the two tribes against each other.

She says that she didn't realize she was Tutsi until she was an older child when asked to identify herself, she stood with members of both tribes in her school.

In one moment, she remembers things would change. Her older brother came to her with the news that the president, a Hutu, had died in a plane crash. Rumors spread. The radio said told people to stay home.

Killing started that day.

People started coming to her home by the hundreds and after a short while, her father asked her to go hide. She says she left home "out of obedience." One glance back told her that this would be the last time she should would see them.

She stops to plead with the audience to not to generalize regarding people.

The man who sheltered them in a bathroom did not even tell his own children they had unanticipated visitors. He brought them food from the garbage to eat. The entire time, she had to be quiet. After three days she had become very angry, and tried to talk herself into the ways she might kill the people hunting her.

Unbelievably, even many well educated people were on the radio urging the mobs not to forget to kill the children. An order was given to soon given to search homes for hiding Tutsi's. Home invaders were dressed wildly. Immaculee says she was reminded of Anne Frank during this time. The fear that gripped her resulted in thoughts about whether she should simply give herself up. '

She began, she says, to pray to God that he might spare her one day, "then we can talk." That day, home invaders entered the home and searched for hours for any evidence of Tutsi's.

One person literally had his hand on the door before releasing the knob.

The experience turned her toward her faith in God - and in a copy of the Bible she had in the bathroom, she found lessons in forgiveness everywhere she looked. Holding up a Rosary, she explains how it tells a story. It, too, stresses forgiveness. For a time, she laughs, she left out that part about forgiving others, but after a time slowly started to add that part back in, "asking what can this mean?"

She begged God to help her to forgive and concluded that her anger was interfering with her ability to reason.

That moment changed her profoundly. Forgiving, she emphasizes, does not accept what is wrong. "Apologies belong to them, forgiving belongs to you."

She determined that once she emerged from that bathroom, a prison of three months, she would be a different person. She weighed just sixty-five pounds when she finally came out.

She emerged to find that everyone she had loved had been killed. One million people - "there were bodies everywhere outside." Dogs were eating their flesh. She says that was determined to "not to crash" and leaned again on her faith. Nothing could change what had happened, but she could do something.

Sometime soon after leaving her hiding place, she also later faced one killer, who tried to stare her down and recounted how she began on the spot to pray for him. He face very slowly softened - very slowly she says - and he eventually walked away still holding his machete.

But there was the matter of finding work, which she describes as a lengthy project that concluded in a wrongful hiring. The person who hired here mistook her for someone who had died.

Turning to her book - a second one is just out - she says that it did not take long to write about the lessons she learned and recounts the story of meeting many, many people who have helped her tell her story. Her first book was New York Times best seller in only two weeks.

She concludes by saying that no matter what happens, you can find joy in your heart. "It is there."