Updated: Sep 24, 2022
I am a firm believer that everyone needs someone to look up to, whether as a child or as a college student just stepping out into the world. My parents were very intentional in their attempt to make sure that we had good role models, so they would read biographies about men and women who displayed incredible strength of character and faith like Corrie Ten Boom, Andrew van der Bijl, and others. However, the story that had the greatest impact on me was of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan whose story centers around forgiveness of the most unimaginable evil and God’s infinite grace throughout her life.
Born in 1972, Immaculée is a native Rwandan raised in the Roman Catholic faith. She had a wonderful family that brought such incredible joy and stability to her life. Her family home rested above the glittering Lake Kivu on the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She describes her childhood as filled with happiness and light.
And yet, in the background, there was darkness lurking. Rwanda was deeply divided by ethnic discrimination. The Hutu tribe, angry because their mistreatment by the French during colonial rule, seized power in 1959. They massacred thousands of Tutsis and sent more into exile, instituting a program called “the ethnic balance.” This program ensured that very few non-Hutus would ever achieve success professionally, financially, socially.
On April 6, 1994, everything in Immaculee’s idyllic life changed. Tutsi refugees and their children from the 1959 Revolution made plans to take back the government. They formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the RPF, and began making guerrilla attacks in the north. The plane of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot out of the sky, and the blame was pinned on the RPF (There was some doubt as to whether the RPF were actually behind it, and the answer has never been clearly defined).
Thus began one of the most brutal genocides in the history of the world, and Immaculee was right at the center of it. The Hutu government, blaming the RPF, began systematically murdering Tutsis, regardless of their involvement in the assassination. The entire government shut down for around 100 days, and all Hutus were ordered to grab a machete and murder their Tutsi friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues.
Immaculée was home at the time, about to celebrate Easter with her family, when the news of the killings reached their small village of Mataba. To keep her from being murdered, raped, or both, her father sent her to a moderate Hutu, Pastor Murinzi, to be hidden. (A moderate Hutu was a person of the Hutu tribe that disapproved of the violence and would not participate in the killings, sometimes at the cost of their own lives.)
When she arrived at Pastor Murinzi’s house, he took her and 7 other women in, hiding them in a 4 ft by 3 ft bathroom in his bedroom for 91 days. Nobody knew he was hiding them, not even the Pastor’s own family. They could not move, they could not speak, or else they would be discovered. Outside the bathroom, she heard the screams of Tutsis and moderate Hutus being murdered, and the killers tearing apart the Pastor’s house, searching for “Tutsi cockroaches.”
In the midst of her struggle to trust in God, He came to her and wrapped her in his love and protection. Having nothing else to do, she spent her days praying in the darkness, pleading with God for the safety of the women in the bathroom, for her family, and for all Tutsis being hunted.
In this camp, she learned that almost her entire family had been murdered. Aimable, her oldest brother, by the Lord’s grace, was studying in Senegal at the time, and did not know of the genocide. In total, 800,000 people were murdered over the course of three months.
It would be completely understandable if at this point, she gave up her faith and fell into bitterness and hatred towards Hutus. And yet, she clung to God in her sorrow and pain, and He did not leave her alone.
After the RPF defeated the Rwandan government, Immaculee had to put her complete faith in God to rise from the ashes of the Genocide. God did not abandon her, and she eventually found a job at the United Nations, and a home with a wonderful friend from the university. However, the healing process was not complete.
One day, she heard that the man who had murdered her mother and her brothers was in prison. Feeling God’s call to visit him, in the midst of her pain, her anger, her despair over being left alone in this world, she did the unimaginable. She told him, “I forgive you.”
The man, wracked with regret over the lives he had taken during the genocide, crumpled in relief as he was dragged back to his overflowing cell by the guards.
Enraged, the prison warden turned to her and asked “How could you forgive the man who murdered your family?” She responded simply, “It was all I had left to give.”
In her book Led by Faith, she explains her reasoning. “Standing in that prison, I knew that Felicien (the man who murdered her mother and Damascene) and I, both killer and survivor, were on the same path. We both needed the healing power of God’s forgiveness to move forward if our country was to survive and rise from the bitterness, blood, and suffering of the holocaust.”
To be able to empathize with the man who had murdered her family in cold-blood, to trust in God in so many situations, demonstrates how faith in God can strengthen us to face even the highest of mountains.
To learn more about Immaculée’s story, visit her website at www.immaculee.com. There are countless more stories included in her books about God’s almighty love and grace. I hope her story impacts you as much as it did me.