Immaculée Ilibagiza grew up in a small village in Rwanda, Africa, and enjoyed a peaceful childhood until 1994, when the assassination of the nation's Hutu president sparked months of massacres of Tutsi tribe members.
To protect his only daughter, her father told her to run to a local pastor’s house for protection, where she and seven other women hid in 3-by-4-foot bathroom for 91 days, as genocide raged outside.
While in hiding, her anger peaked, but then she turned to prayer. Her father, a devout Catholic, gave her rosary beads that she used to focus on God and not on hate. She also taught herself English.
When it was over, she weighed 65 pounds and learned her entire family, except for one brother who was studying abroad, had been among the almost 1 million killed. She also met the man who killed her family, and after enduring months of suffering, she told him, "I forgive you."
In 1998, she emigrated to the United States and worked for peace through the United Nations. In 2006, her first book was published, "Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust." It has sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 17 languages. She since has written six additional books, and her story is being made into a movie. Ilibagiza will visit Charleston on Feb. 2 to speak at Bishop England High School.
She recently talked by telephone about her story and upcoming visit.
Q: Tell me about your life today. How do you keep busy?
A: I'm writing a book right now. It's about the seven-sorrows rosary. It's a prayer that Mary, the mother of Jesus, gave. ... It's a meditational prayer about suffering. It's very healing. ... I want to talk about people's sufferings and how to deal with it.
Some people see what I have lived and say, "That was so much, and my suffering doesn't mean anything." I'm like, no no, it does mean something and every suffering has to be cared for.
Q: A German philosopher once wrote, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Do you believe that's true?
A: I really do — if you deal with it well. Or it destroys you, if you give it a chance. But if you really look at in the face. Most of the time, I think in the suffering I had, I think the worst thing that was trying to understand the injustice that was being done to me. The question of "Why me?" can kill you.
Thinking too much of tomorrow — Oh, my God, my life is over; what am I going to do without my parents? Those are the things I dealt with and they were heavier than dealing with what's going on now, how can I protect myself now? ... I think everybody has that strength within, but as humans, we tend to lose faith, lose hope.
Q: Tell me about meeting the man who killed the members of your family? How difficult was it?
A: Actually, it wasn't difficult. What was difficult was the work from within, from the inside, to forgive. ... All the forgiveness happened when I was in the bathroom. I had time. I thought if I don't become a soldier, not to protect the country but to avenge my tribe, I'll be such a loser. There was heroism in me.
Then I said no more, and through prayer, I was thinking, "God help me, help me," but I was just getting this ugliness of anger. It was hurtful. I could feel my anger, and my body was aching. I had a headache thinking about all these people. That process happened for weeks.
I said to God, "Help me out. If you say pray this way, you must know it's possible. Help me to forgive. I'm willing." ... Then the day came, and I realized in the moment I was competing with evil. ... I realized the plans I had, to drop bombs on the country, would not just kill those who were against me, it would kill their children. It would kill maybe people who were not even born yet. ... All these things came to light. It was the moment that changed everything.
Q: How did others react?
A: My friends were like, "You just went through genocide, why are you laughing? Why are you smiling? Why are you at peace? What happened to you? You just lost everything. ... you can't forgive this quickly." I was like, I really did go through this moment. These people told me, "You are losing your mind. You ought to go meet the guy who killed your family, and I promise you when you see him you will feel different. You will want to kill him." And that scared me somehow.
I said, "Really, could this be the way of surviving? That I kept this peaceful mode but later I will go crazy again?" I said, "I don't want to go back a year later and go crying and angry." I went through the prison, and the head of the prison who brought him was my father's friend and said, "Do anything you want with him, and I will protect you. Hit him if you want."
I saw the man. He came from the corridor of the prison to the office of the head of the prison. I remember him still today. One of his pant legs was torn up. He was limping. He had lost weight. His hair was upside down. He hadn't shaved in six months, a man who used to have a good job. ... I just broke down and cried.
He could not have known what he was doing himself. Is that what you want to be like? You want to do what can do this to you? He doesn't know what he was doing. You never want to be evil no matter how much it seems to be winning. So it wasn't hard to forgive because I was just crying really hard and I told him I forgave him.
Something in my heart was pushing me just for him. I wanted to give him a chance, I wanted to say, "Don't worry about me. Just go through your own journey. Find peace. Find forgiveness. Find regret in your heart where you can say, 'How could I do that?'" Many people are still in prison and still angry and still evil. If they go outside, they still would do what they did, but I so much wanted him to find that peace within that I found when I was about to forgive. Maybe he could find it in accepting what he had done.
When I told him I forgave him, he covered his face. He looked down and he covered his face. He had a big group of people looking for us, especially. They went to my house. They destroyed it and took everything that was there. He started to say, "I’m sorry, and the things I took I took them for you."
The head of the jail was so mad. He was mad at me, "How dare you forgive him?" He had decided, as I did in the bathroom, to avenge his family and just beat the prisoners every day. That's what he thought would heal him, but whenever he went home, he came back with the same anger. He would have peace for an hour or two in the evening, but in the morning the anger was back. He just never got enough, but he said, "That day you came, that's when I found peace, too."
Q: What message do you plan to bring to Charleston?
A: I know I'm speaking to a group, but something in me wants to speak to individuals. And one thing I wish to relay to people is everybody goes through something in their own life. I just want to tell people there is hope.
My hope is that people can see the power of prayer, that God is great, that this life is short for everybody. Everybody dies in the end. And I hope through my story they can unload their own unforgiveness in their family, among husband and a wife, children and parents, community people, friends who hurt each other.