Her slender body trembling with fear, Immaculée silently prayed not to be found by the angry mob.
“God, if you are there, please do not let them open the door,” she prayed.
The 22-year-old Immaculée Ilibagiza, an engineering student, was hiding during the Rwandan Holocaust. In 1994, nearly a million men, women and children were slaughtered when the Hutu turned against the Tutsi, their fellow countrymen. Most were hacked to death with machetes, leaving a trail of despair and carnage that still reverberates across the African continent three decades later.
The angry mob was outside a bathroom door searching for her. “Where is she?” they yelled. Five inches and a wooden door were all that separated them, but the door did not open, and the men went away.
She had taken refuge with seven other young women, hidden in that three-by-four-foot bathroom by a kindly local pastor. She stayed there for 91 days and emerged weighing only 65 pounds to discover that her parents and siblings had been killed.
Only one brother, studying abroad, survived.
They were aware of what was happening because the pastor would turn on the radio and they could hear the local broadcasts.
Ilibagiza will speak on Oct. 1 during the annual Marian Pilgrimage at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in New Castle. She will tell her story, a story of hope and faith found during a time of indescribable horror. She has written several books about her journey of forgiveness and faith, most notably a memoir entitled “Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.”
Her story is set to be made into a motion picture to be released in 2024, according to her business manager, David Steffens.
That will be the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan massacre, sparked when the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down. The president was Hutu, and the assassination was blamed on Tutsi rebels.
That set off a bloody carnage that shocked the world. It became the subject of the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
She would ultimately confront one of the men who murdered her family in jail. She forgave him. Asked how she could do such a thing, she reportedly answered “forgiveness was all I had to give.”
It was a long, difficult journey to retrieve hope and find God amid the ashes of her life.
“It was a journey. In the first week, it was difficult for me to even pray … How do you love someone who hates you? It makes no sense. It was overwhelming, so I prayed the rosary,” she said.
Her father, a devout Catholic man, gave her a rosary before finding her a place of refuge in the pastor’s home. He knew the killing and raping would soon begin and he tried to protect his only daughter, she said.
In that cramped bathroom, she prayed the rosary every day and taught herself English using only a dictionary and bible. She speaks three languages, English, French and Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda.
“I knew that God wanted me to forgive,” she said. “It was really the message of the cross that allowed me to forgive them. I knew God wanted it.
“I wanted to pray for them to wake up. It was like the world was divided into hate and love. Either you are on the side of hate or the side of love. I still pray for those who do wrong. It is my daily prayer.”
She said at least one killer she spoke with has had a change of heart. “It is true that people can change.”
It was a long and difficult journey, but she credits forgiveness with saving her. “(Being able to forgive) was everything, I feel like I can be free.” she said. “I would not have been here today. I would have done something bad. I would not have written or shared my story. I could not smile before.”
She said forgiveness allowed her to breathe and to become herself once again.
“There is hope,” she said. “We all go through things. There is hope with him (God). I want to show faith in God, love of God. God is good.”
“Do not let people bring you down. Always with God, there is hope. Fear is the worst enemy we have,” she said.
Some of the proceeds of her book sales benefit the “Left to Tell” Charitable Fund, which helps underprivileged children in Rwanda. Some of the proceeds build schools for children who are smart but lack the money needed to go to school, she said.
Immaculée has received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame, Saint John’s University, Seton Hall University, Siena College, Walsh University, Duquesne University and the Catholic University of America. She has been recognized and honored with numerous humanitarian awards including The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace, the American Legacy’s Women of Strength and Courage Award and the 2015 National Speaker’s Association’s Master of Influence Award, according to her biography.
Left to Tell has received a Christopher Award “affirming the highest values of human spirit,” and is part of the curriculum for dozens of high schools and universities, including Villanova University, according to her biography.
Immaculée has written six additional books in recent years – Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide, Our Lady of Kibeho, If Only We Had Listened, Visit from Heaven, The Boy Who Met Jesus and The Rosary.
“Please make time to talk to God,” she said. “If you pray the rosary, you will see the fruits. I have seen the most impossible situations resolved.”