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Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

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Immaculee Ilibagiza grew up in a country she loved, surrounded by a family she cherished. But in 1994 her idyllic world was ripped apart as Rwanda descended into a bloody genocide. Immaculee’s family was brutally murdered during a killing spree that lasted three months and claimed the lives of nearly a million Rwandans.

Incredibly, Immaculee survived the slaughter. For 91 days, she and seven other women huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor while hundreds of machete-wielding killers hunted for them. It was during those endless hours of unspeakable terror that Immaculee discovered the power of prayer, eventually shedding her fear of death and forging a profound and lasting relationship with God.

She emerged from her bathroom hideout having discovered the meaning of truly unconditional love—a love so strong she was able seek out and forgive her family’s killers. The triumphant story of this remarkable young woman’s journey through the darkness of genocide will inspire anyone whose life has been touched by fear, suffering, and loss.

ISBN-13: 9781401944322

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Hay House Inc.

Publication Date: 04-07-2014

Pages: 256

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Series: Left to Tell Series

Immaculée Ilibagiza lost most of her family during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Four years later, she immigrated to the United States and began working at the United Nations in New York City. She now devotes herself full-time to public speaking and writing books that share her message of how faith and forgiveness can heal hearts and change the world. In 2007 she established the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which helps support Rwandan orphans, and was awarded the Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.Steve Erwin is a New York Times best-selling author and award-winning journalist. He has co-authored seven books and is currently working his second novel. He lives in New York City with his wife, journalist and author Natasha Stoynoff.

Read an Excerpt


Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
By Immaculee Ilibagiza Steve Erwin


Copyright © 2006 Immaculee Ilibagiza All right reserved.
ISBN: 1-4019-0896-9

Chapter One

The Eternal Spring

I was born in paradise.

At least, that's how I felt about my homeland while I was growing up.

Rwanda is a tiny country set like a jewel in central Africa. She is so breathtakingly beautiful that it's impossible not to see the hand of God in her lush, rolling hills; mist-shrouded mountains; green valleys; and sparkling lakes. The gentle breezes drifting down from the hills and through the pine and cedar forests are scented with the sweet aroma of lilies and chrysanthemums. And the weather is so pleasant year-round that the German settlers who arrived in the late 1800s christened her "the land of eternal spring."

The forces of evil that would give birth to a holocaust that set my beloved country awash in a sea of blood were hidden from me as a child. As a young girl, all I knew of the world was the lovely landscape surrounding me, the kindness of my neighbors, and the deep love of my parents and brothers. In our home, racism and prejudice were completely unknown. I wasn't aware that people belonged to different tribes or races, and I didn't even hear the terms Tutsi or Hutu until I was in school.

In my village, young children walkedeight miles to and from school along lonely stretches of road, but parents never worried about a child being abducted or harmed in any way. My biggest fear as a youngster was being alone in the dark-other than that, I was an extremely happy little girl in a happy family, living in what I thought was a happy village where people respected and cared for one another.

I was born in the western Rwandan province of Kibuye, in the village of Mataba. Our house was perched on a hilltop overlooking Lake Kivu, which seemed to stretch out forever below us. On clear mornings I could see the mountains on the other side of the lake in the neighboring country of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of my warmest childhood memories are of clambering down the perilously steep hill between our house and the lake. I'd go swimming with my dad and brothers as the last of the dawn mist was being chased away by the early-morning sun. The water was warm, the air cool against our skin, and the view of our house high above the shore always thrilling. Heading back home was an adventure because the hill was so steep and the dirt beneath our feet was so loose and treacherous. I often slipped and was afraid that I'd tumble all the way down and into the lake. My father always knew when I was frightened, and he'd bundle me in his arms all the way home. He was a big, strong man, and I felt safe and loved wrapped in those powerful arms. It thrilled me to be lifted up so affectionately, especially since Dad was very reserved in an old-fashioned way and rarely showed his emotions or said he loved my brothers and me-although we knew he did.

When we got home from our swim, my beautiful mother would be busy in the kitchen preparing the hot rice-and-bean dish she fed us every day before packing us off to school. Her energy never failed to astonish me: Mom was always the first to rise and last to bed, getting up hours before anyone else to make sure that the house was in order, our clothes were laid out, our books and lessons were ready, and my father's work papers were organized. She made all our clothing herself, cut our hair, and brightened the house with handmade decorations.

The beans she prepared for our breakfast were grown in our family fields, which Mom tended every morning while the rest of us were still sleeping. She checked the crops and would then distribute tools to the day laborers and make sure that our cows and other animals were fed and watered. And then, after finishing the morning chores and getting us off to class, Mom would walk down the road to start her full-time teaching job at the local primary school.

Both of my parents were teachers, and adamant believers that the only defense against poverty and hunger was a good education. Despite being one of the smallest countries in Africa, Rwanda-which is roughly the size of the American state of Maryland-is one of the most densely populated countries on the continent and among the poorest in the world. Mom and Dad were the first high school graduates in their families, and they were determined that their children would go even further than they had in school. Dad led by example, working hard and studying throughout his life. He received many honors and promotions during his career, rising steadily through the ranks from primary teacher to junior high school principal. He was eventually appointed chief administrator for all of the Catholic schools in our district.

In Rwanda, every family member has a different last name. Parents give each child a unique surname at birth, one that reflects the feelings of the mother or father at the moment they first lay eyes on their new baby. In Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, my name (Ilibagiza) means "shining and beautiful in body and soul." My dad chose my name, which will always remind me how much he loved me from the moment I was born.

My father's name was Leonard Ukulikiyinkindi, and my mother's was Marie Rose Kankindi, but her friends called her Rose. They met at one of my cousin's homes in the summer of 1963 while traveling to a mutual friend's wedding. As they were introduced, Mom gave Dad the once-over, clucking her tongue at his shaggy hair.

"You're going to a wedding with that hair?"

My father shrugged, claiming that he couldn't find a barber. Mom found a pair of scissors, sat him down, and went to work-right then and there. She must have done a good job, because they became inseparable. They married within the year, and Dad never let anyone but Mom cut his hair again.

My parents managed to save a little money by holding down teaching jobs and farming the land my grandfather had given them (they grew and sold beans, bananas, and coffee). Dad designed and built our house, which, while extremely modest by Western standards, was considered quite luxurious in our village. We had a kitchen, a dining area, a living room, our own bedrooms, a guest room, and Dad even had a study. A gated courtyard led to a small annex where day workers stayed, and-thankfully-we had a separate pen for the animals, so the cows didn't sleep in the house with us. Dad put a cistern on the roof to catch rainfall so that we wouldn't have to haul water up from Lake Kivu, and the solar panels he installed provided us with about an hour of electricity on sunny days.

We had two vehicles, which was practically unheard of in our part of Rwanda. We had a yellow cross-country motorcycle that Dad used to visit schools in the remote mountain villages, and we also had a little car that we used on weekends to go to church and visit relatives. Some villagers thought that we were wealthy, which we weren't, and they called my Dad Muzungu, meaning "white man" or "rich person," which to most Rwandans meant the same thing.

No one else in our village had a motorcycle, and Mom always worried that Dad would be waylaid by bandits on a lonely mountain pass. Fretting about her family was a preoccupation with my mother, to the point that whenever any of us was away from home for more than a night, she'd listen to the obituaries announced on the radio every evening.

"Mom, think of all the good things that could happen to us instead of dwelling on what might go wrong," I urged her unsuccessfully.

"Oh, Immaculee, I couldn't bear it if someone knocked on the door with bad news about one of my children or your father. I just pray that I die before any of you do." She prayed incessantly for our health, safety, and well-being.

My parents were devout Roman Catholics and passed on their beliefs to us. Mass was mandatory on Sundays, as were evening prayers with the family at home. I loved praying, going to church, and everything else to do with God. I especially loved the Virgin Mary, believing that she was my second mom, watching out for me from heaven. I didn't know why, but praying made me feel warm and happy. In fact, it made me so happy that when I was ten years old, I snuck away from school one day with my friend Jeanette to pay a visit to Father Clement, a wise, elderly priest who was a good friend of the family and like a grandpa to me.

Jeanette and I hiked through seven miles of fields and forests and waded across a river to reach Father Clement. He greeted us warmly, but was concerned because we arrived at his presbytery exhausted, panting, soaking wet, and more than a little dirty. He looked like a saint, standing over us in his flowing white robe, his arms opened in welcome, a beautiful rosary hanging from his neck. "What is it, girls? How can I help you?" he asked.

"Father, we want to dedicate our lives to God," Jeanette said solemnly.

"That's right, Father," I agreed. "We have thought it over, and we want to become nuns."

"Nuns? I see," he said, nodding seriously, although I'm sure he must have been hiding a big grin. He placed his hands on our heads and gave us a special blessing: "God, bless these dear children, keep them safe, and watch over them all their days." Then he looked at us and said, "Now, you two go home. Come back to see me after your 18th birthdays, and if you still want to be nuns then, we'll talk."

WHILE MY PARENTS WERE ARDENT CATHOLICS, they were Christians in the broadest sense of the word. They believed in the Golden Rule and taught us to treat our neighbors with kindness and respect. They felt strongly connected to their village and dedicated themselves to creating a prosperous, harmonious community. Dad spent many weekends doing volunteer work, such as building a nondenominational chapel and paying for most of the construction costs out of his own pocket. He also set up a scholarship fund for poorer kids by establishing one of Rwanda's few coffee cooperatives, allowing a dozen coffee growers to plant on his land rent free if they promised to donate a little of their profits to the fund. The program was so successful that he was able to use some of the money to build a community center, a soccer field for teens, and a new roof for the school.

Mom was also known for her many good works. She could never turn away anyone in need, so we often had another family living with us because they'd fallen on hard times and needed a place to stay until they got back on their feet.

After finishing work, my mother often volunteered her time to tutor students, and she was forever buying material to sew new uniforms for local schoolgirls. And once I overheard her talking to a neighbor who was distraught because she couldn't afford to buy her daughter a wedding dress.

"Rose, what kind of mother am I to send my own daughter to her new life in old clothes?" the woman asked. "If only we had a goat to sell, I could dress her in the way she should be dressed on her wedding day."

My mother told her not to worry-if she had faith in God, He would provide. The next day I saw Mom counting out the money she'd saved from her monthly teacher's salary. Then she walked to the village, coming home with her arms full of brightly colored fabrics. She sat up all night sewing dresses for the woman's daughter and all the bridesmaids.

Mom and Dad treated the village as our extended family, and the villagers often treated them like surrogate parents. For example, Dad had a reputation across the region as an educated, enlightened, and fair-minded man. Consequently, people traveled for miles seeking his counsel on family problems, money woes, and business ventures. He was often called upon to settle local squabbles and discipline unruly children.

A crisis in the village was usually followed by a knock on our door and this plea: "Leonard! Can you help us out? We need your advice. What should we do, Leonard?"

Dad invited people into the house at all hours and would discuss their problems until they found a solution. He was a good diplomat and always made people feel as if they'd resolved their own difficulties.

My mother was also sought out for her advice, especially by women having difficulties with their husbands. Over the years, so many of our neighbors had once been Mother's students that most villagers just called her Teacher.

But while they were certainly dedicated to our village, my parents were devoted to their kids, spending as much time with us as possible.

Once in a while, when he worked late and went for beers with his friends afterward, Dad got home well after we'd already gone to bed. "Where are my little ones? Where are my darling children?" he'd ask, a little tipsy but full of affection.

Mother would scold him: "They're sleeping, Leonard, as they should be. If you want to see them, you should come home earlier."

"Well, I can't eat dinner alone," he'd say, and gently get us all out of bed. We'd sit around the table in our pajamas while he ate dinner and told us about his day. We loved every minute of it.

After he finished eating, Dad would make us all kneel down in the living room and recite our evening prayers.

"They've already said their prayers, Leonard. They have school tomorrow!"

"Well, Rose, I have to work tomorrow. And you can never say too many prayers. Right, Immaculee?"

"Yes, Daddy," I'd answer shyly. I idolized my dad and was delighted that he'd ask me such an important question.

Those were magical moments-when my father's stern facade was lifted, his love for us was easy to see.

THERE WERE FOUR KIDS IN THE FAMILY: myself and my three brothers. The eldest was Aimable Ntukanyagwe, who was born in 1965, a year after my parents were married. Even as a child, Aimable was the most serious member of the family. He was so quiet and introspective that we joked he was the family priest. Mom doted on him because he was her firstborn and her favorite, but Aimable was humble, shy, and embarrassed by the extra attention she paid him. He was also sweet-natured and detested violence. When the other boys roughhoused or fought with each other, he would step between them and make the peace.

When Dad was away, Aimable took his place, making sure that we finished our homework, said our evening prayers, and got to bed on time. Then he would stay up late, ensuring that the doors were locked and the house was secure for the night. He seemed so much older than his years, but he was a loving brother to me, never failing to ask about my day, how my studies were going, and if my friends were treating me well. There was a five-year age difference between Aimable and me, which, as kids, made it difficult to get to know each other.

I was only seven when my brother went off to boarding school, and after that, we saw each other only on holidays and special get-togethers. Nevertheless, I developed a terrible stomachache the day he left. Although his school was in a nearby town, as far as I was concerned, my brother was moving to the moon. It was the first time I felt the physical pain of losing someone you love. When my father sat us kids down a few days later to write letters to Aimable, I could think of only two things to say. In large, looping letters, I wrote:

Dear Aimable, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I miss you, I love you, I love you, I love you ... and I miss you!!!!! Love, Immaculee P.S. I miss you!

My father laughed when he read the letter. "You didn't mention anything about visiting Grandma's house, or how your other brothers are doing, Immaculee. Try writing again with a little more news and a few less 'I love yous' and 'I miss yous.'"

"But that's how I feel, Daddy."

I couldn't understand why he wanted me to love my brother less-and Dad never tired of teasing me about that letter.

Two years after Aimable was born, my other big brother came into the world. His name was Damascene Jean Muhirwa, and he was brilliant, mischievous, funny, generous, unbelievably kind, and irresistibly likable. He made me laugh every day, and he always knew how to stop my tears. Damascene ... to this day I can't say his name without smiling ... or crying. He was three years my senior, but I felt as though he were my twin. He was my closest friend; he was my soul mate.


Excerpted from LEFT TO TELL by Immaculee Ilibagiza Steve Erwin Copyright © 2006 by Immaculee Ilibagiza. Excerpted by permission.
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