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Dare to forgive: Immaculée Ilibagiza & radical reconciliation

The anguish of imminent death pierced Immaculée’s body “like a thousand needles.” She wondered anxiously, “How is it to die?” Outside of the three-by-four-foot bathroom where she was hiding with other seven women, she heard the voices of men with guns, machetes and spears approaching to search the house. It was only a matter of seconds: “What will they do to me?”

It was then that her fierce interior battle with doubt, anger and unforgiveness began. “How can I forgive the people who are trying to kill me? If I had God’s power, I would kill them all in an instant,” she thought.

Into hiding

The roots of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 extend to the years-long political and ethnic tensions between the two main tribes of Rwanda: Hutus and Tutsis.

The clearest warning of an imminent tragedy came from the Virgin Mary, who under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows appeared to three girls in 1981 in the small town of Kibeho, warning that rivers of blood would flow through Rwanda if people didn’t change their ways and followed God.

Yet the events of a long-planned genocide to rid the country of the Tutsis were set in motion after the president’s helicopter was shot down in 1994. After a years-long marketing effort to dehumanize Tutsis, the message was now being broadcasted openly on the radio: “Kill them all. Finish those cockroaches! Don’t forget the children. We must cleanse the country!”

Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, was only a teenager. Her father, a deeply devout man, gave her his rosary and sent her to the neighbor’s house into hiding. The neighbor was a member of the opposite tribe, but an honest man of faith.

For 91 days, she hid in a tiny bathroom without being able to say a single word as blood-thirsty men slaughtered thousands of Tutsis in plain daylight.

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The battle begins

Immaculée’s providential conflict with hate and forgiveness began just a couple days after she went into hiding.

At the possibility of being found, she battled with an interior voice: “Open the door, end the torture! They’re going to kill you anyway,” it said.

But another voice would tell her: “Do not open the door. Ask God to help you! He’s Almighty. That means he can do anything. You still have a chance.”

It was then that she made a life-changing promise: “God, I don’t know everything about you, but I will continue to seek you. I will never doubt your existence again.”

The men searching the house missed the bathroom door, which was poorly hidden behind a dresser.

She asked the man helping her for a Bible.

For the first time, she began reading the Bible attentively in conversation with God. She came to the deep realization that God had created her out of sheer love and called her to the bliss of heaven. She desired intensely to be there. To get there she had only to follow Jesus’ words and the commandments.

“That’s not so bad compared to the eternity of heaven,” she thought. “I can do that.”

God calls to forgiveness

But Immaculée encountered a stinging reality when she read Jesus’ words: “Forgive those who hate you… Pray for those who persecute you.”

“I realized I was in trouble — God was saying I couldn’t go to heaven if I couldn’t forgive those who were trying to kill me,” Immaculée recalled.

Instead, she turned to the rosary her dad gave her. As she prayed, she experienced something new: profound peace. She held on to it tightly.

Every day she prayed a total of 27 rosaries and 14 Divine Mercy Chaplets. Only this kept her from giving into thoughts of anger and despair.

But after a few days, God’s gentle hand called her to forgiveness once more.

When praying the Our Father, the phrase “as we forgive those who trespass against us” made her so uneasy that she decided to omit it altogether — at least she wouldn’t be lying to God.

This went on for days, until she felt another voice tell her, “I hope you know Our Lord’s prayer is not man-made. Jesus himself said those words, and he can’t make mistakes.”

“It was then that for the first time I understood the meaning of surrender,” she said. “I felt God telling me, ‘You don’t have to know how to do it all on your own. Give it to me.’ And I said, ‘Fine, I will say the prayer, but I still don’t know how to forgive. Please help me.’”

God’s help came.

Her battle with overwhelming anger came to an end at the foot of the cross, when she read Jesus’ words: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.”

“It was in that moment that I truly got it. It was like Jesus was handing me the formula to forgive. He was telling me, ‘The people who are trying to kill you don’t get it — they don’t even measure the consequences that will come to them… Being like them will not change anything. Learn from me!” Immaculée recalled.

She realized that as long as people were alive, they still had the opportunity to turn from hate to love with God’s grace — just like she had.

“I knew then that I would spend the rest of my life praying for people who are on the side of hate,” Immaculée said.

True freedom

She was a new person when she stepped out of that bathroom after three months. Only by that grace was she able to face the gruesome reality: more than a million people had been killed, including her parents, brothers, cousins and friends.

Yet, in the midst of it all, God’s presence never left her: “I felt that he was holding me tight and telling me: ‘The journey of your loved ones is over here on earth, but your journey is not over yet… What is in your power is how you chose to live your life, however long it may be.’”

Years later she returned to Rwanda and, in person, forgave all those who had killed her family members — some were people she grew up with.

Those who have gone on pilgrimage to Kibeho and Kigali with Immaculée cannot help but be bewildered by how she will joyfully hug a man and then turn and say, “His brother killed my brother.”

“I know the pain and the damage of unforgiveness,” Immaculée says to everyone, “So I plead you: dare to forgive. Hold on to God, pray the rosary, read the Bible, go to Mass… There is so much joy, so much freedom in forgiving. Dare to do it!”

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez
Vladimir Mauricio-Perez
Vladimir is the editor of El Pueblo Católico and a contributing writer for Denver Catholic.

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