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Book Review: Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza

Updated on August 31, 2011
Immaculee Ilibagiza  Her family was massacred in the Rwanda genocide
Immaculee Ilibagiza Her family was massacred in the Rwanda genocide

Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

This book is an amazingly powerful story of tragedy, survival, forgiveness and victory!

Immaculee Ilibagiza was raised in a beautiful, close knit family in village of Mataba in the Rwandan province of Kibuye. Her parents were hard working, God fearing, caring and highly respected members of the community. Her father had built their “dream home” with his own hands.

Immaculee had an idyllic childhood in many ways. She had three adoring brothers who were deeply protective of her. She was an excellent student who gained top honors resulting in acceptance to an esteemed university. She made friends easily and her life seemed almost charmed and certainly on the path to great success.

The only hurtful thing that had happened to Imaculee throughout her childhood was when a schoolteacher from the Hutu tribe belittled her for not knowing what tribe she belonged to.

All that changed in 1994 when Immaculee was in her third year of college and came home for Easter break. The Hutu president was assassinated and this set off a wave of genocide inflicted by the Hutu tribe on the Tutsi tribe.

Immaculee explains that the racial divide was initially caused by the Belgians who colonized Rwanda and gave preferential treatment to the minority Tutsis. This caused deep resentment among the Hutus which simmered below the surface for many years. Eventually the Hutus started a revolt, the Belgians were kicked out of Rwanda, and the first genocide began in 1959 in which over 100,000 Tutsis were murdered. Another one followed in 1973.

When it became apparent that hostility was impending, Immaculee and her brother Damascene tried to convince their parents to escape that very night and leave the country. Their parents were unwilling to leave everything they had worked so hard for. They were also unwilling to believe that their Hutu neighbors, to whom they had given so much and whom they considered to be extended family, would turn them over to Hutu hunters, much less join the machete-wielding gangs!

The next day when the borders were closed and everyone was ordered to remain in their homes, they realized they had missed their only hope of escape.

Immaculee’s family ended up being split apart. Her father and brothers ordered her to go to the local Protestant pastor’s home since he was a respected Hutu and would be able to protect her from rape and murder. He did protect her, but the pressure on Hutu’s to turn in any Tutsis became so intense that he hid her and seven other women and girls in a tiny bathroom for the several months that the killings continued. He put furniture in front of the bathroom door to conceal it from the merciless Hutu hunters. The women were so cramped that they could barely shift positions. In order to avoid detection, they were only able to flush the toilet when the adjoining toilet on the other side of the wall was flushed.

As Immaculee’s terror was heightened again and again by those seeking her life, so was her faith in God. With much time on her hands she learned to spend hours and hours in prayer and meditation in the Bible. She became convinced that God had a plan for her life and that she would live to tell about her ordeal, but her faith became severely tested when she could hear those who hunted for her calling her name on the other side of the wall.

End to the Genocide

Eventually, an army of Tutsis who had previously fled Rwanda during the previous conflicts, were able to gain control of the country and put an end to killing with the help of U.N. peacekeepers from France.

When Immaculee was finally freed from her bathroom prison, she found out that her parents and two of her brothers (the third brother was fortunately attending college abroad) had been massacred by Hutus with whom they had been personally acquainted.

Immaculee refused to give in to bitterness and desire for revenge, realizing that feelings like this had engendered the evil that caused the genocide in the first place. She realized that the power to forgive, which could come from God alone, was the only way the cycle of hatred that had taken hold of her country could be broken.

Her explanation about how she achieved this within herself over time is an important aspect of this book and has proven to be a valuable resource to many others who have struggled with years of bitterness and unwillingness to forgive.

Another thing this amazing woman managed to accomplish while sandwiched in the pastor’s bathroom was to learn English. She believed God had revealed to her that she must learn English. She convinced the pastor to slip her a French-English dictionary and several books in English while she was tucked away in the bathroom. She diligently studied for hours on end in the cramped conditions as long as it was light.

When the killings had finally ended and order has been restored to the country, Immaculee realized she had to get on with her life. She felt God showing her that she was supposed to work at the U. N. headquarters in Rwanda.

Having recently read Rhonda Byrnes book The Secret (please see my soon-to-be-published hub on this book), I was very surprised to discover that Immaculee used a similar technique of visualization and positive thinking to obtain the position she wanted. Immaculee’s conditions for obtaining her desire were different than what Byrne suggests, however. Immaculee states in her book, “I knew that whatever I envisioned would come to pass if I had faith and visualized it with a pure heart and good intentions, and if it were something God thought was right for me.”

After repeated rejections, she was finally given the opportunity to take some tests in order to qualify for employment with the U. N. The only two things that stood in the way of her passing the tests were knowledge of English and the ability to type. Her diligent study in the bathroom paid off on the English test. Then this determined and strong-spirited woman taught herself to type in three days! She drew a life-size picture of the keyboard and practiced punching the keys without access to a real keyboard!

A couple years later after she felt she had healed sufficiently and was ready for a new relationship, Immaculee began to pray for a life partner. Once again she employed her technique of visualization and positive thinking. She even drew a picture of him and wrote down character qualities she wanted him to possess.

A few months later she met a wonderful man who had come from the U. S. to help set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for the U. N. He ended up being the man she prayed for. They were married two years later, moved to the U. S. (where she again got a job at the U. N.) and had two beautiful children.

She started a foundation to help orphaned children and victims of war and genocide everywhere. You can check out www.orphansofrwanda.org for more information.

If everyone in America could read this book and take it to heart (even better, everyone in the world), it would go a long way toward ameliorating the racial tensions that exist.  Please see the You Tube video interview with Immaculee below:

Immaculee discusses her experience

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