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Survivor shares journey to forgiving heart

By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
(Email Renee)

Hidden for 91 days in a 3- by 4-foot bathroom with seven others, Immaculee Ilibagiza had plenty of time to pray, reflect on her faith and let God soften her heart.

The Rwanda genocide survivor shared her story of faith, love and forgiveness May 3 at Sacred Heart Parish in Sioux City.

“Anyone can forgive and we can forgive anything,” she said.

Immaculee offered a morning and afternoon session at the fundraiser for Hope Ministries, an African mission group based in Elk Point, S.D. The first talk centered on the rosary and how that prayer saved her life. The second focused on her overall experience and her journey to a forgiving heart.

Violence begins

The speaker explained how chaos and violence broke out in the country on April 6, 1996, when the Rwandan president was killed in a plane crash. Within hours, members of the Hutu tribe began slaughtering those who were Tutsi. She explained the Hutus were just waiting for the right time.

“For two years they were spreading hatred over the radio before the genocide began,” explained Immaculee.

She pointed out that it was a neighbor of the other tribe who hid her and the seven others in his house, at the risk of his own life.

“I went in with a rosary and the clothes on my back,” said Immaculee, who was a college student at the time, home on break. The youngest of the eight occupants was 7 and the oldest was 55.

They couldn’t flush the water or make any noise, and only had leftover food to eat. The homeowner provided a radio so they could stay informed.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening in our country,” she said. “They were telling everyone to go out and kill someone in our tribe.”

Hutus were breaking down doors of the Tutsi and hacking them – babies, elderly, everyone – to death with machetes.

At first, she acknowledged, she was very frightened and filled with hate for the Hutu. Immaculee asked God to kill them first and send them to hell so they wouldn’t be discovered in their hiding place.

“Imagine talking to God like that?” said the speaker, who acknowledged her own hatred and revengefulness toward the Hutu.

At one point all houses were being searched. The killers were looking in closets, suitcases, ceiling space, every possible hiding place. This was frightening for the girls and women. Immaculee said one voice in her head told her to open the door and get it over with. Another told her not to, but to ask God for help.

Immaculee asked God for a sign to let her know he was there. It came the day of the search. Hutus were about to check the bathroom, but at the last second, one of them told the homeowner that they trusted him.

She knew God had saved them. Her prayers increased, but she admitted, she still needed help in that area because she was so angry.

Forgiveness unfolds

As Immaculee prayed the rosary, she reflected on the words of the Our Father and found some of the words to be very difficult. For a while, she even left out some words – “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In time, she realized that God was father to all – the good and bad. Once she could forgive, Immaculee said she felt a great sense of freedom and peace.

“When we pray, we change,” she stressed.

Immaculee not only developed a great love for the rosary, but she is convinced that she wouldn’t be alive today if she hadn’t held onto this prayer.

“It is so funny how suffering is really the best way to teach us,” she said. “Most of the time we harden our hearts so much that we can’t feel the pain of others.”

She also mentioned how the homeowner had given them a Bible to read. Every time she randomly opened the book, the Scripture passages centered on love. This helped her conversion to forgiveness and mercy all the more.

Immaculee had the chance to meet a man who killed some of her cousins. He told her he can’t sleep because he remembers their eyes.

“When we become selfish, we are headed to blindness,” she said. “I could not hate the killers because how can you hate a blind person.”

Once they came out of hiding, Immaculee learned that her parents, two brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends were dead. One brother was studying outside the country.

“It was like the end of the world and many times I wanted to die, but something made me strong,” said the speaker, who noted that in time she realized her pain could be used to touch people’s lives.

Immaculee has conveyed her experience of the Rwandan genocide in the New York best-seller, Left to Tell, and she speaks throughout the world.

Powerful message

Deb McCalla, one of the organizers of the event and a board member of Hope Ministries, estimated about 100 people attended each presentation.

She liked the speaker’s overall message that was centered on the importance of trusting in God and never losing faith.

“Immaculee said you could tell when someone is a frequent rosary prayer because you can tell they are at peace. They have joy and peace in their lives that goes beyond their circumstance,” said McCalla. “Immaculee’s presence is so holy and angelic. A couple of people commented that they think she will be a saint.”

Connie Chapman said she was encouraged by a friend to attend the event.

“I have so enjoyed the day. It is impossible not to be inspired by this woman,” she said.

In Immaculee’s presentation about the rosary, Chapman learned the importance of saying it from the heart rather than reciting it just to get through it.

“I think I can improve my rosary by doing that,” noted the parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Sioux City. “It will take longer, but that’s okay.”

The presentations, McCalla noted, were faith enriching.

“It brings an awareness of how we need to tend to our faith,” she said. “What I took from it is that we have to tend to our faith or it will not be there for us.”

Along with inspiring presentations, McCalla noted it was a good day to get the word out about Hope Ministries – the mission of the organization and why people should support it.

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