In about 100 days, nearly 1 million people were slaughtered during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. More than 30 years of political and ethnic tension between the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu tribes finally combusted following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, and the Rwandan government estimates that there were about 10,000 murdered every day, 400 every hour, seven every minute.
It was later learned that the government had planned the genocide and the attempted mass extinction of the Tutsi people.
It would take hours, weeks, months, maybe years to study and understand the socio-political factors and the government-bred tension that led to the genocide. But lost among the statistics and talking points are the stories of the Rwandan people who lived and died during this time.
Immaculée Ilibagiza is a Rwandan genocide survivor. She and seven other Tutsi women spent 91 days huddled silently in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house during the killings. She entered the bathroom a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family and emerged weighing just 65 pounds to find that a brother studying out of the country was the only member of her family to survive.
She taught herself English while in hiding, using only a Bible and a dictionary. Once freed, her English skills landed her a job with the U.N. and she now lives in New York. Her first book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, came out in 2006 and became a New York Times bestseller. Ilibagiza is the subject of the documentary The Diary of Immaculée and she has signed a contract with MPower Pictures to produce a movie about her story.
Ilibagiza, who will be speaking at Cal Lutheran University this Friday, at 7:30 p.m., discussed with the VCReporter, this week, life in Rwanda, genocide and learning how to forgive.
VCReporter: From your perspective, how do you retell the Rwandan genocide?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: It can be complicated for people outside to hear and understand but in some ways, really simple. It wasn’t as simple as ethnic cleansing. It was rooted in hatred. It was rooted on a program created long ago. . . . When they, Belgium, came into the country, they decided to create two main tribes and divided the shorter people in one tribe [and the taller people in another and so on] . . . to the point where some people from the same family were put into different tribes. Why did they do it? It shows how easy it is to create hatred and hatred can easily become real to the point of killing people. . . . It was a political way of saying how can we (Belgium) divide and conquer and how can we stay here? We’ll create these tribes and get them to fight in some ways. Inside the country, the people really love each other to this day, and it’s crazy today to think this happened there because there is such a culture of helping each other, but from that thing the colony built a power fight between these two tribes they created. . . . It took 30 years to build what happened in 1994. Tribes introduced in 1933. [Actually] It probably took us 60 years to build that much hatred (from the original Belgian colonization and division in power between the Tutsis and the Hutus.)
At what point in this buildup did you know it was turning deadly or possibly leading to an extinction of a people?
The first war in 1959, people were scared to kill. By 1994 there was an army of Tutsi refugees outside of the country pushing to come back into the country because they were forced outside and weren’t allowed to come back. So in ’94 they were coming back with force. We knew they’d come back, and as they started pushing, the country said, “You push by force so we’re going to kill your brothers and sisters inside the country.” They called the United Nations and said, “Help us. We just want to come in peace and if they don’t let us, we’re going to come in by force.” This was in 1990 and that was when I said, “Oh, my god, this is going to be bad.” Took four years for people inside the country who literally planned, Tutsi by Tutsi, the addresses where we are, and it was so detailed and well-planned. In ’94 when the president’s plane crashes and he dies, the reign of terror was beginning to form and now a little signal was all that was needed to open the gates of hell. You definitely just felt it.
How old were you when in hiding?
I was 23. The day the president died, it was such an excuse. It had been so well prepared. No one could go outside. They stopped schools, banks, public transportation. . . . The only thing that started was the killing of people, family by family. On the second day my father asked me to go hide.
Is there a generational divide that now exists? Survivors have had children that are young adults now. Eventually, they must have learned that their peers and families were at war with each other not long ago.
The number one thing that has helped us is the strong culture of remembering we are not different from each other. This is just something the Belgians did. . . . I tell people when I’m speaking, “Please be careful of the intention of your actions.” One bit of hatred can breed such a thing as genocide. It takes good leaders. Today the government that is there is asking people to put this behind. All my life I said, “Who is worse, a Hutu or Tutsi?” Today we are all one. No one is called Hutu or Tutsi. This was hard for many people. . . . We’re not going to be called this anymore. We are going to be called Rwandans. The country is trying to tell people to end the cycle. Of course, there is still anger, wounds are still open. People lost people. I went through my own journey to understand this thing. There are people, though, that are emotionally wounded and can’t control the action of what is going on. Some are in prison because they haven’t adjusted. . . . Imagine, in a school today in Rwanda they still don’t know history of the genocide because they don’t know how to teach it. They just want kids to know they aren’t determined by a tribe.
What was the first step in your recovery? Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is equal to understanding. It’s a perspective through the eyes of love and through the eyes of a good citizen, eyes of faith and the eyes of goodness. I can call it forgiveness but you have to also understand that people process things differently. We are one family, but we can process it wrong and hurt ourselves. It is a madness somewhere you are competing with. . . . There is a lot of understanding but the understanding couldn’t come until there is perspective of God, or of life. Life ends no matter what, whether it is by genocide or by natural causes. We all go sooner or later. It’s not like I’m excited to live forever but what matters is how we live. So understanding life through the eyes of faith, and if I die, my life is not over, but continues. That helped me later.
Given your experience, how do you see America today?
I worry and pray for America as any American who was born here. I truly think we are citizens of the world. I pray for issues here. This is my home. When I visit my other home, I remember what happened and I don’t know many people there now. I know more people here. My heart is here and I’m so grateful to what this country has offered me. I tell people that the O.J. Simpson case was going on the exact three months the genocide was going on. If people in America would have seen on TV what was going on in Rwanda, it would not have lasted as long as it lasted. People have heart here and get it. . . . I see goodness in this country and lots of humanity here with people trying to help, also everywhere in the world.
Were you hoping or assuming help from the U.S., the U.N or from other countries?
I hoped and prayed so much that they would come. I was mad at the whole international community. There were ambassadors everywhere in the country. The U.N. was in the country with guns and cars, and the moment the genocide started, they pulled away. There was a lot of false hope they gave to the country. They left the day it started. The embassies closed, too. Why were you here and why are you leaving now? This was something I had to work through and has taken many years to understand how the world works. I was hoping the world would care and help. … I met President Clinton and he said it was one of his greatest regrets. But you learn from your mistakes. And what I have in my life today is my helping from what I know and learning from that past.
Where, today, do you see something similar happening as it did in Rwanda?
Sudan. Congo. The world just wants to progress and progress, and when something bad is happening, sometimes we just don’t want to hear it. We want to hear something good. There are many people helping as much as they can. But the truth is, genocide can happen anywhere because of hatred, because we can lose our humanity.