Genocide survivor says ‘prayers work’

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer

Immaculée Ilibagiza believes that praying the rosary helped her survive the 1994 massacre that left close to a million people dead, including her parents and two brothers in Rwanda. (Photo Special to The Record)
Immaculée Ilibagiza believes that praying the rosary helped her survive the 1994 massacre that left close to a million people dead, including her parents and two brothers in Rwanda. (Photo Special to The Record)

One may believe the only stories left to tell after the slaughter of a million people are stories of horror and anger.

For Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Rwanda native who survived the 1994 genocide, that has not been the case. Ilibagiza has shared with people around the world how prayers and trust in God saved her life during the massacre and how forgiveness transformed her afterward.

Ilibagiza will visit Sacred Heart Academy Oct. 4, where she will share her message with students, faculty and staff, she said during an interview Sept. 25.
Over the summer students and members of Sacred Heart Academy’s faculty read Ilibagiza’s book “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.” Ilibagiza’s visit to campus is part of a cross-curricular study of her book, which she wrote 20 years ago.

Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old university student visiting home for Easter break when the massacre started in April 1994, she said. A complex combination of political unrest and long-standing rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes came to a boiling point. As a result, some members of the Hutu tribe went on a three-month killing spree that left close to a million people dead, including Ilibagiza’s parents and two brothers. Her only surviving sibling was a brother studying abroad.

In her book, she chronicles how her life was spared thanks to a local pastor who hid her and seven other women in a tiny bathroom in his home. She remained there for 91 days, emerging emaciated, but with stronger faith than when she entered.

During a recent interview, Ilibagiza recalled the fear and turmoil she felt while in hiding. She had nothing, but time to think about the people who were slaughtering innocents outside. She burned with hatred for them, she said.

“I had a headache and a stomachache. My heart was beating fast. It was like poison,” said Ilibagiza of the hatred that consumed her. “It was like living in a tornado from which I could not get out.”
But she also clung to her rosary and her Bible. She prayed fervently, she said, asking God to save her life. Praying for salvation for herself — while consumed with anger for those carrying out the massacre — created a conflict in her heart, Ilibagiza recalled.

“I wanted an honest relationship with God,” she said. “Something inside me became clear. If God was going to help me, I needed to be honest.”

She realized then that her anger was creating an obstacle to God. She began to pray for the ability to forgive. Her prayers were answered, she said.

“I forgave them before I ever saw them,” she said of the men who killed her family. Forgiving those who’d harmed her was like “manna from heaven,” she said.
At that point, she started thinking about what her future might be if she survived, she said. While in hiding, she used the Bible and a dictionary to teach herself English, she said. “I couldn’t have done that with the turmoil in my heart.”

Ilibagiza said she is looking forward to speaking to the young women at Sacred Heart Academy.

“I want to tell them to find strength in God and to hold on to hope.” She also hopes to share that anger is “self-defeating,” she said.
At the heart of Ilibagiza’s message will also be the power of prayer. So much of what the country and the world is facing right now requires prayers, she said. She believes that healing starts with prayer.

“So much hatred is spread through the power of the tongue,” said Ilibagiza. “Say something kind instead, speak about others in a constructive way and try to see the good in people.”
Ilibagiza recommends that people start their day with prayer, even if it’s only five or 10 minutes.

“Pray to God. Cry to him. Scream to him,” said Ilibagiza. “I have seen it. Prayers work.”

Jessica Julian, a senior at SHA who read “Left to Tell,” said Ilibagiza’s ability to pray for hours while in hiding is something she “deeply” admires though she doesn’t completely understand it.

Julian said she enjoyed reading the book and accompanying Ilibagiza on “the journey she went on because of the genocide.”

“It was incredible to see how she could forgive,” Julian said, noting there is a lot of hatred in the world right now.

Reading Ilibagiza’s book gave her “inspiration to look to God to forgive others,” said Julian. “My human eyes may not be able to see the love God has for everyone, but it’s there.”

Julian said she was amazed to hear Ilibagiza say, in her book that sometimes she wished she could return to that cramped bathroom where she found her relationship with God.

Julian is looking forward to Ilibagiza’s presentation Oct. 4, she said. “Being able to hear her speak will further the magnitude of her message.”

Throughout the school year, Julian and other Sacred Heart Academy students will take part in special discussions and activities based on major themes presented in the book, said a press release from the school.

Debbie Hudson, an English teacher at the school, oversaw the summer reading initiative and the planning of the year’s programming. Hudson said in the release that Ilibagiza is a “model” of faith.

“We hear how Immaculée Ilibagiza’s bravery, faith and compassion propel her to not only survive one of the worst genocides in modern history, but to emerge as a woman defined by her strong heart and brave soul,” said Hudson. “As Valkyries, strong women of great faith, we look to Immaculée as a model of how to live our faith as we seek an end to oppression and injustice in the world.”

Ilibagiza will speak at a public event, which has sold out, on the SHA campus the night of Oct. 4. To learn more about her story or to purchase her book, visit

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