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Rwandan genocide survivor tells her story

Posted By May 1, 2014 | 12:42 pm | Lead Story #3

By Tanya Connor

SHREWSBURY – A Catholic teenager understood miracles in a new way.
A Muslim spoke of feeling closer to God.
A youth who didn’t identify himself with any religion sought  rosary CDs. The other recipient of a free rosary CD wasn’t Catholic either.
But all seemed touched by Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza. She is a member of the Tutsi tribe, a million of whom were killed by Hutus 20 years ago.
She gave the Abdella Center for Ethics Lecture Tuesday at St. John High School. This lecture series in memory of  George F. Abdella, father of a graduate, explores the role that ethical questions play in modern life.
The program began with students praying the “Hail Mary,” reading inspirational pieces by various people and sharing questions for reflection.
David Wentzell, from the school’s counseling department, offered Ms. Ilibagiza “heartfelt sorrow” for her losses and said her presence excited them because “we are an Easter people.” He spoke of her book “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.”
With a film and her talk, Ms. Ilibagiza told the story of the 1994 Rwandan holocaust.
Before the genocide began, there were warnings – radio “jokes” about plans to kill Tutsis, and Marian apparitions warning of disaster if people didn’t turn to God, she said. She said this message was for the world, not just Rwanda, and that “we have the capacity to change our future … with our prayers.”
She told how her father moved people to pray as the genocide started. He said they should not be afraid, but should repent, so they could go to heaven when they died, she said. He gave her a rosary and sent her to a Hutu neighbor for shelter.
“My dad used to tell us, ‘Do not put people in boxes,’” she said. “I’m truly grateful he was able to trust the person that was supposed to be our enemy.” The neighbor hid her and seven others in a tiny bathroom, endangering his own life if he were to be caught.
She struggled with fear and a desire for revenge. When fellow-villagers with machetes searched the Hutu man’s house, a “voice” told her this was too painful; she should open the bathroom door, she said. A “nicer voice” said, “Don’t give up; ask God to help you.”
“I forgot how to believe in God,” she said. The “nicer voice” told her to ask him for a sign. She asked that the searchers not open the bathroom door. They didn’t, and she rejoiced that God had heard her.
But she struggled to forgive her enemies, as called for by the Bible passages she read, and the rosary she prayed constantly. Struck by Jesus’ prayer for his killers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” she decided the same was true for her enemies.
“Even the killers have a chance to change,” she said. She felt compassion for them as she thought about what it would be like to suddenly wake up to the realization that you’d killed 100 people.
Emerging from hiding after 91 days, she learned most of her family had been killed. She indicated that she believed in heaven for them and in the importance of living well the life granted her. She asked God for things she needed, like clothes, and he provided, she said.
After the genocide she secured a job with the United Nations, according to a biography on her website. She moved to the United States in 1998 and continued her work at the UN. At others’ urging she wrote her story, and prayed, fasted and helped the poor. Immediately she got an offer for help in publishing it, she said. The proceeds help children in Rwanda.
She encouraged listeners to pray the rosary and told of a non-Catholic whose prayer was answered after she did that. She was giving away a three-disc rosary set that she recorded and sought out a non-Catholic audience member to give it to. She also was looking for  a woman who was trying to get pregnant to give a seven sorrows rosary and CD to.
A woman who identified herself as Heidi to The Catholic Free Press got the “seven sorrows” rosary and CD.
“It feels like a miracle,” she said. “I will be an older mother, but when my child comes, I will remember this moment.” She said she’s 43, has been married a year and does not have children.
“I’m not a Catholic but I do believe in miracles,” she said. “I grew up without a church, but I’ve visited many churches in Europe.” She said she was moved by St. Therese of Lisieux. Prayer helped her choose love over hatred, she said.
Joseph Tamilio-Awed, a St. John’s junior, got the “three-disc rosary set with Immaculee.”
“I don’t really categorize my religion or my spirituality,” he said. “I try to talk to God sometimes. I find that helpful, so I thought this could help me in my spiritual journey. I could tell she was a really spiritually inclined person.”
He said “her quickness to forgive” someone who killed her family struck him.
“People go through their entire lives holding grudges for minuscule offenses,” he said. “It just teaches a lesson that the whole audience should take to heart. It’s better to forgive. It will benefit you in the long run.”
Joseph was one of the students chosen to ask Ms. Ilibagiza a question. He said the United States and other nations were criticized for acting too slowly, or not at all, during the Rwandan genocide, but that the United States has recently been criticized for taking too aggressive a stance in the world.
“As a genocide survivor and a former United Nations worker, how would you advise the world to respond if similar situations arise around the world in the years ahead?” he asked.
Ms. Ilibagiza called for loving, defending others and standing for peace.
Faraz Ilyas, a sophomore, asked how a good education can impact one’s moral development and whether the failures in Rwanda are being addressed in the educational system.
Ms. Ilibagiza said more universities are opening, but that some genocide leaders had doctorates from France. It’s not just education of the mind that’s needed, but education of the heart, she explained.
Faraz told The Catholic Free Press Ms. Ilibagiza’s main themes that will stick with him are religion, forgiveness and love.
“After hearing her story you start to connect everything and you feel closer to God,” he said. “I’m not Christian, I’m actually Muslim, but, as she said, even the people who are not Catholic still learn from her story.”
“What struck me is her unwavering trust in God,” said Benjamin Sarkis, a senior. “It gave real results – out of all realm of reason. Even as a Roman Catholic, I understand miracles can happen.” But, he said, “I never realized anything can actually happen. It was in my brain, not in my heart. I’ve never seen divine intervention.”
Stephen Palecki, a junior, said he was struck by Ms. Ilibagiza’s assertion that having faith in God will help one succeed in life, guide one through bad times and help one have good times.
“I thought it was incredible how immensely genuine she was,” said Michael Murphy, a senior. “She wasn’t afraid to admit that her faith faltered during her ordeal, but she made sure to express that God never left her.”