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Rwandan Genocide Survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza: Life Is a Gift, So Choose Love!
The author of Left to Tell, her account of surviving atrocities, was a main speaker at Saturday’s OneLife LA celebration in Los Angeles.
By Peter Jesserer Smith
LOS ANGELES — If Immaculée Ilibagiza had turned her back on God and humanity after surviving the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, could anyone have blamed her?
As a Catholic young woman in 1994, she hid for a harrowing 91 days with six women in a hotel bathroom, as her parents and nearly 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were killed by their Rwandan Hutu neighbors out of racial hatred.
But at the Jan. 21 OneLife LA celebration in Los Angeles, an event that promotes the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, Ilibagiza had a powerful message for the crowd of 15,000 at Exposition Park. She had seen what lack of love in hearts did to her society. She told the gathered crowd to “choose love.”
Ilibagiza, who tells her story in her best-selling book Left to Tell, sat down with the Register at OneLife LA. She shared her own spiritual insights from the genocide and hoped individuals would take up her call to be “apostles of life” in U.S. society.
Why is OneLife LA something that is important to you?
It is important because we are celebrating life. It is important because it is bringing awareness to thousands of people. I really think that many people don’t take life away because they hate life, but because they hate people. People are blind. People don’t see. Even the people who killed us during the genocide, if you talk to them, it was like “I killed the first person; the second one, I was numb.” So people aren’t bad at heart. But they need awareness. They need people who can be strong enough to stand up for truth, and that’s why this event is so important to me: just people who are standing up for life and who are strong enough to say, “Let’s do it.”
You survived, but lost your entire family. How did the genocide not destroy you as a survivor?
It is because of prayer. That grace came from many prayers I said. That’s my interpretation. If my parents came back, they would faint. That’s what I say. They would just faint: “You stayed behind, and you’re still strong — you’re still standing.” Because I feel like I was weak in the family. I was the one they needed to make sure somebody was with me to help me. Now, I’m standing in front of people. It’s all by the grace of God. But I give credit to the prayers I said, because we have a choice in all this. We have a choice to call upon [God’s] strength, or to kick it [away]. And I feel like anytime we call, God answers. And I think that all happened, really.
How did you pray?
I said 27 Rosaries every day — literally. And I counted! I had nothing else to do in that bathroom. So I said 27 Rosaries every day and 40 Divine Mercy chaplets every day. But we [in the bathroom] never spoke with each other. All we did was this [pray]. … It helped my sanity.
Then, because I’m Catholic, I’m Christian, half the time I’m praying, I’m realizing my duplicity, my kind of double mind. I’m angry, but I keep saying to God through the Rosary in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive me, as I forgive.” Then I’m like, “Wait a minute: This is not right.” Because when we are not being truthful, something is wrong in our hearts, in our blood.
So I really tried to go on my knees and begged God to help me: “Help me. I want to feel peace; I want to forgive. I want to be in your sight. I want to be part of you, but I don’t know how to forgive, and if I don’t forgive, I don’t feel like I’m being honest to you.” And he did! Which, again, is a grace. Because what helped me to forgive was when Jesus was dying on the cross in that part of the Rosary, the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery. But yet, I have said so many Rosaries before. I have said exactly that mystery, but it never changed me before. It was almost like when you say words, you kind of just go through them, and then one time you say, “Wait a minute: Am I saying this?” You wake up to the words like, “O my God, this is what happened to him! This is what he said. He was right! They don’t get it!”
Many people have suffered deeply in our society, whether it is abortion, grinding poverty or racial injustice, to name only a few. How do you respond to evil done to you, when your emotions tell you to strike back?
Today, I posted something on my Twitter that said, “Read the word of God to be wiser.” So, in some ways, it’s that. We just need to be wise and really have our faith, be real to our faith. If we are real to our faith — if we are honest in what we believe in — we will find the solution to that. And the solution is that everybody suffers in the world — everybody. And either you can choose a way that works, or you can choose one that doesn’t work.
One of them that doesn’t work is when a woman is pregnant and thinks, “O, my God, it can’t work,” and then she has an abortion. Then she is left with a scar: She doesn’t know how to live. Or she can choose to be brave in those times, even give the child away, but at least she had a child! You can look at the joy of this boy or this girl! So I think that we always have a choice to choose bad or to choose good. So I will just tell people: “Believe. Be honest to your beliefs; be honest to your faith.” Jesus said, “Forgive!” And when you don’t forgive, you hurt.
Everybody’s carrying a cross. And I think faith helps so much, just to accept everybody’s carrying some cross. And that is wisdom, too.
But revenge — it only creates more. Someone hates you, you hate them back. You hit them, they hit you back. And the potential just keeps growing. But we of faith, when we forgive, when we’re able to say, “I forgive,” it doesn’t mean you are weak; it doesn’t mean you don’t see the truth. …
You said it’s important for us to go out and to choose love, because you’ve seen what happens when there is no love.
When things are peaceful, when there is love, when there is kindness and simplicity, it is not as appreciated as much until you see — when a family breaks — lack of love. Then you see the damages: You see the horror of divorce, the tears it causes.
When you see a country … and before it was peaceful, then they start a fight — sometimes we even want to see the fight — but then when you see a war [it’s horrible]. … I mean, I see these days, some people are for the new president, other people are against, but even if you are against, at least don’t wish a leader to fall! It’s a scary thing for me to see people hating someone and want them to fall. But with all the demonstrations being done, the things that are being broken, if you have that small brokenness and make it bigger, it’s not going to be pretty. It’s going to hurt you. In Rwanda, everybody suffered — everybody, including the ones who were killing. Everybody.
There is no goodness in evil, in lack of love.
Did you or anybody else see the genocide coming?
I saw it coming. We didn’t know when; that is the problem. But if you’re in the country, you are present, spiritually present, and you know when things went wrong — and in small things. I remember, for example, one of the things that started to happen around two years before the genocide, there was a radio [station] that was really evil. But Rwanda is a country where you don’t really curse. People are just like, “We have been poor, so you really have to do the best you can.” And then, all of a sudden, on the radio, they are insulting, they are cursing, them. ... You can almost see the generational mores are all of a sudden changing.
I remember seeing a woman — people had stolen her bag and everything, and that was not something usual. But it was almost as if the evil was taking over. People who were creating the genocide, they were letting go the protection of people.
So we saw it coming. You just had to kind of be spiritually present. I still remember the two weeks before the genocide started. A man asked me, “What do you think will happen in the country?” And I told him, “It feels like rain is in the air, the dark cloud is there already and is about to fall. But is it happening, is it in my feelings?” But, somehow, goodness is not being respected. Kindness is not being respected. Love is not being respected. Good manners are getting lost. And that is a past darkness. It is something to fear, for all of us.
So we all have this choice: to love or to hate. What would you like people to do after coming to OneLife LA?
One is just to look into your own heart, to really see what is blocking the light of God from being there. First, anger. Anger, again, is like if you put these flowers around the fire; you know they’re going to die. So if you want them to live a lot longer, put them away from the fire. Anger is only going to hurt you and kill things around you. Just forgive and let go, so you can live. You can’t have love and anger in the same heart. Either you kick one out or you kick the other out.
So just tell people, “Life is beautiful. Life is a gift; live it fully, with joy, love especially. Anything you need to forgive: Let it go. It’s not worth it; it’s not worth the anger.”
The second thing I wish to tell people: to really connect to their God, because I can see that I was angry, but God knows where else I am not strong. Maybe I am not humble enough, and that is always the kind of thing we see, when our faith becomes alive. When we look in our hearts, all of us are going, “O, my God, I need to help the poor more.” It’s not enough just to believe — I need to do actions of love.
So, to encourage people, be sincere in your faith. If you say you love God: Really? Who is God; what is he like? What am I doing? Am I doing what he likes? Respect God, forgive, and take whatever opportunity you have to find out more about God.
Third is: Be an apostle. Look at this event, what people did to put this together. Maybe this is from a dream of one person. I mean, Our Lord told us: When you are light, you don’t hide the light on a table. You put it out there, so it can light other people. So we hope that people leaving this place can already “switch on,” as a light, and when they are conversing with their friends, they can be apostles of life. They can say, “I stand for this: I am for life.” And when people see that you are strong, that you are pro-life, people follow. Because people like to see strength; they like to see conviction. When they see you are strong in your faith [it inspires]. I have friends who call me, literally from 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and ask, “Do you still talk about faith? Do you still love God, and the Rosary, and Mary?” I’m like, “Yes.” [They say] “You don’t get tired. … You are still the same person you were 30 years ago, when you were 12 years old dancing with the rosary?” I’m like: “Yes, it’s good — it’s beautiful!” So just be apostles, and be strong in your convictions. You will attract other people and affect them in a more positive way.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.
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