Lessons to Be Learned Today From Our Lady of Kibeho From a Survivor of the Rwandan Genocide
During this Marian month of May, Immaculée Ilibagiza shares her powerful story of suffering and reminds us all to cling to the Blessed Mother in prayer, rosaries in hand.
VATICAN CITY — “My No. 1 priority is to remind people who are suffering, whoever they are — those going through a divorce, family difficulties, illnesses — please don’t give up,” says Immaculée Ilibagiza. “As long as you have the Rosary, you have prayer. Hold on to Our Lady, hold on to Jesus, and keep offering your suffering to them.”
The bestselling author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, Ilibagiza knows well the power of prayer and especially the Rosary, having prayed to Our Lady ceaselessly during the 1994 Rwandan genocide — prayer which she is convinced not only helped protect her as she hid for three months from her would-be Hutu killers, but also gave the grace to forgive the assailants who murdered her family.
In this April 29 interview with the Register in Rome, Ilibagiza recounts her remarkable experiences and shares the lessons she learned which can be applied to today. She urges people not to hate their leaders but “pray for them, for their conversion, and for them to realize what they have done wrong.”
Ilibagiza also speaks about the shrine of Our Lady of Kibeho where Our Lady appeared to urge the people to return to God in 1981, and the lessons this holds for us today.
Immaculée, could you briefly tell us about your story of survival in Rwanda?
Yes, I come from Rwanda and lived through the genocide in 1994. When the genocide started, I was a student at a college and my father, who was very respected in the village, people from my tribe, the Tutsis, were running to him because it was a genocide against the Tutsis. So my father gave me Rosary beads and sent me to a man from the Hutu tribe, who was a good man — there were many good men from the Hutu tribe who were trying to help — but the government was sending people to search for people like us [Tutsis].
So during the genocide the only thing I had was a Rosary. They came to search for us, and my faith changed completely. I was very angry, people were killing us, and so I prayed 27 Rosaries every single day for three months, and 40 Divine Mercy chaplets every single day. It took me from six in the morning until 10 o’clock at night.
How did you survive?
For three months, I was in a bathroom with seven women, three by four feet. They went to search for us in a four-bedroom house and they literally stopped at the door of the bathroom. This happened more than once — eight times. We were dying in there. I remember I was 115 pounds when I went in and 65 pounds when I came out.
You weren’t able to eat, or get any food?
We were able to eat but all we could eat were leftovers of the children, people would bring one plate at night.
How long did that go on for?
For three months — from April to July. This is a time of year to remember it, this is a perfect time. However, prayer changed everything so much. Our Lady of Kibeho predicted it — she said “If you don’t come back to God, a terrible thing is going to happen in your country.” She showed the children who saw people killing each other with machetes.
I came from a Catholic family and our family loved to go to Kibeho and loved Our Lady, so we saw it could happen but couldn’t understand how. How could someone kill somebody?
Anyway, during those three months I came from a place of anger to a place of forgiveness, and it was through the Rosary, through the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us our trespasses.” And wow! At a certain point it really came to me: They [the killers] don’t get it, the same words the Lord said on the cross, they don’t understand it. “Ask me to help you rather than be more angry with them.” So then I’m like I was on the cross, continually praying the Rosary, and my anger was gone.
When I came out, my whole family had been killed. But I realized that in my heart was still the peace that I had found through the Rosary, even if I cried, and I still cry to this day, but I was peaceful inside, in my heart. So my family was killed, and it was terrible but still I continued to pray the Rosary.
So you’re convinced it was the Rosary that protected you?
One hundred percent. Actually I’ve written a book called The Rosary: The Prayer that Saved My Life.
It was terrible. Only prayer made me make sense of it. I asked God, “What is going on?” And what was said back to me was “hatred.” When we go against God’s way — it’s like a parent who says to a child, “Don’t touch the stove! It will burn you” and God, when he said “love one another” — it’s that important. To forgive one another is that important. And so we didn’t listen and feel it’s the same as Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, so we also suffer.
I remember one of the messages Our Lady of Kibeho used to say was, “Accept your suffering and give it to me, give it to God, let me help you give it to God.” It helped me to know I wasn’t terrible to have gone through that, and that others including my God have gone through suffering. So the Rosary helped me along, to take away my anger but also to shape and offer my suffering to God.
I went to meet the person who killed my family in prison, after the genocide. On my way to visit this man in prison, I thought maybe I’m lying to myself [about forgiving him]. I went to him and cried and truly offered him my forgiveness because what I felt was what I felt in the bathroom, which was Jesus showing me and saying, “You see what I told you? They don’t get it.” It’s the case with all of us, when we do wrong, when we sin, when we hurt other people, we don’t know. We feel strong at the time, but the consequences always come after the sin is committed. That was really something huge.
So you were able to forgive the killer of your family?
I forgave him. That wasn’t hard. What was hard was to learn to forgive in my heart. When I was praying the Rosary in the bathroom, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries and understood what happened to you [Jesus]! The man who was hiding us was actually a Protestant pastor, so I asked him to give me a Bible. We couldn’t talk, for three months I was silent and could only read and pray in my heart. So when he gave me the Bible I went through every mystery and I remember realizing, “Your mom was there [at the Crucifixion]?” I always knew this before, but it really struck me then. I thought, “Your mother was there, your situation is worse than mine,” and I remember pinching myself and it hurt, and thinking, “But you had nails put into your hands and you’re still forgiving people?” It was like the pain became so loud, and was as if I was being taught, “Listen and learn from me, do you think hurting them would change anything or to kill them? Pray that they change their mind. Pray that they can see the evil.” Because that’s what happens. When we pray for them, they convert. Prayer has power for those who believe.
What happened to the man?
The man who killed my family in prison, when I saw him he used to be a man who had a beautiful family, his children and wife, and now because after the war he was caught and put in prison. His shoes and clothes were torn, he was skinny, he hadn’t shaved or showered, and he had lost his family. That’s when I heard the words of Jesus: “They don’t get it, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Including us. When we do something unjust or dishonest, we don’t know what we do. That’s why we go to confession. They don’t get it. Then from that, there was the Rosary, I have the Rosary everywhere and say it everywhere as Mary said.
Looking at what’s happening in Ethiopia, in Ukraine. Sometimes as individuals you may not be able to change the leaders’ mind, but every person has the power to pray. You have so much power. You can pray and the angels of God can change leaders. Don’t hate them but pray for them, for their conversion, and for them to realize what they have done wrong, what they’re doing is wrong. That we can change.
I met another man who killed my cousins and he told me he regretted what he did. I’ve seen people who’ve converted, and I realize these prayers work. This man came to me and said, “I didn’t realize what I’d done and didn’t think they would die.” This is the man who killed them, and he said he couldn’t sleep because of what had happened. I really took pity on him and said, “You should go to Our Lady and pray to her.”
Did you give him a rosary?
Yes, and I actually took him to our home where there’s a big statue of Our Lady and I said, “Come here, let’s pray together and talk to her, she can help you because she’s a human being like you.” So we prayed together. He was really sincere and so grateful. Our Lady of Kibeho said pray. It’s so important, pray and don’t give up and don’t think you’re alone. Remember the story of Abraham, and Sodom and Gomorrah? He was negotiating with God with five people who were holy and with them he could have saved the whole city. So sometimes people get discouraged. They think, “I’m alone, the world is crazy,” but with prayer things can change.
You mentioned that Our Lady of Kibeho warned of what would happen if they didn’t listen to her warnings. Many think that’s the case today because we see the problems of the world and Our Lady of Fatima warned us, but it has seemed as if no one has done what she asked. Do you agree with this perception?
Oh 100%, and I’m so grateful to the Pope when he consecrated Russia again to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. That matters so much and was so good. So I agree the consequences in the world are because we didn’t do what Our Lady asked for, just 100 years ago. In Rwanda it was the same thing. She came 12 years before the genocide, in Kibeho, where Our Lady appeared to three girls. This has been approved by the Vatican and the Church — the only Marian apparition in Africa so far approved. Where this happened is three hours away from our home and I grew up with that. Our Lady cried, 12 years before the genocide, and said come back to God, pick up your rosaries, pray from the heart. She even said pray in prayer groups, within the family, with neighbors. “If you do this in every village,” she said, “what is coming will not happen.” So she sent messages to the leaders, what to do to help people help each other and there were many consequences.
Our Lady has also asked for something not yet done: two churches to be built. She gave the measurements to a visionary in front of 50,000 people — how big and where she wanted them. Forty years later, this has still not been done. So I’ve just made a foundation, I’ve been writing to and meeting many people, and have asked the bishop what’s going on. They say, “Oh it’s a lot of money, we don’t even have an architect.” I said don’t worry, I’ll find an architect, and so I’ve brought an architect from the U.S. who designed it, the bishop likes it, and we’re ready to raise the money, but it’s been going so slowly.
When I met Pope Francis [a few years ago] I asked him to please ask them [to move it forward]. He was very kind. He called them. I couldn’t believe it, that that actually happened. So the bishop has started but he’s still slow, so I’ve asked again. Our Lady of Kibeho said, “Whatever I ask for here it’s also important for the whole world, as what I asked for in Fatima.” And you never know, perhaps it’ll be someone powerful praying in that church who will convert. The mayor of New York, [Michael] Bloomberg, came to Kibeho and so you never know!
What have your experiences taught you most of all that you’d like to communicate to others?
My No. 1 priority is to remind people who are suffering, whoever they are — those going through a divorce, family difficulties, illnesses — please don’t give up. As long as you have the Rosary, you have prayer. Hold on to Our Lady, hold on to Jesus, and keep offering your suffering to them. They don’t want us to suffer; they just want us to give it to them so they can help us to live our faith and be saved, because they know that suffering is a part of life. It’s much harder to fight on your own. But when you ask the angels and the saints to be part of it, they really become a part of it.