Gospel of a survivor
Rwandan woman chooses forgiveness over anger after living through genocide
Written By: Joe O’Connor | Sep 27, 2012 10:30 AM ET
Damascene Ilibagiza was more like a best friend than an older brother to his sister, Immaculée. They could talk about anything and, in her eyes, Damascene was the sun and the moon and the stars: an athlete, a scholar — a sidekick.
She would learn about the day her brother died after the killings stopped. A Hutu mob stripped him to his underwear and beat him with the handles of their machetes, while demanding that he tell them where she was hiding. He faced his attackers, Ms. Ilibagiza was told, and said he “pitied” them; said he would “pray” for them. He didn’t beg for his life. He pitied a bunch of killers, urged them to strike him down and when they hesitated asked what they were waiting for. There were other horrors.
Ms. Ilibagiza’s father was shot dead, her mother butchered and another brother massacred in a soccer stadium, along with thousands of other Tutsi tribe members seeking sanctuary from the Rwandan genocide that erupted in April 1994 and saw 800,000 Tutsi murdered by their Hutu countrymen over the course of 100 days.
Maybe he still had the same evil in his heart as when he was killing innocent people – but I wanted him to know that I was no longer in his way.
Ms. Ilibagiza gives a moving account of the bloodshed and the 91 terrifying days she spent in hiding, in the best-seller, “Left to Tell”. She lives in Manhattan, runs a charity dedicated to helping Rwandan orphans and travels the globe sharing her story. She will be in King City, just north of Toronto, for a pair of talks Friday and Saturday.
Ms. Ilibagiza met her older brother’s killer a few months after Damascene’s death. His name was Felicien. His children had been her playmates at school. Felicien had “hunted” her, calling her name, never knowing how close he had been to discovering her hiding place. Now he was standing before her, dragged from a cell. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. She wept. She said: “I forgive you.”
“He had become another person,” Ms. Ilibagiza says. “He was killing people, and so will I be mad at him or sad for all the damage he did?
“Somewhere, in his soul, he couldn’t think of the pain he was causing. All he could think of, maybe, was his selfishness, or maybe the greed of being, for one time, a leader in his country. Something made him blind.
“When I met him I wanted him to be free from me. Maybe he still had the same evil in his heart as when he was killing innocent people — but I wanted him to know that I was no longer in his way. “I wanted him to come out, to see the wrong that he had done. I didn’t want him to have me as an excuse. I wanted him to be able to look into his heart and ask: How could I have done these things?”
Since that day she has preached a survivor’s gospel, spreading a message of hope that says to heal, we must forgive. They are simple words, but the sentiment, in this case, is extraordinary when you consider its source: a 42-year-old woman, most of whose family members were butchered.
Ms. Ilibagiza survived by hiding in a cramped bathroom in a Hutu pastor’s house with seven other women. The door was concealed behind a wardrobe. The women couldn’t talk, for fear of being discovered. They were starved and ridden with lice when they emerged after 91 days. “I don’t remember the discomfort,” she says. “What I remember most is every day the killers were trying to find us. Every second, having a feeling that they were coming — that they would push that door open.”
They never did.
It means something to do what Mandela or Mother Teresa or Ghandi did. If we could all be like that, this world would be a better place. Perhaps it was a miracle, which is what Ms. Ilibagiza believes. It was during her days in hiding that she resolved that forgiveness was the only way to heal the wounds. At times, she was angry, and still is. At times, she craved revenge. At times nothing made sense, except her sense that, despite the insanity all around, there was still a God — a loving God.
“I go through moments to this day where I am angry and I want people to suffer like I did and I have to remind myself that this is an illusion — it is just lies — to want someone to hurt so that I can feel better,” Ms. Ilibagiza says. “It means something to forgive. It means something to do what Mandela or Mother Teresa or Ghandi did. If we could all be like that, this world would be a better place.”