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Immaculee Ilibagiza's Left to Tell

This is an amazing book of faith and the human spirit in a situation of incredible pain and suffering.  Set in the midst of the Rwandan genocide, Immaculee tells the story of how neighbor turned against neighbor, how the government, to whom one had looked for protection, became the enemy, and how the incredible endurance of a small group of women survived the unthinkable.  There have been scores of victim narratives who survived the Holocaust, or unfortunately the other genocides since then, but what resonates in this story is the incredible faith this one young woman had in an all-powerful, loving God in the midst of all the evil, and how she embraced forgiveness when it was over.  The reader will hear her petitions, her rage, her desire for revenge at times, her compassion and her care through her prayers, especially while in confinement.
Left to Tell
The violence starts when Immaculee returns home from college for Easter break in 1991.  Before that, however, she describes growing up in a loving family of three brothers and a Mom and a Dad that was ardently Catholic and very close.  As a child, she didn’t know who was a Tutsi, who was a Hutu, or who was a Twa.  When confronted and reprimanded in the fourth grade by a teacher who had demanded that the groups stand up and identify themselves, she told her teacher she didn’t know what tribe to which she belonged.  His reply was:  “Get out! Get out of this class and don’t come back until you know!”  This was her first lesson, a rude awakening she recounts, of Rwanda’s ethnic divide, for in her home prejudice was never taught.  She writes: “Everyone was welcome in our home, regardless of race, religion or tribe.  To my parents, being Hutu or Tutsi had nothing to do with the kind of person you were.  If you were of good character and a kind human being, they greeted you with open arms.”
When they were coming for her in her hiding place, years later, the killers boasted about “killing 399 cockroaches…..Immaculee will make 400.”  This genocide chose “cockroaches” as their dehumanized label not unlike the “rats” and “vermin” nomenclature of the Nazi Holocaust.  Her hiding place turned out to be a bathroom in a Protestant clergyman’s home, a four by three foot bathroom, in which she and seven other women would reside for several months, with quarters so tight, that they could not sit down or move unless they all moved at the same time.  They had to be quiet at all times and not even flush the toilet unless they heard someone in the other bathroom on the other side of the wall flush theirs.  When Immaculee entered the bathroom, she weighed 115 pounds; when she finally was freed, she weighed 65 pounds.  The remarkable story that unfolds while Immaculee lives through this ordeal is a developing faith that deals with fright and rage and despair, but she steadfastly continues to pray and rely on God.  Numerous rosaries pass her lips in captivity with its numerous “Our Fathers” including that line, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  So inbred do those lines become that Immaculee does not plan revenge when she is freed, but rather forgiveness.
In the middle of the book are photographs of Immaculee and her family, and her school and classmates and what strikes the reader when one looks at these photos is how normal they were and are.  There are pictures of her brother coming to visit her at college, family get-togethers, vacation photos, one of her brothers and his basketball team, etc.  The visual sometimes jolts us back to reality that these stories are not fabricated, even though they sound so unbelievable.  There were and are actual living, breathing, people.  Again, this happened to educated people during a time period when we thought the world was civilized.  Barbarity ruled, however, for a brief, though seemingly endless period.   Wrapped up in her faith in an almighty loving God, Immaculee implored this God during her captivity and knew almost instinctively when it was all over, she needed to forgive the enemy.  How this woman’s faith sustained her and motivated her to heal the broken world rather than lash out against it is a wondrous story.   It is well worth reading even if one does not like victim narratives during gruesome times, for the light that shines from this woman has something to teach many of us.
Immaculee married a man who was working with the United Nations, and in 1998, she emigrated to the United States, to work there as well.  In 2007, she established the “Left to Tell Charitable Fund,” which helps support Rwandan orphans.