Immaculée Ilibagiza — Life After Genocide in Rwanda

Genocide Survivor, Rwanda

Truly, truly there is a potential in every human being - in the worst person who has done the worst thing - there is potential to be an angel.

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Immaculée Ilibagiza—Surviving the Rwandan Genocide

Immaculée Ilibagiza is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide whose ministry focuses on the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the work of personal and cultural transformation. Her New York Times bestselling book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (2006), tells the story of how Immaculée’s life was transformed dramatically when she and seven other women spent 91 days huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s home. Immaculée entered the bathroom a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family; she emerged weighing 65 pounds to find her entire family had been brutally murdered, with the exception of one brother who had been studying out of the country.

Ilibagiza credits her survival mostly to prayer and to a set of rosary beads given to her by her devout Catholic father prior to going into hiding. In her writings and speeches she explains how her religious faith empowered her to stare down a man armed with a machete threatening to kill her during her escape. She also later came face to face with the killer of her mother and her brother and said what at one time would have been unthinkable to her: “I forgive you.”

Ilibagiza knew that she would have to overcome immeasurable odds without her family and with her country destroyed. Fortunately, she used her time in that tiny bathroom to teach herself English with only the Bible and a dictionary. Once freed, she was able to secure a job with the United Nations.

Immaculée Ilibagiza—Sharing Her Story

In 1998, Ilibagiza immigrated to the United States where she continued her work with the UN. During this time she shared her story with co-workers and friends, who were so moved that they insisted she write it down in book form. Left to Tell, written with Steve Erwin, quickly became a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into seventeen languages worldwide. Ilibagiza's story has also been made into a documentary titled The Diary of Immaculée. She has appeared in numerous media including 60 Minutes, The CBS Early Morning Show, CNN, EWTN, The Aljazeera Network, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsday, and many other domestic and international outlets. She was recently featured in Michael Collopy’s Architects of Peace project.

Immaculée Ilibagiza—Honors and Awards

Ilibagiza has received honorary doctoral degrees from The University of Notre Dame, Saint John's University, Seton Hall University, Siena College and Walsh University. She has been recognized and honored with numerous humanitarian awards including: The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace 2007; a finalist for the “Most Inspiring People of the Year 2006” and a recipient of the American Legacy's Women of Strength & Courage Award. Left to Tell has received a Christopher Award “affirming the highest values of human spirit,” and has been chosen as Outreach Magazine’s selection for “Best Outreach Testimony/Biography Resource of 2007.” Left to Tell has been adopted into the curriculum of dozens of high schools and universities, including Villanova University, which selected it for the 2007-2008 “One Book Program,” making Left to Tell mandatory reading for 6,000 students.

Immaculée Ilibagiza—Writing and Speaking

Ilibagiza has written three additional books in recent years: Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide, Our Lady of Kibeho and If Only We Had Listened. She also has signed a contract with MPower Pictures to produce a major motion picture about her story. Today Ilibagiza is regarded as one of the world’s leading speakers on peace, faith, and forgiveness. She has shared her universal message with world dignitaries, school children, multinational corporations, churches, and numerous conferences. 

If Only We Had Listened - A Film About Immaculee Ilibagiza and Kibeho, Rwanda

  • Rwandan Genocide

    I lived through the genocide … When the genocide started, they started to kill people of my tribe. It was planned. We knew it could happen, but we never expected something like what happened, like a genocide. I mean, they were after innocent people, destroying homes, places you lived in for all your life … My parents sent me to hide to a neighbor who was from the other tribe, the Hutu tribe.

  • Surviving the Genocide

    I remember one time when I was hiding in the bathroom where my parents sent me with this family, and we’re sitting in this bathroom, three-by-four feet with seven other women; we had eight people. One time they came to hunt for us, the killers hired by the government, fed by the government. And one guy stood outside, I can hear him, he went to school with me, primary school, and he spoke and he said, “I have killed 399 cockroaches.” (That is how they called us.) And he said, “I want to kill four hundred. That would be a good number.” And I’m thinking, “Has somebody lost their mind? They don’t remember that I’m a human being? What has happened to him?” This is a man I would call a friend in a normal time like when we were going to school. He was just a normal person. And he killed, and later he found the four-hundredth person to kill and more.

  • Destroying Stereotypes

    [My father] said, 'Make an effort to destroy the stereotypes in yourself, to be able to look at the human soul. If you don’t, you will miss out on many angels in life.'

  • Potential to Be an Angel

    Truly, truly there is a potential in every human being, in the worst person who has done the worst thing, there is potential to be an angel.

  • Hate vs. Love

    I feel like our world, our country was destroyed by hatred, by ignorance of accepting that another human being is less than you, that you even have any power over this person, to want to kill them, to eliminate them. And only through love our country can get back together, only trying to look at another person and see a soul, a human soul.

  • Heart of War

    It is truly here in our hearts that we build war. It is here we build peace. It is here we save the world. It all starts here in our hearts. And it’s where we keep the poison of anger that will end up exploding and kill our neighbors. And it is here we keep love and peace that we spread around in our families.