Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza

In 1994, between April and July, as many as a million Tutsis of Rwanda were systematically murdered by rival extremist groups, and Immaculee Ilibagiza was forced to hide out in a tiny bathroom with nine other women for three months in order to avoid capture and death. What was going on in my life at the time? I was awaiting the birth of my first baby, and wrapped up in my own secure world. My biggest worry was finding a new apartment--our current one was about 400 square feet with no room for a crib. Looking at the photos in the book, it looks like the bathroom Imaculee hid out in was about 24 square feet . . .

As the title indicates, this is foremost a story of faith. Immaculee, a devout Catholic, maintained her sanity and her will to live by relying on her faith in Jesus Christ. At times she struggled with anger, hate, fear, and hopelessness ("If I'd had an atomic bomb, I would have dropped it on Rwanda and killed everyone in our stupid, hateful land" pg. 88), but each time she prayed and rededicated her faith. She also let herself think of the future, although it seemed unlikely she would have one, and even taught herself English while in the bathroom.
For me there were other powerful themes as well. What struck me the most was the dangerous power of propaganda. The Interahamwe (the extremist Hutu group seeking to exterminate the Tutsis), would broadcast hateful, twisted messages about the "cockroach" Tutsis (I can just hear my high school teacher Mr. Diamond's lesson about "dehumanizing the enemy.") These words literally incited mobs of people to cut down hundreds of their previous friends and neighbors with machetes. How much do we let the media that we are surrounded by influence us? At first I think we can resist, but how long after hearing something over and over again do we begin to change our mindset, no matter how absurd or dangerous it may be?
I also wondered what about their society allowed this to happen? Is it just human nature and could it happen anywhere? Was it their value for obedience? Their cultural suppression of emotions? What can be done to prevent genocide from occurring repeatedly, even though we say we will "never let it happen again?" In this case, one factor was the seeds of contention that Belgium purposefully planted when they left the area. A powerful few who seem to regard entire populations of people as puppets to manipulate.

Overall, books like this always engender an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for peace and comfort. Gratitude for family. Gratitude even for the simple space around me.
Immaculee was able to find forgiveness for all those who murdered her family and friends. She says, "They saw but didn't understand the terrible harm they'd inflicted. . .Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren't evil" (pg. 94). I think I could find it in me to forgive them, but not the leaders who knew the lies they were telling for the purpose of bringing about the genocide. I guess I have a long way to go to achieving perfect faith and humility, and hopefully I won't have to experience as much tragedy as Immaculee to get there.


  1. This sounds like an amazing book that I need to get to sooner rather than later!!

  2. That was a great post. I appreciate all the questions you bring up. I will add this to my TBR list.

  3. I am a huge fan of Immaculee and her book Left to Tell. I just found out that she is hosting a Marian Pilgrimage to Europe and thought you and those who read her book might be interested. See