“God showed Me how to
Forgive the Unforgivable”
After her family was brutally murdered in the Rwandan genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza hid in a tiny bathroom for three months—but her real prison was the hate growing in her heart. Day after day she cried out to God, and His
love taught her true freedom
Huddled on the floor of a bathroom in her village in the African nation of Rwanda, Immaculée Ilibagiza clutched her rosary and held her breath. Her heart raced as she and five other women struggled to keep from crying out in fear. On the other side of the door, terrorists were hunting them. The men had already murdered Immaculée’s parents and two of her brothers, along with hundreds of thousands of other members of her tribe, the Tutsi. As images of their bloodstained machetes flashed through her mind, Immaculée desperately whispered the Lord’s Prayer. With each breath,
anger boiled hotter in her heart and she felt sure she’d never forgive the men who destroyed her family and turned her beloved country into a bloodbath.
Growing up in a devout Catholic family in a pretty lakeside village, Immaculée had thought she was living in paradise. “My country is so green and beautiful,” she says longingly. Like most of Rwanda, Immaculée’s town had people from two ethnic tribes—the majority Hutu and a smaller group, the Tutsi. “I never thought about what tribe my neighbors belonged to,” she recalls. “They were just my friends.”
But in 1994, when Immaculée was 22, her paradise turned into hell on Earth. A group of Hutu extremists had formed a militia that attacked the Tutsi. The situation exploded when the Rwandan president, who’d negotiated peace between the two groups, was assassinated. Many Hutus had blamed Tutsi rebels, and a nationwide genocide began. More than 800,000 men, women and children were murdered in just 100 days.
Hearing the horrifying reports, Immaculée had been sure the violence wouldn’t reach her town. But soon, many of their close Hutu friends had turned against them.
Fearing for the life of his daughter, Immaculée’s father had given her his rosary and sent her to the home of Pastor Murinzi, who, though a Hutu, had risked his own life to hide Immaculée and five other Tutsi women.
“I was angry with God. I thought, Those men killed my family. They don’t deserve
Just moments after Immaculée fled her home, a Hutu gang slaughtered her mother, father and two of her brothers, hacking them to death with machetes.
For three months, the women crouched together in a bathroom the size of a small closet. They spoke only in whispers and lived on leftovers the pastor provided. Close to starvation, Immaculée lost 50 pounds and had sores covering her body. I prayed all day,” Immaculée recalls. “And that made me feel peaceful because I wasn’t thinking about myself or my pain. I was thinking about Jesus.” That feeling of peace was not to last.
FREEDOM IN CAPTIVITY
When the militia came looking for the women at the pastor’s home, Immaculée recognized the voices of some of her family’s friends. “My heart was filled with rage,” she recalls. “I thought, Maybe if I pray with all my heart, the anger and fear will not find a way in.” But instead, the hate even kept her from saying the words of the Lord’s Prayer, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. “Forgive?” she asks. “No, I couldn’t forgive. I started to skip that part of the Lord’s Prayer because I couldn’t mean it. I was angry with God. I thought, My enemies are bad. Those men killed my family. They don’t deserve forgiveness.”
But as Immaculée continued to pray, God put his hand on her heart. “I realized that if God said to pray that way, He must know what He’s talking about,” she states. “I put the line back in, but when I reached that part, I would just tell Him: I don’t know how to forgive yet. Help me.” She also focused on Jesus’s words: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
With an open heart, Immaculée said His words over and over. “I began to see things differently,” she recalls. “My whole body changed. There was peace. Even though I was trapped, I felt hope.” After three months of captivity, Pastor Murinzi brought Immaculée and the others to safety. But Immaculée’s hardest test of faith was yet to come.
PURE OF HEART
When the genocide was over, Immaculée visited the prison to meet one of the killers who murdered her loved ones. She was astonished to realize it was Felicien, a family friend. “At first I was scared. I thought, What if can’t forgive him? What if I lose my feeling of peace?” Immaculée says. “But when I saw Felicien, all I felt was overwhelming compassion. He used to have a great job and a good family, but now he had no shoes and wore filthy clothes. How horrible it was! He couldn’t have known what he was doing. Hating him wouldn’t change anything. I cried for him. I told him I forgave him. And in that moment, my heart was free.”
Prayer continued to heal Immaculée in the months that followed, helping her find a home in the capital city and a loving husband. A few years later, they moved to New York, where they worked at the United Nations and raised two children.
Immaculée says God has brought countless blessings into her life since the genocide, but the lessons she learned during her months of hiding will stay with her forever. “I was angry and bitter, and at times I fought with God,” she says. “But in that little prison, God showed me that I didn’t need to fight evil with evil. He showed me how to forgive and put all my trust in Him. Forgiveness changed everything, and forever filled my heart with God’s peace so that I can live fearlessly and free.”
“Hating him wouldn’t change anything. I cried for him. I told him I forgave him.”
Immaculée survived by hiding in this 3-by-4-foot bathroom for 91 days with 5 other women
Read Immaculée’s entire story in Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House, 2014; Paperback $16, Kindle $9, Nook $11)