Immacul√©e Ilibagiza said she never believed she could stand in one place for three days, much less three months.
But for 91 days in Rwanda in 1994, the 22-year-old college student had no choice.
She had returned home for Easter break just before a 100-day genocide, during which machete-wielding Hutus killed more than 800,000 Tutsis.
Her parents and most of the rest of her family were killed in the attacks, which had been sparked when a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down.
Ilibagiza, now the author of the book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, will tell the story of her survival, and how her faith carried her through the ordeal, during a talk at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Church of the Assumption, 20 East Ave., Fairport. The talk is open to the public, and there is no admission fee or preregistration requirement.
“One of our parishioners saw her on television and was so impressed, she got her book and read it three times. She was moved beyond explanation to provide the funds to bring her in,” said Deni Mack, pastoral associate at Church of the Assumption, noting that the parishioner who made the donation wants to remain anonymous.
Ilibagiza, a Tutsi and a lifelong Roman Catholic, survived by hiding with seven other women in the tiny bathroom of a sympathetic Hutu pastor’s house. If they had left the room, spoke or moved, they would have been discovered and killed.
They couldn’t all stand up at one time in the bathroom. They were only able to flush the bathroom’s toilet when another toilet in the house flushed. Even when they were able to occasionally sneak out to an outer room, they had to huddle on the floor, so anyone passing by a window would not be able to see them.
“When you are being hunted and running for your life, it is possible,” Ilibagiza said. “In God, all is possible.”
After a raid of the home came dangerously close to exposing the women, the pastor used a large bureau to conceal the bathroom door. During multiple subsequent raids, the pastor directed attention to other areas of his home, such as his attic, to show that he wasn’t hiding anything.
Ilibagiza said the rosary many times a day, and she prayed the Lord’s Prayer and read a Bible.
“I was completely lost in the life of Jesus,” Ilibagiza said.
She said she found herself meditating on his suffering. She thought about Jesus on the cross, crying out to the Lord for forgiveness for his persecutors. She found similarities with her own persecutors.
“They don’t know what they are doing,” Ilibagiza recalled thinking.
She said forgiveness was necessary for her own healing, even if her persecutors did not apologize.
“It is when somebody has forgiven you, and you apologize that you are able to step towards peace,” she said.
Ilibagiza and the other women eventually escaped the bathroom one night and fled to the safety of a nearby encampment of French troops. She left Rwanda in 1998 to emigrate to the U.S. and work for several years with the United Nations. She started a foundation for Rwandan orphans and residents.
She said she also is constantly questioning what she and the international community can do to stop genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, where experts say tens of thousands have been killed or raped, and millions have been displaced.
Although she noted it takes the condemnation of the world to stop genocide, one person’s prayer or action also can make a difference, she said. She cited the example of when she met President George W. Bush, who appeared moved by her book and her call to stop genocide.
Reactions like that are what moved her to write the book and speak about her ordeal, she said. She was the featured speaker of the 2007 Rosary Bowl, an annual outdoor prayer and celebration of the rosary in California, and has appeared on such television programs as “Oprah,” “20/20” and “60 Minutes.”
“It gets easier because after time it doesn’t become just my story, it becomes reaching people’s hearts, and that I can never do enough,” Ilibagiza said.