FAIRPORT — Despite witnessing firsthand Rwanda’s darkest hour when nearly 1 million people were killed in three months as part of a bloody 1994 genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza had a message of optimism for the more than 1,000 people who heard her speak at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption Sept. 24.
“No matter what has happened to you, there’s hope as long as you are still breathing,” Ilibagiza said.
Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, held on to hope — in the form of a Bible, a red-and-white rosary and a French-English dictionary — during 91 days in hiding in a Rwandan bathroom with seven other women who had been concealed by a Hutu pastor.
The Bible was something Ilibagiza studied and meditated upon as she learned more about her Roman Catholic faith, which eventually helped her forgive her persecutors. The rosary was something she said 27 times a day as she consumed the hours from morning to night.
“That kept me busy,” Ilibagiza said. “At the end of the day, I felt like I did something great.”
The dictionary was something she had requested from the minister. She studied it to learn English so that after she escaped from the bathroom she would be able to find a job using her newfound English skills.
libagiza’s hope paid off. After hiding from April to July, she and the other women fled the bathroom late one night to an encampment of French troops. Later, she landed a job at the United Nations office in Rwanda, and in 1998 emigrated to the U.S. to work for the U.N. in New York.
After a chance meeting with an author, Ilibagiza was able to connect with a publisher to edit and publish her manuscript of how she survived. Now a portion of the proceeds of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust goes to benefit those orphaned during the genocide.
Ilibagiza, whose visit to Fairport was made possible by an anonymous donor, was introduced by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. The bishop said he had read her book after two people recommended it to him and that he was inspired by it.
“I have been looking forward to this evening from the very moment I heard it was going to be a possibility,” Bishop Clark said.
Ilibagiza recounted the events that led up to the genocide. She said her childhood had been sheltered from the racial tensions among the feuding Hutu and Tutsi tribes.
“I was spoiled,” said Ilibagiza, who was 22 at the time of the genocide. “Everything they did for me. I was like a child. A spoiled brat. I never knew what life was about.”
That idyllic existence was interrupted in 1994, when Ilibagiza’s parents asked her to come home from college for Easter break. During that break, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down.
The next day, April 7, 1994, the Hutu majority began slaughtering the Tutsi minority, whom the Hutus blamed for oppression. Several things tipped off the family that the violence might be prolonged: One was in the past the deaths of Rwandan presidents preceded killings.
Secondly, in Kibeho, Rwanda, beginning in 1981 the Blessed Mother — in apparitions that have been accepted as authentic by a Rwandan archbishop — prophesied a river of blood and thousands of corpses. Soon it became clear that the prophesy was becoming reality, she said.
As fighting grew closer to her home, Ilibagiza’s parents begged her to go into hiding. Reluctantly, she went to the home of a Hutu minister who agreed to hide her in a rarely used bathroom. Seven other women would join her, including a girl only 7 years old. They were told not to talk or make any noise, and to use water only when the other bathroom in the house was using water.
“It was painful to be quiet,” Ilibagiza said. “I was still a child.”
Ilibagiza said a radio that the minister left on helped the women keep abreast of what was happening in their country. She heard a friend’s father, who was a government minister, tell Hutus to kill Tutsis, whom he and others called cockroaches. People who went to stadiums for protection were universally slaughtered, she said. Many churches were destroyed because people were found hiding in them, she added.
The first time the minister’s house was searched, she said she and the other women were praying fervently that the searchers would not open the door to the bathroom. One came close, but then backed off and told the minister he trusted him.
“I can’t tell you the pain you feel when you know someone who is hunting you is 5 inches away from you,” Ilibagiza said.
After that search, Ilibagiza asked the minister to hide the door of the bathroom with a large bureau. She credits that idea and the women’s fervent prayers for helping them evade notice.
When they emerged from hiding, Ilibagiza learned most of her family had been killed. Although she said it is difficult to live when so many loved ones have been killed, she noted she is buoyed by the many letters from people who have said her story inspired them to forgive others.
“I know the joy and I know the freedom in forgiving,” Ilibagiza said.
Several of those attending her talk said her faith was inspiring.
“She’s a walking saint,” said Pat DeSouza, an Assumption parishioner. “Her faith is just so simple and obvious, and she’s an example for all of us.”