Ten years ago an extraordinary book appeared. Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza was a memoir of a survivor. At the time, there was a vogue for such memoirs, often recalling some shocking childhood experiences and recounting how the writer overcame them. Left to Tell was different. The experiences its author had survived were truly life shattering. What she had been left to tell, however, was not simply how she survived those experiences but how they had brought her closer to God and how, when all looked lost, the power of forgiveness had transformed her life.
The word ‘genocide’ has been used several times in history: of the Ottoman slaughter of Armenian Christians in 1915, of the Nazi murder of Jews during the Second World War and, more recently, of what is simply termed the Rwandan Genocide. The last named occurred just twenty years ago but, I suspect, many reading this would have but a vague idea of those events. They were, however, as horrifying as the evil unleashed proved indiscriminate. One tribe, the Hutus, the majority tribal group in Rwanda took to killing the minority tribe, the Tutsis. By the time the Hutus gangs had finished their slaughter, approximately one million Tutsis had lost their lives and their once peaceful and prosperous African homeland lay in ruins.
Immaculée Ilibagiza was a Tutsi. She had grown up in a loving and talented family in a small town in the east of Rwanda. She had done well at school and was at university when the madness broke. What happened next is almost too incredible to describe and too heart-breaking to do justice to in its retelling. Think for a moment of all those whom you love both family and friends; think, too, of your neighbours and schoolmates. In fact, think of where you live and of the social bonds that bind all around together. Then think of those bonds being torn apart. Think of one’s neighbourhood and some within it being corrupted beyond belief. Imagine the horrors of realising that your neighbours see you and your family as the ‘enemy’ and, thereafter, possessed by some malign spirit, come armed for murder.
The idyllic childhood world that Immaculée describes in her opening was followed by a nightmare, one from which she never thought she would ever awake.
In the face of the violation and death then being meted out to Tutsi women, Immaculée fled. Along with some other, younger Tutsi girls, whom she had never previously met, she was hidden in a bathroom of a local pastor. That man was a Hutu and he took a considerable risk in affording the girls sanctuary. Even the experience of this kindness was tinged, however, with sadness as Immaculée witnessed male members of her family being denied refuge – sent away only to be hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob.
Try, now, to visualise what this woman had to endure for 91 days. Think of the smallest bathroom you can imagine; then imagine it filled with strangers; you are packed in so tightly there is no space for anyone to move. Then allow for the fact that you cannot communicate with your fellow inmates except through sign language. Food was meagre and available only intermittently – every moment your hunger won’t leave you alone. This was the ordeal Immaculée lived. In addition, she and the other girls were in a constant dread. At any moment they might be discovered. The door might be kicked open with rape and death to follow at the hands of drug-fuelled mob. This was Immaculée’s world in the summer of 1994.
If this is not horrendous enough, then imagine not knowing if your family are alive or dead. Feel the anxiety of that fear. Deal with those emotions, not least the hatred which boils to the surface in almost overwhelming force. Yet all the time you are unable to speak.
In such a place, would you keep faith? What answer would you have when the tempter told you of the men who have killed your family in the most disgusting ways? And when that same tempter told you that you also are doomed to such a fate – what then? When he whispers: Where is your God? Your answer?
People often say that their lives are changed by an event or a series of events. We all have a tendency to exaggerate; Immaculée does not exaggerate. In the space of a few days, as across Rwanda bloodstained machete blades glinted in the African sun, her world was ripped to pieces. But, and here’s the thing: she wasn’t.
The last thing her father gave Immaculée was a rosary. She prayed it non-stop while captive in the bathroom. She held onto it as tightly as to life itself; it was something that seemed but a fragile thread to another life during those dark days. As she prayed it, it proved a lifeline. In the darkness that engulfed her, both moral and physical, she looked to the light. In that bathroom, as her killers roamed around outside, she was transformed by the experience of a loving God. She became a mystic – one who has a direct experience of God. Slowly, she entrusted herself to her Heavenly Father then and forever. After that, what became of her seemed immaterial: she had had the strangest, and saddest lesson in what really matters.
Left to Tell is a truly remarkable book. It is the story of a young woman. It is also the story of the spiritual bonds between members of a Catholic family that reach into eternity. It is, of course, the story of a survival – one with as much supernatural incident as natural. It is a story of growing up, of becoming an adult and then aging in the face of the worst that evil has to offer. It also tells of hope in the face of devilish despair, of decency and human dignity when confronted with humanity sunk to the basest of levels possible. More importantly still, it tells of a curious rebirth.
As well as being a modern spiritual classic, Left to Tell is also a thriller. You feel the knot in your stomach tighten when Immaculée’s assassins draw near in their frantic searches for her. You will cry, as she did, on discovering the fate of her family and what it reveals about the depth of man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps, most of all, however, you will ask yourself: would I have the strength to call on God in such circumstances? Could I live on faith alone as Immaculée did?
In this Year of Mercy, Left to Tell tells us that love and mercy are greater than hatred and death. Immaculée was left to tell us that; and, in the end it was her faith, her love, her forgiveness that conquered, not the atrocities of the genocide and those who perpetrated them.
Editor’s note: Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust is available through Ignatius Press and your local Catholic bookstore.