Immaculée Ilibagiza – a hero of unimaginable courage – shared her inspiring story of surviving the 1994 Rwanda genocide that claimed all the members of her family except one brother among 1 million Rwandans. She endured the ordeal by hiding out with seven other women in a 3-foot by 4-foot bathroom in a neighbor’s home for 91 days.
“The genocide was terrifying. I never wish anyone to see what I saw,” Immaculée told students on Wednesday as the second HYPE Career Ready® keynote speaker. “But I learned to understand beauty and the importance and knowledge that it is possible to forgive.”
Through those 91 days, Immaculée experienced a wave of emotions. The anger, fear and feelings of revenge that were consuming her mind, body and soul made her feel like a prisoner. So she chose prayer as a way of drowning out the anger inside her and the evil of the ethnically based rebellion occurring outside the house.
The moment she finally learned of the magnitude of what was taking place in her country, she decided to think for herself. “The only reasonable thing that came to my mind was that my life was over,” she said. Faced with a difficult choice of giving up or asking God for help, Immaculée chose the latter.
“In that moment, I felt peace move in my body,” she said. When she later learned that rebel forces had searched the house where she was staying but bypassed the bathroom, she understood that “God is real” and that she would never again question her faith.
“That shocked me. I thought, “He heard me from that bathroom. I realized I’m not alone.”
At that point, Immaculée asked for a Bible, learning lessons with the turning of every page – lessons to love your enemies and pray for the people who hate you. When praying the rosary her father had given her, which she did frequently, she eventually felt the power of forgiveness and surrender.
The ultimate test of her faith came when she was called to forgive the man who massacred her family. Drawing on the message of the crucifixion, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do,” she decided this: “If I can change, why not another human being. So I started to forgive them.
“When hatred left me, I had more space in my mind,” she said.
Immaculée’s weight had decreased to 65 pounds by the end of her ordeal, but her spirit was much bigger. Experiencing the power of prayer and forgiveness, she believed she was destined to do something good.
Today, her creed is “Be a good human being every day and the rest will be provided for you.” She is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Live to Tell,” and she created a foundation that assists orphans in Rwanda. She left Heidelberg students with this message: “Life is your gift and it’s up to you how to use it.”
“If I can forgive, anyone can forgive,” she said.
This year, HYPE partnered with the Lichtman-Behm Genocide Lecture Series to bring Immaculée to campus. After her HYPE keynote, she spoke to about 500 eighth-grade through high school students from area schools.