Left to Tell: Finding God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculee Ilibagiza (with Steve Irwin)
"I heard the killers call my name."
That is the first line of a harrowing, uplifting and painful autobiography of Immaculee, a young woman who was a college student home for Easter break when the horrific genocide of April 1994 began in Rwanda. She had grown up the third of four children, and the only girl, with two devoutly Catholic parents who passed their faith onto their children, as well as the belief that all people all God's children, and worthy of respect and love. She paints vivid pictures of her brothers Aimable, Damascene (the brother she was closest to), and her younger brother Vianney. Immaculee had a happy childhood, and she excelled in her schoolwork.
She did not, initially, understand the differences between Tutsi and Hutu that would so change her life. Her first encounter with ethnicity was at the age of 10, when she attended school with older children. Her teacher had a "tribal roll call " (16), and Immculee was dismissed from school for not knowing her ethnicity. The next day, her teacher told her stand up when he called "Tutsi." So she did--and she sawe the horrible impact this emphasis on ethnicity would have first-hand.
As the genocide began in April of '94, she tries to stay at home with her family; hundreds of Tutsis came to the family's property to ask Immaculee's father for help. A few days later, Immaculee was sent to the home of Pastor Murinzi (57), who was friends with Immaculee's father. While Vianney and Damascene eventually joined her, they were only permitted to stay one day. Immaculee, however, would wait out the genocide with five other women for 91 days.
How did she survive?
"I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me. Everything strong and good in me--my faith, hope and courage--was vuleranble to the dark energy. If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn't be able to survive. I could rely only on God to help me fight." (80)
Taking the rosary her father had given her before she left the house, Immaculee immersed herself in prayer all day. When the Hutu killing squads surrounded the house, she prayed even harder. And she learned to pray for forgiveness for the killers.
Her profound faith left a deep impact on me. In fact, as soon as I finished the book, I began it again, but slower this timer, in order to fully absorb the profound insights she had about the nature of prayer, faith and total surrender to God. She knew that only God and His will would help her survive, and that He would give her the strength to handle whatever obstacles she would face during her incredible trials.
I was also moved to tears by the example of her brother, Damascene. (WARNING: HEre be spoilers!) Aimable was in another country, at school, during the genocide, but the rest of Immaculee's family was separated throughout Rwanda as they struggled to survive. Immaculee writes about how Damascene was always her defender, protector, and best friend. Their bond was almost more than brother and sister--it was deeply spiritual.
When Immaculee finds out her brother was killed, she is bereft. But he had written her one last letter:
May 6, 1994(152)
Dear [Dad, Mo, Vianney, and] Immaculee,
It has been nearly a month since we were separated, and we are all living a nightmare. Besides what the circumstances suggest, I believe that a tribe can exterminate another tribe only if it's God's will; maybe out lives are the price that must be paid for Rwanda's salvation. I am only certain about one things: we will meet again--there is no doubt in my mind.
I'm going to try to get out of the country, but I don't know if I'll make it. If they kill me along the way, you shouldn't worry about me; I have prayed enough...I am prepared for death. If I do manage to make it out of Rwanda, I will contact you as soon as the peace returns. Bonn will tell you everything that has happened to me...
Immaculee, I beg you to be strong> I've just heard that Mom, Dad, and Vianney have been killed. I will be in contact with you.
Big hugs and kisses!
Your brother, who loves you very much!
The chapter continues with the acocunt of Damascene's death. After reading it, my first thought was--this young man was a Saint. His life and death should be up for Canonization in Rome. For men like him are certainly in Heaven.
Immaculee's strength, faith and determination are astounding. This book deepened my faith and demonstrates how we can surrender to God's will in even the most difficult circumstances. Immaculee and her family are an inspiration to all of us.