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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
ImmaculÉe Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994, hugs Brooke Pugh and Tallie Smith after speaking to a group of high school students at American Heritage School in American Fork on Friday, May 19, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — For Immaculée Ilibagiza, April 7, 1994, divides her life into before and after.

Before that day, her family lived among neighbors they loved in a nurturing Rwandan village where if a child fell asleep at someone else’s home, it was safe. If it was dinnertime, that child was fed. Their village had no crime and the neighbors trusted each other. Her family was close, protective, loving.

Within the space of hours, none of that would be true, although it would be three long months — spent hiding with seven other women in the cramped 3-foot-by-4-foot bathroom of a neighbor who was a Protestant pastor — before she’d know for sure what she’d lost.

She survived the genocide in Rwanda that began the day after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Hutu president of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. Their deaths led directly to the murders of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsi, at the hands of Hutu tribe members. Ilibagiza was 23, home on a short break from college.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Friday, Ilibagiza was both worlds and decades away from the massacre, standing on the stage of an auditorium at a Utah County private, nonprofit school in American Fork, American Heritage School, her mission multifaceted: She hopes to teach children about forgiveness — the big, hard-to-fathom kind that seems impossible to provide because of the gravity of the wrongs endured. She hopes to establish ties between children at the Utah school and those at a school in Rwanda. And she hopes to interest Americans in helping Rwandan children become educated at both a secondary and a college level. They need scholarships and supplies and encouragement. They need a future.

But mostly, she wants to talk about forgiveness. It’s a lesson she learned in that cramped bathroom more than 20 years ago. To utter any sound, even crying, would be death, so she talked silently to God and then listened for his voice in her head.

When she emerged, she said, it was like the end of her world. Her family except for one brother away at college had been murdered — mom, dad, two brothers, a set of grandparents, several uncles.

“Those are things you only read in bad books, in horror movies,” she said to the students.

But she already knew she had to forgive the killers.

Softening heart

“In the silence, I discovered that voice inside you talk to. You ask questions and get answers,” Ilibagiza said in an interview. “I was silent for three months, completely silent, but in my head, I was loud.”

Her father gave her a rosary and sent her to the pastor’s house to hide. She remembers looking back at the people gathered on a soccer field as she left. She remembers what her parents wore, where they stood. It is a picture in her heart. She felt she’d never see them again, but tried to argue that dread away.

The pastor locked her with a few others in the bathroom and placed a bookshelf in front of the doorway. He told his family he had lost the key.

At night, the pastor would bring the women a plate of food and water. She asked for a Bible and taught herself English reading it. She kept going back to the idea of forgiveness.

The roaming search parties came through with dozens of armed men. They searched every corner of the pastor's house. She said she felt the urge to step outside, if only to end the torture of waiting, but instead prayed. Though the search party had looked everywhere else, they stopped short of checking the bathroom and instead decided to trust the pastor, who was a member of their tribe.

Later, she asked the pastor to leave a radio outside, so she and the other women could know what was going on outside the bathroom. While they waited, they began to understand the tragedy unfolding around them; members of their own government had taken to the radio, calling for the total annihilation of her tribe.

She wanted to align herself with God’s will, but she had questions: What went wrong? How had it come to this?

The answer was simple and unexpected: “When love is not respected, this is the disaster that follows,” she said.

“The answer was very clear to me. Forgive one another … not just because it’s nice. It’s what you do if you want to live in peace. Love one another. It’s what to do if you want to live happy.”

She said she had to ask God to show her how. The answer? “I do not have to do evil because another person has done it. It was a huge transformation.” She thought of Jesus on the cross: “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they do.”

“It was like a formula,” she said. “One plus two equals three. They do not know what they do. I make mistakes; I do not know what I’m doing.” She knew the killers would face the consequences of their actions, even if only in their hearts. She prayed for them and felt free.

It’s one thing to think you can forgive when you are locked away and praying all the time. It’s another when confronted with the reality your family actually was murdered, she acknowledges. She wanted to meet the man who killed her mother and brother. The head of the jail where that man was held was a family friend who was eager to let her hurt the man for the losses she’d suffered. The jailer's own wife and children had been killed, and he took the job because he wanted to avenge their deaths.

She was afraid of how she’d feel when she saw him, but the man she saw — the killer — was someone she’d known in happier times as a family friend. In jail, he was haggard, unkempt, unshaven, unhappy. He’d forfeited his family by his actions, too. He was miserable. “This man would not have wanted to lose his family to be here, but this is the consequence of what he did,” she said. “I said, ‘I forgive him,’ to free him to go on his own journey, the same as I did.”

The jailer was furious; he wanted to see her seek revenge. A year later, he thanked her for the lesson in forgiveness. It freed him, too, to move on with his life, to find joy and a future.

“When you are angry, it never goes away. When you let go, you are free to breathe again and think about yourself,” she said.

To the future

After the genocide ended, she said she began seeking opportunities to help anyone she could, while living in the refugee camps. She learned to live with compassion.

Eighteen years ago, she moved to New York.

As she worked she began to share her story. She began writing, quickly finishing the first draft of what became her New York Times bestselling book, "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.”

She started sharing her story as often as she could and found that as she did, she met many more people who were moved to forgiveness by her experience. She found people who had learned to reconnect with estranged family members, and students who renewed old friendships that had once faltered.

“If you can show kindness, you have done your part today,” she told the students at American Heritage School.

She hopes the Utah students will see and count their blessings.

“We all have our own struggling, and don’t minimize it, it hurts,” she told the students. “Please remember, there is always hope.”

Ilibagiza has done work for the United Nations, has received six honorary doctoral degrees, written several books and received the Mahatma Gandhi Internatioanl Award for Reconciliation and Peace. Anyone wanting to donate to her Rwanda school charity can reach her through Immaculee.com.