95 pages 3 hours read

Immaculée Ilibagiza

Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2006

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Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculée Ilibagiza is an autobiography published in 2006. Immaculée is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which lasted from April to July that year. During this 100-day period, it is estimated that nearly a million Tutsis were killed by Hutus, the tribe that comprised the majority of Rwanda’s population at that time. Immaculée is a Tutsi and a 22-year-old college student when the genocide begins. In order to survive, she hides in a small bathroom without ever leaving, along with seven other women, for three months. Both her parents and two of her brothers—Damascene and Vianney—are killed in the genocide. Immaculée and her eldest brother Aimable are the only remaining members of her family. Immaculée sees it as her spiritual duty to tell the story of her family, and the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, to the world at large.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part 1: “The Gathering Storm,” Immaculée describes her early childhood in Rwanda and the structure of her family. Her parents, Leonard and Rose, are educators and well-respected community members in their village of Mataba. There are four children in the family: the eldest, Aimable, Damascene, Immaculée, and Vianney, the youngest. The conflict between Hutus and Tutsis has its origins in Belgium’s colonialist occupation of the area in the early 1900s. By 1994, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis reach a breaking point. Meanwhile, Immaculée is an amazing student: After excelling in primary and high school, Immaculée is awarded a scholarship to university. In her final year of college, while she is home visiting her family to celebrate Easter in 1994, the genocide begins. The Hutu extremist paramilitary organization called the Interwahame swarm Mataba, killing every Tutsi on sight. In a skirmish outside Immaculée’s family home, her family is separated in the commotion. Immaculée heads to Pastor Murinzi’s house to hide.

Part 2: “In Hiding” details the three-month period Immaculée spends hiding from the Interwahame in Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom. When Immaculée arrives at Pastor Murinzi’s home, several members of the village, Hutus and Tutsis alike, are gathered there. Immaculée is surprised that her Hutu friends and neighbors react to her with disgust—they have known one another their entire lives, and yet suddenly her Tutsi heritage repulses them. The genocidal conflict outside is escalating rapidly, and so the pastor decides that he must hide the Tutsi women in his house, if they are to have any chance of survival. Immaculée and seven other women are kept in a four-foot-long and three-foot-wide private bathroom attached to Pastor Murinzi’s bedroom. As the genocide rages on, the national Rwandan radio, which serves as a propaganda broadcast for the Hutu government, encourages citizens to kill the Tutsi “cockroaches” every chance they get. The pastor tells the women that they must remain completely silent so as not to reveal their hiding spot, so the women develop a sign language to communicate with one another. Interwahame routinely rush Pastor Murinzi’s house, looking for Tutsi refugees. During these inspections, the women experience intense terror, knowing that they are moments away from death.

Between Interwahame inspections, Immaculée devotes herself to prayer, reciting the rosary and meditating on Bible passages for hours every day. Her faith is strengthened, as she believes that God’s protection is the only thing keeping her safe. She also decides to learn English, and the pastor provides her with a French-to-English dictionary. Pastor Murinzi hears that the French are coming to Rwanda as part of “Operation Turquoise,” a nationwide peacekeeping effort. Immaculée asks the pastor if the women might seek out the French for protection. The pastor does not trust that the French will be welcoming to Tutsis, but he agrees to help the women find their camp anyway. When Pastor Murinzi finally does, he delivers them to the French under a cover of darkness. The French camp, located in an abandoned Protestant church, welcomes the women inside, and for the first time since the beginning of the genocide, Immaculée is filled with an overwhelming sense of relief. She finally feels safe.

In Part 3: “A New Path,” Immaculée describes the process of rebuilding her life post-genocide and finding meaning after such extreme trauma. In the French camp, Immaculée is reunited with a family friend, Jean Paul, who tells Immaculée the fate of each of her immediate family members. Aimable is the only one left alive; her parents and her brothers Damascene and Vianney all met brutally violent ends, which Jean Paul describes in graphic detail. To Immaculée’s surprise, in addition to Jean Paul, she also finds two of her aunts and three cousins at the French camp. One aunt gives Immaculée a letter that Damascene wrote just before he died, which is his last communication with Immaculée. When the camp is filled to capacity, the French soldiers relocate Immaculée and a group of other Tutsis to a different camp in a dilapidated schoolhouse.

At the schoolhouse, Immaculée runs into a local celebrity in Rwanda, a woman by the name of Aloise. Aloise is a highly-intelligent, wheelchair-bound woman with connections to many diplomats at the United Nations. Aloise recognizes Immaculée immediately—Aloise knew Immaculée’s mother from her girlhood, and Aloise credits Immaculée’s mother with saving her life. When Aloise was 8 years old, her family fell onto hard times and couldn’t afford to pay for Aloise’s schooling, so Immaculée’s mother helped fund her education that year. Aloise says that she will always be grateful to Immaculée’s mother, and as an act of gratitude, she invites Immaculée (along with her aunts and cousins and Jean Paul) to live with her in her home in Kigali. Immaculée accepts the invitation and, in Kigali, manages to secure a job at the United Nations. Through her connections there, she arranges a helicopter trip back to her village of Mataba. On the first trip, she goes through the difficult process of exhuming her mother’s and Damascene’s remains in order to give them a proper burial. They are buried in what remains of their family home, which for the most part has been burned to the ground. On the second trip to Mataba, she visits the local jail and finds the leader of the Hutu gang that killed her family. Rather than react with hatred, Immaculée takes the killer’s hands in hers and tells him that she forgives him.

The primary theme of the book is a message of faith: Immaculée is able to persevere through extreme trauma because of her belief in God. Faith allows her to forgive the Hutu killers that murdered her family, destroyed her home, and changed the course of her life forever. The book also touches upon themes of innocence, perseverance, and the cyclical nature of violence.