Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Surviving a Genocide

Last night, I went to Tennessee Tech University to hear Immaculee Ilibagiza speak. For those of you who are not familiar with Immaculee, she is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I first heard of Immaculee at a Louise Hay “I Can Do It” seminar I attended in Orlando, Florida several years ago. This woman has influenced my life like no other. I would highly recommend reading her books “Left to Tell” and “Led by Faith.”

To give a brief overview of her life…. She was attending college at the time, and during an Easter holiday, she went home to visit her family. That’s when all hell broke lose…literally. The Hutu’s stormed the country slaughtering all Tutsi’s regardless of whether they were friends or family. They were doing what they were told to do. Hate reigned. Immaculee’s father insisted she go to the home of a Hutu minister for safety. The Hutu minister hid Immaculee and seven other women in a small bathroom measuring 3’ x 4’. That’s eight woman (actually, one was a seven year old child) in a tiny room. They stayed hidden in this tiny space for three months. They weren’t allowed to talk and could only flush the toilet when the toilet on the other side of the wall was flushed. Not even the minister’s family knew they were in there.

Every day, hundreds of Hutu’s would go through the home looking for them. The minister put a dresser closet in front of the door to hide it. The women could only eat when the minister was able to slip them scraps of food. When Immaculee went into the bathroom, she weighed 115 pounds. When she came out, she weighed 65 pounds.

During her time in the bathroom, she prayed using her rosary beads. She would go through the beads a couple hundred times a day, trying to make sense of everything, and trying to deal with her fear. It wasn’t easy, but she began to come to peace with everything. What is even more amazing was that she was able to forgive those who murdered her family, friends, and relatives. No one was left of her immediate family except for one brother who was out of the country at the time of the genocide.

When the women were able to finally come out of the bathroom and escape to a refugee camp, they had to walk on a road where piles of dead body lined both sides. Can you imagine seeing something so horrendous!?! How she was able to come through all these experiences sane is amazing. This is the power of love and forgiveness.

Later, the “magic” of serendipity led her to meet Wayne Dyer, and when he heard her story, he said she had to write about it, and what’s more, he would see that it got published. What he didn’t know what that she had already written about her experiences, but just didn’t know how to go about getting it published.

Immaculee is a great example of forgiveness. I don’t know if I could be so forgiving if anyone slaughtered most everyone I knew and loved. What Immaculee taught me was not only the power of forgiveness, but to count my blessings. When I think of what she went through, I have no problems (though you can’t swallow those problems; you still have to deal with them). I am very blessed in spite of what I consider to be lack or obstacles in my life. Her story also helps me keep things in perspective.

During the question and answer session after her speaking, several members stood up in the audience and told of their own experiences with genocide. They, too, had lost members of their family. One gentleman mentioned that he just lost his brother recently in the genocide which is still occurring in Africa.

Today, Immaculee works with the United Nations, is married and has children. She also began a charitable organization called “The Left to Tell Charitable Fund” that helps orphaned children from the genocides, to relocate them to better places, takes care of them, and helps them with their education and the pain from their ordeals.

One of the men at TN Tech and I got to talking about the conditions of other countries. Most Americans do not have a clue how good they have it here, no matter how depressing their circumstances may seem. People in other countries have nothing and have no access to even the simplest things that we have in our country. If we’re hungry, we at least have options. In other countries, they don’t even have any of the resources that we have. Genocide is still occurring in some countries of the world! How America and other countries can turn a blind eye to these atrocities is beyond me.

I often think it would be great if we could establish a program where seniors in school could spend a semester doing humanitarian work in one of these challenged countries. The students would come back changed beyond their imaginations. They might learn to appreciate what they do have. They might choose to be of service to others. They might learn to count their blessings and not turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, or other addictions to try to escape the situations they find themselves in. It would teach them that life isn’t all about ‘me’ and they would choose professions where they can actually help change the world for the better.

Immaculee, you’ve changed my life and I’m a better person because you live. I’m a better person because I learned from what you went through. And, I’ve learned the power of love and forgiveness. Thank you, Immaculee.

For more information about Immaculee, please go to


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