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April 9, 2010

Hundreds hear speech by genocide survivor

Laura Wehde • The Daily Republic

Immaculée Ilibagiza speaks Thursday in the Sherman Center at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. (Laura Wehde/Republic Photo)

Extra chairs had to be brought in Thursday as about 800 people packed into the Sherman Center on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell to hear best-selling author, speaker and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza deliver the university’s Founders’ Lecture.

Ilibagiza’s powerful message was about peace, faith and forgiveness.

She spoke about the 91 days she spent in a cramped bathroom huddled together with seven other women in a pastor’s house, hiding from the terrors of the genocide of Rwanda in 1994. An estimated 1 million people died during a three-month period, including nearly all of Ilibagiza’s family.

“People were learning new skills of killing,” Ilibagiza said. “This was the devil at work.”

It was in that bathroom, holding onto the last gift that her father had given her, a rosary, that Ilibagiza found faith and prayed constantly while in hiding.

Ilibagiza was on Easter break from college when the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were in a plane that was shot down, inciting the killings between the primary Rwandan ethnic groups the Hutus and the Tutsis.

Being Tutsi, Ilibagiza and her family were targets. She talked about Hutu soldiers with machetes going door-to-door and killing Tutsi people. Radio broadcasts were aired about ways to efficiently kill Tutsi people, along with reports of the thousands murdered during her first week of hiding.

She also spoke about one day, while in hiding, that soldiers came to search the Hutu pastor’s house.

“To know that someone who has come to kill you was only inches away is a feeling I really don’t know how to express,” she said. “I was frozen; I didn’t know what to do.”

As the soldiers continued searching, Ilibagiza prayed and ended up fainting from the stress of the situation.

“If you are there — if you exist — I am begging you, don’t let the killers find the door of the bathroom,” she recalled praying to God. “If you do that, I will know that you exist.”

Just as the soldiers approached the door to the bathroom where she was hiding, they changed their mind, decided that they trusted the pastor, and left the house.

“I thought to myself, God is real, he heard me — in the bathroom,” she said.

Through much praying in the days to follow, Ilibagiza decided to forgive the killers.

Following the tragedies in Rwanda, Ilibagiza began to work for the United Nations and in 1998 moved to New York. It was while telling her story to friends and co-workers that she was urged to put her story into a book. That book, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” quickly became a New York Times bestseller. To date, it has been translated into 15 languages worldwide.

Ilibagiza recently signed a contract with MPower Pictures to produce a movie about her story. She now raises money for the Left to Tell Charitable Fund, which she established to benefit orphans from the genocide.

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Last updated: 4/9/10