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A Horrific Tale of Forgiveness

I really miss my book club, but I am participating in the Stay LDS Book Club.  The first book that we have decided to read is Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza.  It is her story of the Rwandan Genocide.  I previously discussed the movie Hotel Rwanda, describing the events from Paul Russebagina’s point of view.  Immaculee has an incredibly inspiring story as well.  The book is intensely moving.

Growing up, Immaculee had no idea if she was a Hutu or a Tutsi.  Her parents had endured previous political unrest, and wanted to raise their children as if their tribe did not matter.  (It turns out she was a minority Tutsi.)  In 1994, this awful episode began, and she hid with 7 other women in a small bathroom.  She lost half her body weight, and spent literally 3 months praying.  (She is a Roman Catholic.)  The subtitle of the book is “Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust”.

She describes her attempt to forgive, even amidst this awful tragedy.  She describes a spiritual experience she had, while essentially witnessing a murder.  I don’t emotionally understand the experience, but I can slightly grasp it intellectually.  She describes hearing the murder of a Tutsi mother, and her child left to die:

page 93-94,

One night I heard screaming not far from the house, and then a baby crying.  The killers must have slain the mother and left her infant to die in the road.  The child wailed all night; by morning, its cries were feeble and sporadic, and by nightfall, it was silent.  I heard dogs snarling nearby and shivered as I thought about how that baby’s life had ended.  I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul, and then I asked Him, How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?

I heard His answer as clearly as if we’d been sitting in the same room chatting: You are all my children…and the baby is with Me now.

It was such a simple sentence, but it was the answer to the prayers I’d been lost in for days.

The killers were like children.  Yes, they were barbaric creatures who would have to be punished severely for their actions, but they were still children.  They were cruel, vicious, and dangerous, as kids sometimes can be, but nevertheless, they were children.  They saw, but didn’t understand the terrible harm they’d inflicted.  They’d blindly hurt others without thinking, they’d hurt their Tutsi brothers and sisters, they’d hurt God–and they didn’t understand how badly they were hurting themselves.  Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country, but their souls weren’t evil.  Despite their atrocities, they were children of God, and I could forgive a child, although it would not be easy…especially when that child was trying to kill me.

In God’s eyes, the killers were part of His family, deserving of love and forgiveness.  I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children.  At that moment, I prayed for the killers, for their sins to be forgiven.  I prayed that God would lead them to recognize the horrific error of their ways before their life on Earth ended–before they were called to acocunt for their mortal sins.

I held on to my father’s rosary and asked God to help me, and again I hear His voice: Forgive them, they know not what they do.

I took a crucial step toward forgiving the killers that day.  My anger was draining from me–I’d opened my heart to God, and He’d touched it with His infinite love.  For the first time, I pitied the killers.  I asked God to forgive their sins and turn their souls toward His beautiful light.

That night I prayed with a clear conscience and a clean haert.  For the first time since I entered the bathroom, I slept in peace.

I still can’t fathom her capacity to forgive.  It is awe-inspiring to me.  After the war, she met the man (one of her neighbors), that killed her parents, stole their property, and burned her home to the ground.  Semana, the jailhouse guard allowed her to see him so she could spit on him if she wanted.  From page 204,

“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immaculee.  We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?”  Semana yelled at Felicien.  “After he killed [your mother] Rose and [brother] Damascene, he kept looking for you…he wanted you dead so he could take over your property.  Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.

I flinched, letting out an involuntary gasp.  Semana looked at me, stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face.  He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet.  “What do you have to say to her?  What do you have to say to Immaculee?”

Felicien was sobbing.  I could feel his shame.  He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met.  I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.

“I forgive you.”

My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders before Semana pushed him out the door and into the courtyard.  Two soldiers yanked Felicien up by his armpits and dragged him back toward his cell.  When Semana returned, he was furious.

“What was that all about, Immaculee?”  that was the man who murdered your family.  I brought him to you to question…to spit on if you wanted to.  But you forgave him!  How could you do that?  Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with all truth:  “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”

I never want to experience a tragedy so awful.  I truly admire Immaculee’s capacity to forgive; she is a tremendous example of a Christian.

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12 comments on “A Horrific Tale of Forgiveness

  1. I’m about 1/3 of the way through this book and I think it is important to learn empathy and forgiveness. I don’t know how she did it, but people in those kinds of situations rarely know how they could handle it if you asked them before it started.

  2. mcarp, on the one hand, this book is a very easy read. On the other hand, the brutality is difficult to stomach. She is truly an amazing woman. What is so startling to me is that so many people experienced the same thing. Most understandably come out with hatred. Yet she came out with love and forgiveness. She talks about praying for 7 hours, and the story reminded me of Enos in the Book of Mormon.

    When I think about the need to forgive, I feel stingy compared to her.

  3. I was very moved by this story back in April. Immaculee remains a true hero (heroin?) for me. May God bless her story to continue to move people to a spirit of forgiveness.

  4. Very deeply moving post, MH. I see you’ve added it to Mormon Matters, so I’ll comment at length there as soon as I can get my thoughts together.

  5. Amazing story, MH, and incredibly inspiring. Thanks for posting it.

  6. […] such a tragedy happen?  Why do neighbors turn so quickly on each other?  In my previous post, I discussed the Rwandan Genocide.  Armand Mauss describes the “Moral Panic” in Ballentine’s film.  He is […]

  7. Finished last week at scout camp. Excellent book. I still don’t understand how a country like that can have repeated violence between tribes (1954, 1972, 1998 if I remember the dates correctly). It is just very sad.

  8. In Rwanda the asymmetry of Hutu and Tutsi power (the minority Tutsis ruled for more than a century under their own power and with the help of the colonists from Belgium and Germany) and Tutsi attempts to regain power after independence in 1961 are some of the primary reasons for the genocide. State radio and television provided a needed assist, broadcasting anti-Tutsi propaganda widely for more than a year before the genocide. It gets infinitely more complicated; all states that, like Rwanda, border on the DRC have partaken of the political turmoil its porous borders seem to foster (the country has played host to dozens of proxy wars, many of which have bled over into Congolese politics). To add to this the boundaries of the countries were poorly drawn by people who knew little about the local cultures, and the situation wasn’t helped by administrators who would determine if you were “Hutu” or “Tutsi” or whatever based on how closely you resembled white Europeans. Sometimes African “tribes” were invented out of whole-cloth. Hence by the time of the genocide the people attached to those names were often only vaguely related to the people who originally were considered Hutu or Tutsi. But the label proved useful to those in power who feared the Tutsi revolution then underway.

    Thus the genocide had little or nothing to do with religion. In the same way much of the violence directed against early Mormons had more to do with local politics than the religious uniqueness of Mormons per se. Often in those situations religion gets dragged into things and becomes a tool of the parties in conflict (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prime example, as was/is the “troubles” in Northern Ireland), but in almost all circumstances it simply provides cover for people seeking other things.

    In much the same way various anti-colonial groups in Africa seized upon Cold War identity politics and played both sides masterfully; Jonas Savimbi in Angola was particularly good at being a “freedom fighter” (so designated by none other than Ronald Reagan) in the US but mostly a wannabe dictator at home. In the same vein the MPLA (the party in power and opposed to Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola) played upon both Cuban and Russian sentiments, even at times playing them against each other (almost to the point of Cuban troops fighting Soviet troops). The same thing happened all over the globe, as small states realized they could gain support for various causes by claiming to be “democratic” or “communist”. That’s how the Taliban in Afghanistan, for instance, became the cause celebre of certain Americans whose patriotism blinded their judgment.

    The same thing happens these days, of course. Charlatans of all stripes hide behind political and religious differences and stoke those fires in an effort to get rich, get more power, or both.

  9. mcarp, I’m glad to hear you read it. Are you interested in the StayLDS book club? We’re reading John Hamer’s book called “Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism” for July. It really is amazing that these deep seated hatred keep coming back decade after decade. It would be nice if they buried the hatchet like the US has done with former enemies of Japan and Germany.

    Andrew, thanks for the insights there. I agree that thugs stoke fires of hatred in an effort to get more power. It’s a terrible cycle.

  10. Thanks, MH. Loved the excerpt from the book. Also enjoyed everyone’s comments. I’d love to fill my library with inspiring books like that. Gotta wait till the budget allows, though.

  11. Thanks for the very interesting article, and I have been emotionally touched by loving spirit of the Author (Immaculee Hibagiza). Forgiveness can be difficult in her situation, however, she had a strong belief in the power of prayers. I am looking forward in purchasing a copy of this book, and will share my thoughts in the future. Meanwhile, let me say thanks for sharing this article. It is another subject for each of us to search for ways to forgive rather than letting hatred linger on in our personal lives. A forgiving heart is better than bitterness and anger.

  12. Chester, thank you for your comment, and I’m glad you continue to stop by my blog. I think that forgiveness can be one of the best, and most difficult, virtues we can participate in.

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