Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin
2006. Hay House. ebook. 215 pages.
Immaculee Ilibagiza was a college student, home for the Easter holidays, at the time of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Along with seven other women, she survived the slaughter by hiding in a tiny, second bathroom of a pastor’s house, for three months. The rest of her immediate family – except for a brother who lived in Senegal – were killed. In Left to Tell, Immaculee briefly describes her family and childhood before giving an account of her experience of the genocide.
As the subtitle indicates, Immaculee Ilibagiza’s story of her survival is also a story of her faith. A devout Catholic, Immaculee’s description of her time hiding in the bathroom focuses mainly on her spiritual struggle. The eight hiding women spent most of the three months in complete silence, with a small high window that let in the sound of the killing and the killers’ boasts. In this dread quiet, Immaculee prayed and meditated on Bible verses that gave her strength, while persistent voices in her head told her that she would surely die. As a reader, I saw it as a pitched battle between hope and despair.
Immaculee credits God with sparing her life; the book describes many close calls averted by the prayers of Immaculee and her companions. In one instance described in the book, the Interhamwe searched the pastor’s house, looking for Immaculee in particular. (This is the horror of neighbors killing neighbors: they remembered that they had found and killed all of her family except for her.) As the women listened in fear to the sounds of the killers on the other side of the bathroom door, Immaculee prayed and had an out-of-body vision of Jesus and the cross:
Then Jesus spoke: “Mountains are moved with faith, Immaculee, but if faith were easy, all the mountains would be gone. Trust in me, and know that I will never leave you. Trust in me, and have no more fear. Trust in me, and I will save you. I shall put my cross upon this door, and they will not reach you. Trust in me, and you shall live.”
Suddenly I was back on the floor again with the others. Their eyes were still closed, but mine were wide open, staring at a giant cross of brilliant white light stretching from wall to wall in front of the bathroom door. As I looked, radiant energy brushed my face, warming my skin like the sun. I knew instinctively that a kind of Divine force was emanating from the cross, which would repel the killers. I knew that we were protected and safe, so I jumped to my feet, feeling like I had the strength of a lioness.
[p. 131 in the hardcover edition]
Her survival is indeed incredible and this is her story to tell as she experienced it. Even so, though I share the author’s Christian faith, I felt uncomfortable with the implication that if she had not trusted in Jesus then she would have died. To be clear, Immaculee does not seem to equate strong faith with guaranteed survival. Immaculee’s family were also devout. A witness to her brother Damascene’s death tells Immaculee that some of his last words were: “Today is my day to go to God.” But I can’t help thinking that such portrayals of faith – accepting martyrs, survivors of mighty faith – can unintentionally open the door to judgment on those who felt no such certainty or acceptance about their fate.
I want to be careful here, though, because I want to leave room for the varied experiences of faith. My worldview is not the same as Immaculee’s worldview, and I want to respect that. I definitely see how Immaculee’s faith kept her soul and mind intact through this horrific ordeal and the loss of her family, friends, and home. By fighting and scrapping for hope, she kept herself alive on the inside. She was able to make space in her mind to think of the future. While hiding in the bathroom, she asked the pastor to bring her books in English so she could try to learn that language. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front took back Kigali, she persistently tried for a job with the UN personnel who were stationed there and eventually was successful. And most miraculously, she found that she could forgive her family’s killers.
When I heard Immaculee Ilibagiza speak at the National Book Festival years ago, her main emphasis was on forgiveness. In the book, she describes how she temporarily took care of two orphaned boys while they were staying in the French camp.
I saw the circle of hatred and mistrust forming in those innocent eyes . . . I vowed that one day, when I was strong and capable enough, I would do everything I could to help the children orphaned by the genocide. I would try to bring hope and happiness to their lives, and to steer them away from embracing the hatred that had robbed them of their parents, and of a family’s love.
[p. 165 in the hardcover edition]
With hope alive inside of her, Immaculee was able to look beyond herself and see the larger picture and how forgiveness was the harder, but better way.
Before I conclude, I want to add a short note about the pastor who shelters Immaculee. In the book, he is portrayed as a man clearly acting on moral principle but who constantly seems on the precipice of cowardice, and who isn’t entirely immune to the hateful rhetoric that has galvanized many of the Rwandan populace. Though he saved the lives of these eight women, he sent Immaculee’s brother and a family friend out of the house, where they were later murdered. He also turned away an old widow who came looking for shelter. What to think about such a man? This is still on my mind.
I’m glad I finally read this book after hearing Immaculee speak so many years ago. Sadly and shamefully, genocides and war still claim lives today. I think of the recent slaughter in Nigeria and the over 200,000 dead due to the Syrian war. I think of the survivors and refugees and all the different ways that humans manage to keep going despite the forces of hate and cruelty that surround them. Those lives and books like Left to Tell are a testament to resilience but also an indictment.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Book Addiction – “The book goes into a little detail about why the genocide in Rwanda occured; it’s pretty rudimentary but it will suffice if you are not informed of the causes already (of course, I encourage anyone to read up on the genocide who is not familiar with what happened anyway).” [Christy’s note: I strongly recommend We Wish to Inform You … by Philip Gourevitch]
Embejo Etc – “This is a great book to read if you want to see what the world is like outside of our sphere, to be brought to a horrible reality of the evil capabilities of men and women, and to be inspired in a faith that sees hope even in the darkest situation.”
Pages Unbound – “Left to Tell is powerful, in more ways than one. Ilibagiza gives numbers and images that illustrate the magnitude of the Rwandan holocaust, but by focusing on her own story she allows readers to experience the event in a more personal way.”