Transcript of press conference at St. John’s University on
January 31, 2007 with Immaculée Ilibagiza, Author of Left to Tell:
Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, and Mary Ann
Dantuono, Associate Director of the Vincentian Center for Church
and Society at St. John’s University
Immaculée Ilibagiza: Thank you,
thank you for having me. I am so glad the way my book Left to Tell
is impacting people and I’d like to think it’s helping people. I
hope to share with the students a message of courage, of love and
respect – self-respect. Know that God is enough for you and to love
your neighbor and God above all.
Can you relate your experience of
discovering God in this experience to your background in Roman
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I think
so. I couldn’t have made it without the rosary and knowing that the
Blessed Mother was there to console me. The rosary was my food.
There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t go on without doing
something. And doing something was to pray. And praying with so
much fear in the heart was impossible. My words at first were not
words of prayer they were more like “send them to hell, do
something to those animals,’ but those are not prayers. And since I
couldn’t say those words, I began to say the rosary.
The good thing about the rosary is the words are made up
already, so you say them and meditate after the words you are
saying. So I said this from morning until night. I said 27 rosaries
a day. I would say also 40 Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
So that was my food for the day, really. That’s something I did
for two months and a half out of the three months I stayed in that
bathroom. So it was completely related to my background.
Why was it important for you to share your
message with the St. John’s community?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I think
because this is a Catholic University and I feel it’s important to
speak to young people, because when it happened to me, I was in
University. So to be here speaking to children – this is a message
that concerns them, they need to take responsibility early, knowing
that this belongs to them, that this is their story too. So I am
really excited about it.
Mary Ann Dantuono: In the
preface of the book, Immaculée states that we all can benefit from
learning each other’s story. I think that in many ways her story
can be looked at as a true modern day story of someone who lives
through a horror, but since then has taken that and turned it into
a very positive experience. It is so in tune with our theme for
2007 Founder’s Week. Our students have been looking at the theme of
respect + passion = solidarity and in many ways Immaculée’s story
is that lived virtue of solidarity.
What does forgiveness mean to you
Immaculée Ilibagiza: The way
I understood it is from within. To live with anger is almost like a
chain of these ugly things haunting your heart, body and spirit.
Forgiveness is freedom from the anger, freedom from the
It’s not like you are just going to forget it, you don’t, but it
doesn’t matter anymore to go through the anger because somebody
hurt you. You decide to pray for them, to love them, and somebody
you were cursing, you send them love and you wish to get to the
truth. You realize their blindness.
What do you hope the students come away
with from your lecture today?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I hope
that they would come away feeling that they have responsibility in
the world. They have a purpose. Knowing that no matter what hurt
they go through they can be strong and rise above that. And be
strong knowing you can accomplish what you have to accomplish. (I
am) hoping that they will be people who will change what’s going on
in the world and that I will inspire them to feel like ‘what can I
do?’ because there’s no small person in this. I think it’s all
about listening to the voice inside to inspire you to do something,
to be the best you can be. To choose courage, to choose truth, to
choose solidarity, to choose to know, instead of going the other
way around and lying down and dying the in the face of
Your story is so powerful, yet also so
painful, were you at all hesitant to share it?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I was
more hesitant to share it in terms of, I didn’t’ want to make
people sad. You know, you have seen such bad (things), you have
felt so bad, it’s almost like telling people, ‘come with me, this
is what it feels like.’ I didn’t want that, I didn’t want others to
feel what I went through. God knows, that he comes through in
mysterious ways to show me you can stay this strong, but yet I felt
‘how can I share the lessons, without telling them how I got
I felt it was an urgency to talk about my message, to talk about
life to talk about what it is.
Mary Ann Dantuono: Her
statement was this is what I have the power to do, I can forgive.
That sense of freedom is really the foundation of what we talk
about in terms of solidarity. What can I do? She had the power to
forgive, that was her power.
Immaculée Ilibagiza: In a way
you realize, the whole genocide happened – that atrocity – it all
happened because somebody couldn’t forgive what had hurt them. That
was the whole reason why one million people had to die in three
months. When you think how far that can go and when you think we
all have that power inside to let go and to build instead of
tearing. You feel like, ‘I have something deep, and everyone has
When did the horror stop for you?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: That
was in 1994.
When did the urgency to tell the story
Immaculée Ilibagiza: In
about 2000, that’s when I first wrote the book. Almost everyday I
have to share this story with my friends. Or, my story will come
out just to help them deal with the issue they are dealing with.
Many people have told me ‘you should put it in a book.’ But I
thought ‘I’m not a writer, how can I publish?’ and all of these
challenges. So, one time in 2000 I just decided, let me start now.
(I thought) ‘I learned English, so let me just write my story.’ In
my heart I tell myself, ‘I tell my friends and they listen to me,
and it helps them. All I have to do is imagine a friend here, and
I’m going to talk to her about my story.’
I was really thinking about telling my story to Americans. So I
wrote it in English, like I was talking to people in my new home,
in America. It was a bittersweet experience. I was writing
nonstop. I used to just wake up and go in the basement and
write for eight hours straight. Writing, crying, laughing, at the
stories of my family. It was such a bittersweet story, but I feel
that it was maybe the word of god, that I just have to put it
How has your life changed since you have
been going around giving talks?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: Upside
down! I would say completely. First of all, coming from Rwanda,
working at the UN, you feel like you are not in America, I mean if
you live here, because I was dealing with African or Asian
programs. So when I decided to speak it was almost like opening a
door to America.
After I speak many people come to me and tell me their personal
stories, they cry with me. Those are the things I love the most. To
feel like now I’m part of the country, of the culture. I’m
learning, I’m talking to Americans. I love it. Just to here the
stories of people changing, that just really touched my heart.
When I was first speaking, one lady who was a holocaust survivor
came to me and told me, ‘I never let go of the anger I had since
then, until now that I see you. If you can tell me you can forgive,
then I can believe you. Then I can do it.’ This is a lifetime gift
for someone to be able to tell you that. She was crying and
shaking. I feel freedom now, it is over, now I can live.
I am speaking my experiences. You don’t expect people to come up
with those sudden decisions and it has been overwhelming to see
what is going on and what happened.
I really love it. I feel it’s a privilege. I feel it’s a chance
in life God gave me and I feel like maybe that’s why I had to go
through what I had to go through. Because this is so fulfilling,
and, if I had to go through this to inspire millions of people, I
hope, then maybe what I went through, is ok.
Mary Ann Dantuono: Immaculée has
spoken at several places around the U.S. as well as
internationally. She is not only sharing her story with us as
Americans, but she’s sharing her story worldwide. Hopefully, that
will be help to build a world where we do learn from the
experiences of people like Immaculée. To love and to share those
love stories with each other and build a world of peace and
solidarity. We really do hope for that.
Immaculée Ilibagiza: The last
time I was in Japan, when my book was published, I never knew that
(people from) Japan don’t believe in God. I had so many interviews
and people would say, ‘tell us, without God, tell us how you
survived.’ I would say, ‘I don’t know if I would have survived
without God in my life.’ It was confusing for them
To put God in the title without accepting God in the country
felt like such a big responsibility. The First Lady said, ‘You were
a child and you went through that? Tell us, without God what you’re
talking about.’ I think God is touching his people the way he
wants; he’s just using my story.
Are you still with the UN?
Immaculée Ilibagiza: No
Mary Ann Dantuono: Immaculée has
started a foundation called the Left to Tell Foundation which helps
women and children in Africa, particularly in Rwanda. She has been
working with that foundation as well as giving her talks around the
world. For the past two years, that’s been her work now, as well as
raising her two children.
Since the time she came out of captivity, Immaculée has never
stopped trying to help people. I think that’s a key to coming out
of such a sad and terrorizing experience, she still found it within
herself to give to the children in the refugee camp, to relatives,
to friends, she has helped them all to try to reestablish their
lives and now in a more formal way she’ll be helping with her
foundation to help the orphans in Rwanda.
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I never
felt in my life a belonging to the world, and being a part of the
world until after these atrocities. When the genocide happened,
when you have trusted people in high positions, you feel that they
are smart; they must know what they are doing. All of a sudden they
all disappoint you, they are mischievous. All the things they told
you before were wrong, now they are the masters of doing those
So you just feel like, maybe my voice can do something. Maybe
God left me here so that in my heart I can put things together. I
just have to do what I have to do for my heart. I hope
really, that each person can just take that. I think that is what’s
such a big lesson.
To know that I have responsibility, I am not waiting for anybody
anymore. I will respect people, I will listen to what they say, but
I’m not going to suppress what I have inside. If God can inspire
you to say something, you never know how it can help somebody. To
trust that you are here for a reason, you are here and Go can work
Being a human being is just so powerful. And learning to respect
each other and to treat each other equally is so smart. I have seen
things pass through invisible people, people who you feel don’t
mean much, and then here they are and that is where God decided to
pass through. To help you, to give you a job – something.
That’s really why I decided to write and share with people.
I really feel now that life is so short. I lived with my family
thinking everything is so great. I had protection from my father,
my mom, and for everything to go at one time? You think about
Noah’s Ark. You think things can’t change like that, they can’t
turn upside down. And all of a sudden you realize, my God, those
things were serious. That is really how I read the bible. I think,
tell me, what do you want in my life. Tell me, because only truth
comes from God. Truth is inspired by God. There’s nothing more and
the bible is the basis of everything.
What are your thoughts on what is
happening in Darfur?
Heartbreaking. It makes me sick. To know that can be happening in
the world, but the thing is to know that God is there. That’s
really my consolation. My consolation is to know that where we are
on Earth is a passage. It’s a place where we have to try to see how
much love we can love. And if we are failing to love, we are
failing life. But the people who are dying, God knows how he will
welcome them as kings and queens, so I don’t pity them.
Sometimes I think I don’t know if I’m doing enough and I
question myself. We all should question ourselves.
Mary Ann Dantuono: One of
the things Immaculee said in her book is that she would always look
at life as ‘before and after.’ We hope that someday there’s a real
after to genocide, but today we’ll have to just believe that her
experience is going to bring a better and a happier after.