February 01, 2007
Stylishly dressed, rosy-cheeked and beaming, Immaculée Ilibagiza
settled in front of the podium of St. John’s Little Theatre
yesterday with the grace of a romantic movie star. Her story,
however, was a real-life horror film. A survivor of the 1994
Rwandan Genocide, Ilibagiza addressed the crowd with her tale of
hiding out for 91 days inside a 4’x3’ bathroom with seven other
women, unable to speak, unable to bathe, barely able to eat.
Her story, however, turned from a gruesome chronicle of fear and
bloodshed to one of forgiveness, love and divine intervention.
During those three months in the bathroom, Ilibagiza became swept
away by the healing power of God. And as she looked into the teary
eyes of the standing room-only audience gathered on the St. John’s
Queens campus, she invited them to find peace through the Divine as
Ilibagiza’s lecture, based on her recently published book
Left to Tell, an autobiographical account of her survival,
was the capstone of the University’s 13th annual celebration of Founder’s Week, which
commemorates St. Vincent de Paul and pays tribute to the St. John’s
mission of serving the poor and disadvantaged. The theme of this
year’s weeklong ceremony is Respect + Compassion =
Ilibagiza, a Catholic member of Rwanda’s Tutsi tribe, was a 21
year-old university student when the Genocide broke out in 1994.
After fleeing her home, she was shepherded into the home of a
Protestant minister from the opposition tribe, who risked his life
by stowing her away in his bathroom. During her time in hiding,
Ilibagiza slept in the middle of a stack of women and lost 40
pounds. But each day she prayed the rosary (“it was my food,” she
recalled), saw multiple visions of Christ and learned English by
reading the Bible.
When the Genocide ended and Ilibagiza emerged from secretion,
she discovered that her parents and brothers had been killed.
Consumed with a mystical love of God and miraculously devoid of
anger after her confinement, she traveled to the jail cell of her
father’s killer and forgave him.
“To live with anger is like a chain of ugly things haunting your
heart, body and spirit,” Ilibagiza told the crowd. “Forgiveness is
freedom from the anger, freedom from the bitterness. I tasted the
goodness of forgiveness in that bathroom … and I decided to pray
for [the killers], to love them.”
Discussing the Founder’s Week theme of solidarity, Ilibagiza
told the audience, “I believe that our lives are interconnected. We
are all one body … and we are meant to learn from each other’s
“Immaculée is an example of the lived Christian reality in a
polarized, fractured world, and the way she converted the
experience into an act of forgiveness is the ultimate,” commented
Sister Margaret J. Kelly, D.C., Executive Director of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society,
which sponsors Founder’s Week each year.
Making an Impact
After the lecture, Ilibagiza remained on hand to sign copies of her
book. Students and other crowd members mingled to discuss the
impact the lecture had on their lives.
“I don’t understand how you can live for three months in a
bathroom like that, making it strictly on faith,” sophomore
Benjamin Arkorful, a computer science major from the Bronx,
wondered aloud. “The power of God is a strong thing. I know God,
but [Ilibagiza's] faith makes me want to know Him more.”
Hours before the lecture, the St. John’s Office of Media
Relations hosted a press conference with Ilibagiza in Taffner Field
House. Last Friday, St. John’s students, faculty and staff gathered
for a pre-lecture book discussion on Left to Tell.
Ilibagiza has spent her professional career working with the
United Nations in both Rwanda and New York. She now heads the Left
to Tell Foundation, dedicated to the needs of African refugees,
women and children. She has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Oprah
Winfrey Show. She has a husband and two children and is currently
working on her next book, The Power of Faith.
A copy of Left to Tell is being held at the St. John’s
Library. A DVD copy of Ilibagiza's self-produced documentary, Diary
of Immaculée, is available at the Vincentian Center.