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Genocide Survivor, Bestselling Author, and Woman of Faith Immaculée Ilibagiza Speaks at Pepperdine
The story was powerful and tragic, the storyteller courageous and inspirational.
Hundreds stood in applause as survivor and bestselling author Immaculée Ilibagiza took to the podium in Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse for the Wednesday morning chapel on October 22. The Rwandan expat traveled from her home in New York to present her story of survival, hope, prayer, faith, and, above all, forgiveness.
In 1994, while nearly one million Rwandan Tutsis died at the hands of Hutus, Immaculée Ilibagiza spent three months cramped in the bathroom of a merciful Hutu pastor with seven other terrified women. Her parents, brothers, friends, neighbors had all been killed.
"It is amazing to me to be sharing my story with the world," she told the crowd of Pepperdine students, faculty, and staff. "There was a time when I thought I wouldn't see another face outside the bathroom I was living in for 91 days."
That spring, 22-year-old Ilibagiza returned from the National University of Rwanda to her village Mataba to celebrate Easter with her family. On April 6, Rwanda's Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana was assassinated. Within hours, thousands of Hutus had taken up arms against the Tutsi tribe, to which Ilibagiza's family belonged. Her father ordered her away to take shelter in the home of a family friend, a Hutu pastor.
"I didn't want to go, but I left out of obedience," she said. It was the last time she saw her parents and two of her brothers (one brother was mercifully abroad when the unexpected violence erupted). For the next three months she lived, breathed, slept, ate, and prayed in Pastor Murinzi's bathroom. Hutus, armed with machetes and grenades, raided Murinzi's home multiple times in search of hiding Tutsis, but they always overlooked the second bathroom.
Ilibagiza's message to the Pepperdine audience was clear: her faith in God and constant prayer during those 91 days kept her alive. The calm strength with which she presented her heavy subject matter was balanced with the humor she occasionally injected into her story. She laughed as she remembered, "When saying the Lord's prayer I would skip the part about forgiveness, because I didn't want to 'forgive those who trespassed' against me. I was editing my own prayer!"
Prior to taking the podium, a clip of her DVD The Diary of Immaculee gave an overview of the history leading up to the 1994 genocide, including shocking pictures of murdered Tutsis, bodies carelessly strewn across open roads. It is hard to imagine forgiving those who could callously eliminate entire families and villages, yet forgiveness is the message that Ilibagiza hopes to spread through her speaking engagements and New York Times bestselling book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Hay House 2006).
"The biggest wish in my heart is that people will grow closer to God after reading my book," she said, adding that overcoming her very understandable anger was an integral part of learning to trust God. "I want people to know that God is real, even in the darkest hours."
Tabatha Jones, associate dean for student affairs at Seaver College, was moved by Ilibagiza's message. "She presented a profound story of faith and survival, that even in the midst of a terrible crisis God can bring hope. It's a story the world needs to hear, and that I personally needed to hear. Those who attended have been given a gift to hear her story."
Chapel opened with a set of spiritual songs performed by Pepperdine's Genesis Gospel Choir, and a stirring introduction and prayer from Christopher Collins, director of convocation and student-led ministries. After the talk, Ilibagiza signed copies of Left to Tell, which is also in the early stages of production for a Hollywood movie adaptation, as well as her newly published follow-up memoir, Led By Faith: Rising From the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide (Hay House 2008).
"Her attitude to God makes me more passionate to speak about my faith and involve God in my life," said freshman Linda Nyandamu after Ilibagiza's talk. Summing up her response to the courageous speaker, she added, "She inspires me."