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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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God and Forgiveness on the Bathroom Floor: Immaculee Ilibagiza and the Rwandan Genocide

Some books are so powerful, so disturbing, I almost hesitates to recommend them or pass along a copy to a friend. Left to Tell, a spiritual autobiography written by a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, is one such book. A friend who read it at her church lent it to me, and the book spent several months in my “to read” pile. I frequently passed over it, knowing that something big and serious lay between its covers. I finally read it this month, in two enormous gulps, both of which ended in the early hours of the morning. The story is disturbing not only because it chronicles the horrors of the genocide from the point of view of a young Tutsi woman who survived only by hiding for months in a crowded bathroom, but because that woman — Immaculée Ilibagiza — has such a tremendous and direct experience of God.

Ilibagiza begins by describing her near-idyllic childhood in a small Rwandan village, the daughter of two teachers who led a comfortable life, frequently helping others. A smart girl, Ilibagiza worked hard in her studies, and in spite of facing discrimination as a Tutsi, continued on to college. This opening section of the book is valuable in an indirect way, providing a rare glimpse into normal, everyday life among rural but middle-class Africans. Ilibagize writes about her girlhood friends, her first boyfriend, and the dreams her parents had for her and her three brothers — all are experiences the American reader can easily relate to.

The clouds gather overhead, however, and we know this is not a simple coming-of-age tale. Ilibagiza is home visiting from college when disaster strikes: the Prime Minister of Rwanda is killed in a plane crash, an event that touches off the genocide. While I have read a number of books chronicling the genocide, such as We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and Season of Blood, both authored by journalists, Left to Tell brought me inside the events of the genocide with a terrible ease. Because Ilibagiza is so easy to identify with, because her life before seemed so normal, the events of the genocide seem all the more incredible and horrifying.

But to get back to Ilibagiza’s story. After the killing began, her father sent her to the house of a Hutu pastor, who eventually agreed to hide her, along with six other Tutsi women and girls, in a bathroom the size of a closet. There, the three women spent an entire two months, with desperately cramped limbs and nearly empty stomachs, at times hearing the sounds of killing just outside their window. Like the other women, Ilibagiza worried constantly for her parents and three brothers. Because the pastor was afraid to hide men, Ilibagiza had been forced to send her younger brother out of the house and back out into the streets of their village, where, she learned later, he met his death. Indeed, by the end of the book, Ilibagiza learned that her entire family was gone, save a brother who was studying abroad at the time.

Wrestling with the Devil and Clinging to God

The heart of Ilibagiza’s memoir is this two months she spent in the bathroom. Although she’d been raised Catholic and always been a believer, and although she had been praying since the crisis began, it was the arrival of a vicious, angry mob at the pastor’s house that seemed to begin her deep spiritual experience. The group of killers — many of whom Ilibagiza recognized as family friends and neighbors — danced around the house, chanting, “Kill them, kill them, kill them!” The mob was convinced the pastor was hiding Tutsis, but they left before discovering the group of terrified women.

While she heard the devilish screams of the killers, Ilibagiza said she tried to pray, but couldn’t remember any words to her prayers. Suddenly a voice seemed to whisper in her ear: “Why are you calling on God? Look at them out there…hundreds of them looking for you. They are legion, and you are one. You can’t possibly survive-you won’t survive. … They’re going to find you, rape you, cut you, kill you!”

Ilibagiza responded by praying more fervently than ever before. She writes, “I struggled to form an image of God in my mind, envisioning two pillars of brilliant white light burning brightly in front of me, like two giant legs. I wrapped my arms around the legs, like a frightened child clinging to its mother. I begged God: ‘I’m holding onto your legs, God, and I do not doubt that You can save me. I will not let of You until You have sent the killers away.”

Forgiveness in the Midst of Murder

The killers left that time, but they returned many more times. At some moments, they called her name, swearing they would kill her. She overheard others discuss how her brother had been murdered. Ilibagiza continued to be haunted by the negative voices inside her, ratcheting up her already extreme anxiety and dread. Yet she discovered a simple fact: that when she was praying to God, she “felt His love” and the anxiety lifted. As a result, she wrote, “I resolved to during every waking moment, beginning as soon as my eyes opened at 4 or 5 AM.”

She thanked God for the pastor, and the pastor’s bathroom, and for the fact that God inspired her to get the pastor to shove a wardrobe in front of the bathroom door so it was even more hidden. After this, she would pray the rosary and other Catholic prayers: “Sometimes I prayed so intensely I broke out in a sweat. Hours would pass.” But when the pastor one evening began to tell the women about all the killing going on outside the house, Ilibagiza found herself blazing with fury. “I’d never done anything violent to anyone before, but at that moment I wished I had a gun so that I could kill every Hutu I saw,” she wrote.

When the killers next encircled the house, chanting and searching everywhere for hidden Tutsis, Ilibagiza heard the evil voice in her head taunting her for her anger: “You lie every time you pray to Him to say that you love Him. How can you love God but hate so many of His creation?” She tried to pray, but her prayers felt hollow. She forced herself to say to God, “Please open my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive.”

That night, Ilibagiza heard the voice of an infant, crying by the roadside. She understood instantly that the killers had murdered the mother and left the infant there beside her. Ilibagiza and the other women listened all night as the infant cried. The baby’s cries grew weaker until it fell silent, and then they heard dogs growling nearby. Ilibagiza writes: “I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul, and then 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.”

A Place Within

After this cathartic and transformative experience of forgiveness, Ilibagiza prayed and meditated even more intensely and continuously. She writes, “I sat stone-still on that dirty floor for hours on end, contemplating the purity of His energy while the force of His love flowed through me like a sacred river, cleansing my soul and easing my mind. Sometimes it felt as though I were floating above my body, cradled in God’s mighty palm, safe in His loving hand. … In the midst of the genocide, I’d found my salvation. I knew that my bond with God would transcend the bathroom, the war, and the holocaust. It was a bond I knew would transcend life itself.”

Ilibagiza and the other women eventually fled to a French encampment, and later to a camp run by the rebel RPF army, which invaded from the north and put an end to the genocide. Ilibagiza moved to Kigali, the capital, and — despite having lost her entire family — began to build a new life, eventually marrying an American who assisted in the rebuilding of Rwanda and moving to the U.S., where she got a job with the U.N. and had two children of her own.

The most amazing aspect of her story, in my mind, is her experience on the bathroom floor. It shows again how experiences of extreme isolation — prison, a monk’s cell, the desert — can allow for moments of intense, even ecstatic, religious communion. What’s also troubling, of course, is that so many others who were also, presumably, praying did meet their end. And yet Ilibagiza felt that assurance that God would protect her. What sense can be made of that? Did God intend for just her to survive? Later, Ilibagiza met other survivors and found many of them empty, deranged, spiritually dead, or consumed with fear and hatred. It seems that she, alone, emerged from the trauma like a sparkling diamond emerging from a rough stone.

Ilibagiza’s experience revealed that human reason — “How can I forgive evil people?” — has serious limitations. God’s answers come in the form of spiritual knowledge, inner knowledge, which can’t be easily translated. And to a question like, “Why save her and not others?”, there probably are no answers. Indeed, Ilibagiza’s book forces you to leave behind your own preconceptions about religion and spirituality and instead marvel at the majesty and utter incomprehensibility of not only this world, where neighbors would kill neighbors, but of the divine itself.

There Are 5 Responses So Far. »

  1. I happened to see this post about Immaculee Ilibagiza’s book. I thought you might be interested in knowing Immaculee is leading a 9 day Catholic pilgrimage to the Marian Apparitions sites of the Grotto of Lourdes, the Little Chapel of Apparitions, and the Cathedrals in Fatima, Burgos and Santiago de Compostela from October 28th to November 5th.
    Here’s a link to the press release:


  2. Thank you for your wonderful review. I will look out for the book. I’d just like to say a little about being saved. Being saved is not just about the earthly life. It is about peace. We can be saved from conflict at any moment, in any situation, if we think of conflict as a state within us, and peace as the alternative state.

    Being peaceful counts as being saved, whether it is on the Earth or in spirit.

  3. That was a great review! I’m going out to get the book now.

  4. We purchased this book because it is required summer reading for my daughter’s senior class. I decided to read it, too, so my daughter and I could talk about it. I’m so glad I did! The story is disturbing, but Immaculee is incredibly inspiring! I can’t imagine a more horrific experience, or a more devout Christian woman!

  5. I was required to read this book for college. It was not what I thought it was going to be. I was so surprised the book was all about faith and being closer to your Higher Power. It was amazing. I am a spiritual woman, but this book has inspired me even more to strive his love.

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