A woman’s face appears on the screen. She is young and beautiful. She begins to discuss a small country in central Africa and her prosperous family living on one of its bright hillsides. It is Rwanda, and the woman is Immaculée Ilibagiza. She is a survivor of the 1994 genocide. Her eyes, half-dimmed by their lids, express exhaustion as she describes the murders of her family and friends. An image of a church appears. The roof is raged by bullet holes through which light pours. “The light from the holes was as soft as if it were the cry of God” Immaculée recalls. People were once able to hide in churches because no one would kill inside such a place. The genocide was different. “This time it was the devil at work,” says Immaculée. The images stop, and a woman introduces Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of Left to Tell, the story of her survival. Each head in the crowd turns to the back of the room as a woman walks to the stage. She begins to speak.
Upon the Belgian colonization of Rwanda, the nation’s people were divided into three tribes: Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa. Belgian officials used precise measurements to classify each individual. Hutus were short and had broad noses. Tutsis were tall and had a narrow space between their eyes. Twa was the smallest group composed of rainforest-dwelling pygmies, a term used to describe a foraging group of African people under four feet and eleven inches. The Belgians favored the Tutsis, making them Rwanda’s aristocracy. When the Belgian government left Rwanda in 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi authority, enacting a political suppression through discrimination and violence against the Tutsis.
Immaculée recalls her Easter holiday in 1994. On Wednesday, April 7th, the radio announced the assassination of the Hutu President Habyarimana, prompting the genocide of the Tutsis. Forced into hiding, Immaculée curled up in a small bathroom blocked by a large wardrobe with eight other women in her pastor’s home. Through a small hole in the wall, Immaculée could see a band of Hutu men, the steel of machetes and sickles stretching from the banana leaves that cloaked their shoulders. Their eyes were bloodshot from a drug-induced rage as they called out the names of Tutsi villagers. Immaculée emphasizes the impossibility of articulating her fear. Instead of using abstract emotions to describe it, she uses tangible portrayals of physical pain.
Their voices clawed at my flesh. I felt as if I were lying on a bed of burning coals, like I’d been set on fire. A sweeping wind of pain engulfed my body; a thousand invisible needles ripped into me. I never dreamed that fear could cause such agonizing physical anguish.
The nine trembling women would spend ninety-one days in this three by four foot prison, waiting for the end of the genocide. When Paul Kegame, the leader of a Tutsi rebellion from Uganda, overthrew the Hutu criminal regime, the women left the bathroom. Turning from the ruins with her rosary beads in hand, she looked at the moon and began laughing. She had not seen it in three months. Immaculée describes the transformation she underwent that resulted in her ability to forgive the men who murdered her family and friends with extreme self-consciousness and desire for empathy. “I felt a freedom when I forgave these men…I did not have to punish them…the people who hurt us don’t understand our feeling of pain…there is always a possibility of change…pray for change rather than death.”