At St John’s University graduation…
It is hardly ever that a person comes face to face with someone who tried to kill them, or find out that marauding thugs and criminals have killed one’s entire family. Immaculée Ilibagiza, had those experiences. Years later, she faced her family’s killer and told him to his face, “I forgive you.”
The Rwanda genocide survivor and author, recounted to an audience at St. John’s University, how she survived the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of her Tutsi tribe members in 1994, by hiding for 91 harrowing days ,in a cramped bathroom with seven other women.
In a speech that moved her audience to tears, Ilibagiza spoke of the slaughter of her entire family, neighbours and several of her friends, and how her faith in God helped her to prevail.
Immaculée credits her survival mostly to prayers and to a set of rosary beads given to her by her devout Catholic father, prior to her going into hiding.
At the 2009 Commencement of the St. John’s University, this year during the recent Graduation Weekend, Immaculée told her life story, leaving the audience thinking about their own lives, their mortality and how fortunate they are.
“I had just gone home for the Easter holidays when the genocide started…They put a radio outside so we could hear what was going on,” she told her audience.
“The government leaders were the ones calling for the killing of everyone from my tribe. They had killed (almost) everyone who had stayed behind. They were telling people to go by homes and see if anyone was hiding.”
Anger and resentment about her situation, were literally eating her alive, she said, while silently huddled together in one of the local pastors’ bathroom.
Prayer was her only hope and as such, she began to pray as a way of drowning out the negativity that was building up inside of her.
At the time, Immaculée was studying electronic and mechanical engineering at the National University . She was just 22 years old.
On the brink of starvation, Immaculée found solace and peace in prayers and prayed each day from morning to the time she lapsed into sleep at night.
During her period of hiding in the small bathroom, the survivor taught herself English with only The Bible and a dictionary.
She was 115 pounds when she entered the hiding place, but was ‘a skeleton’ when she and the other survivors emerged 91 days later.
“The first night I came out I was 65 pounds. I was a skeleton,” she told the emotionally moved audience at the St. John’s University graduation. .
But she was one of the lucky ones.
“I found out that everyone I left behind was killed; my mother, my father, my two brothers, my friends, my schoolmates.
“Of the 2,005 students in my class, they had killed 900.”
Traumatised by her ordeal, Immaculee said that for several weeks she called for the strength to overcome.
It is estimated at least 500,000 Tutsis were butchered by members of the rival Hutu tribe between April 6, through mid-July 1994.
Some estimates put the figure at between 800,000 and one million.
Four years after the Rwanda genocide, Immaculee, emigrated to the United States and began working at the United Nations in New York City .
During this time she shared her story with co-workers and friends, who were so impacted they insisted she write it down in book form.
Three days after finishing her manuscript, she met best selling author, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, who, within minutes of meeting her, offered to publish her book.
She has appeared on CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” and wrote a best-selling autobiography, Left to Tell, which chronicles her life-altering experience, and explains how Ilibagiza, a devout Roman Catholic, learned to forgive the perpetrators and release her anger.
Today, Immaculée is regarded as one of world’s leading speakers on peace, faith, and forgiveness.
She has shared her universal message with world dignitaries, school children, multinational corporations, churches, and at many conferences.
In 2007 she established the ‘Left to Tell Charitable Fund’, which helps support Rwandan orphans.
In addition, Immaculée holds honorary doctoral degrees from The University of Notre Dame and Saint John’s University. She was awarded The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace in 2007.
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