By Lora Williamson
“I have killed 399 cockroaches. Immaculee will make 400. It’s a good number to kill.” These are the words that Immaculee Ilibagiza heard her friend, recently turned killer, say on the other side of the 1-inch wide wood and plaster wall that separated her along with seven other women hiding in a bathroom. In 1994, war broke out between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda fueled by the Belgian colonists years prior. The colonists from Belgium and Germany had created 2 different tribes in Rwanda that never really existed in order to pit them against each other so the European rulers could control the country. When Belgium and Germany left Rwanda, France stepped in and continued to fuel the flames of tribal rivalry.
During her 1994 Easter college break, devout Catholic, Immaculee Ilibagiza found herself forced to hide in her neighbor’s bathroom. Here they hid from the angry and bloodthirsty Hutus that were using mostly machetes to murder their family members, friends, and neighbors because they were told by the Europeans that the Tutsis were taking their jobs and had too much privilege. All of these lies over the years finally exploded into a full-blown genocide that killed almost 1 million people in approximately 90 days while the leaders of the world and the UN watched.
Immaculee’s strong faith handed down by both of her parents was all the strength she needed to not only survive but persevere. At the beginning of the genocide, she did ask God, “Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve this? Why are you letting this happen to us?” For many, the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho rang in their ears. In 1981, Mary appeared to 3 teenage girls in Kibeho, Rwanda, and warned them of the upcoming genocide unless the country fasted, prayed, repented and converted. They did not.
Once she realized that she and her family were facing imminent death, she put her scapular on and held onto the promises that Mary made for those who wore the brown scapular. She hoped her scapular would speed her journey to heaven. Her father told her to hide at one of the pastor’s homes five miles away and he would come to get her in a few days. It was also one of the very few homes with indoor plumbing. The pastor was Hutu, but he thought she would be safe there. She had the clothes on her back, her scapular, and her father’s rosary along with her government-issued ID card stating she is Tutsi. That was the last time she ever saw her parents.
Surrounded by thousands of machete-wielding Hutus, Immaculee and seven other women who sought refuge in the pastor’s home were ushered into a small 4-foot long and 3-foot wide bathroom. There was a shower and toilet but not even enough room for a sink. A small vent near the ceiling was all the air they would have access to. No one knew they were there, not even the pastor’s family. God told Immaculee to move the armoire in front of the bathroom door to hide the door from the killers who on multiple occasions searched their home looking for Immaculee so they could rape and kill her. Previously, some of the pastor’s last words to the six women were, “If you make any noise, you will die.”
In the bathroom, they could not use the shower or flush the toilet unless someone flushed the toilet on the other side of the wall in the adjoining bathroom. The women could barely move an inch without pain and pressing into someone else. Sleep was almost impossible and food came infrequently and usually spoiled with bugs.
For a few months, this was Immaculee’s life. She prayed from the depths of her heart and soul. She asked God to blind the killers so they couldn’t see them in the bathroom. She prayed to be saved like Daniel was from the lion’s den. The devil was on her shoulder telling her she didn’t deserve the grace and mercy God had shown others. Immaculee begged for forgiveness for her sins and transgressions as hundreds of thousands of dead bodies piled up around her on the other side of the sweltering bathroom. It became very clear that in order to survive this, she would have to use every ounce of faith, every prayer and every promise of God to win the battle in her mind and to shut out the taunting of the devil.
Prayers of gratitude filled Immaculee’s mind. Gratitude for the pastor, the house, the bathroom, the architect, and the ability to use the toilet with 7 other women standing right next to her. Prayer was her armor and any seconds that she was not praying, satan tried to find his way into her mind and heart. She held onto the bible verses Mark 11:23-24. It worked, for a while.
Try as she might, anger and rage also filled her heart as the pastor told them of the realities of the war. It began to sink in that most, if not all of her family had been slaughtered and the UN and other governments were not coming to help them anytime soon. She found it impossible to finish the Lord’s Prayer during her rosary. She was now asking God to kill the killers and the devil rejoiced in her ear. Trying to pray for the killers was like praying for the devil. She just couldn’t, until one day she thought of the killers as children who had succumbed to the lies of satan. “We’re all God’s children,” she thought to herself. It was then she started to pray for their forgiveness and God helped her by whispering in her ear, “They know not what they do.” Now she could pray with a clear conscience and a pure heart. Her deep surrender to God filled her heart and mind and she had many mystical transcending experiences with the Lord while shoved into that small bathroom..
Towards the end of the 3-month genocide, almost 1 million Rwandans were killed. After three months of surviving in the bathroom, never showering, infections, lice and losing 40 pounds, thoughts started to fill her mind of what her life would be like after the genocide. The newfound hope God had given her would not be wasted even if most of her family was all slaughtered. God revealed to her that she should learn English and work at the United Nations, so she asked the pastor to give her some English books and she fed her mind because she was unable to feed her body. God’s love sustained her. Not long after the genocide was over, she did end up working for the UN, eventually got married, had he own family and moved to America. She’s now a sought-after speaker spreading the Catholic message of faith, prayer and forgiveness.