Looking To September and a Rwandan Survival Story

August 11, 2015

By Lea Z. Singh |

This blog has been silent for nearly a month. Not for shortage of things to say, but for shortage of time to say them! The summer is a busy time for our family, with fewer windows of opportunity for a blogging mom. Stay tuned for renewed activity in September.

In the meanwhile, here is a book review that I wrote some time ago. This year I have found myself drawn to books about the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, and this was the first personal account that I read about the events in Rwanda.


I just finished reading Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza (Hay House, 2014) This book was first published in 2006 and became a New York Times best seller; it is now in its' third edition, having sold nearly two million copies in seventeen languages around the world.

Left to Tell sparked an international movement for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is still widely read, has received a number of awards and has been incorporated into school curriculums even at the university level.  This is a remarkable feat, since Ilibagiza is a very faithful Catholic and frequently talks about her love of the rosary and the Virgin Mary, among other things.

Ilibagiza has also since written a number of other books, notably Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide, which is essentially a sequel to Left to Tell, and deals more specifically with her own faith journey through the genocide and afterwards, as she learned to forgive and love those who murdered her family and friends.

Short Summary

Of all the books I have ever read, this was one of the most difficult to read, because there is only one way to describe what happened in Rwanda in 1994: hell on earth. The brutality of the Rwandan genocide is so extremely disturbing that I found my stomach turning at times, and had to put down this otherwise gripping book.

Ilibagiza doesn't dwell unnecessarily on the gory details of the killings that took place during the Rwandan holocaust, but it is impossible to write a personal account of survival without reporting the things that she saw or that happened during that time, especially to her own family.

So what happened, exactly? Ilibagiza is a Tutsi, and she and her family lived in a small Rwandan village. While there had been historical tensions between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis, by the time Ilibagiza was growing up in the 1980s, these tensions appeared to be forgotten. Her family was well respected in the community and got along well with their neighbours.

However in 1990, after war broke out in northern Rwanda as Tutsi rebels from neighbouring Uganda attempted to invade the country, the Hutu government began to indoctrinate Hutus to hate their Tutsi neighbours. Rwanda didn't have television or Internet at the time; everyone listened to the radio. It was thus over the radio waves that the brainwashing took place. Popular Hutu radio hosts started calling the Tutsis "cockroaches" and "snakes", dehumanizing them and mocking them. It wasn't long before they were openly calling for their "extermination".

When the Rwandan president was killed in a plane crash in 1994, the government seized the opportunity to blame the act on the Tutsis. They immediately declared a 'killing season' and incited mass murder against the Tutsis.

Here's the shocking part: the vast majority of ordinary Hutus all across Rwanda followed the government's orders without resistance. They picked up their machetes and went out to slaughter their neighbours, friends, colleagues, parishioners (the Tutsis and Hutus are both Roman Catholics), and so on. In some cases, even Tutsi wives and husbands were killed by their Hutu significant others. Girls were often raped before being slaughtered, and even babies were murdered in horrible ways.

Ilibagiza's mother, father, and two brothers were all killed; only one of her brothers survived because he was studying in another country at the time, while she survived, miraculously, by hiding in a small, concealed bathroom at a Protestant pastor's house. Left to Tell takes us in detail through those 91 days she spent sitting motionless and completely silent, stuffed into a tiny 3-by-4 foot space with seven other Tutsi women.

Ilibagiza spent the majority of her time in the cramped bathroom by praying the rosary. She and her family had been devout Catholics before the genocide, and incredibly, her ordeal during the killings deepened her faith. Several times, Hutu hunters came looking for them in the pastor's house; once, there were at least two hundred of them, ready to kill instantly had the Tutsi women been found. Each time, due to what Ilibagiza clearly believes to be Divine intervention, the hunters failed to find these women.

The driving force of a genocide

As compared to accounts of the Holocaust, one main difference that struck me was the much more personal nature of this genocide. While the Nazis murdered millions of innocent Jews, most of the killing was done in a very mechanical, impersonal and bloodless way: Jews were herded into the gargantuan concentration camp machine and gassed. The people who oversaw the concentration camps were members of a hostile army, German strangers whom the Jews had never met.

In Rwanda, the murders were much more raw and primeval: ordinary Hutu civilians turned on those who were dear and near to them, and often armed with nothing more than sharp instruments, hunted down and personally slaughtered these familiar persons in shocking and savage ways.

Indeed, here is how Ilibagiza describes the crowd that she saw as she peered out of a tiny window in her bathroom, and saw the crowd of Hutu hunters that had come to search the pastor's house:
They whooped and hollered. They jumped about, waving spears, machetes and knives in the air. They chanted a chilling song of genocide while doing a dance of death:

"Kill them, kill them, kill them all; kill them big and kill them small! Kill the old and kill the young...a baby snake is still a snake, kill it too, let none escape! Kill them, kill them, kill them all!"
It wasn't the soldiers who were chanting, nor was it the trained militiamen who had been tormenting us for days. No, these were my neighbours, people I'd grown up and gone to school with - some had even been to our house for dinner. ...I recognized dozens of [my village]'s most prominent citizens in the mob, all of whom were in a killing frenzy...
Reading about these horrors, the inescapable question is: how can people do this to each other? What is it in human nature that enables people to quite rapidly descend into this kind of manic hate? How can almost six million people pick up weapons and viciously slaughter about 800,000 of their own innocent friends and neighbours, without any real provocation, and yet often with incredible malice and a desire to make them suffer before they died?

Ultimately, it seems to me that Rwanda is a re-enactment on a national scale of the Biblical story of Cain killing his brother Abel in a fit of envy and jealousy. Envy and jealousy had been sown between the Hutus and the Tutsis by their Belgian colonialists, who perpetuated the belief that the ruling Tutsis were a superior race, and that the Hutus were less intelligent and more primitive.

These stereotypes outlasted the Belgians and engraved themselves deeply into the collective consciousness of the Rwandan population. The Hutus came to pity themselves as unfairly oppressed victims, and stewed in their resentment against the Tutsis, whom they accused of arrogance and a superiority complex.

Thus, while the immediate excuse for the genocide was an ongoing war against Tutsi rebels, the actual motivation ran far deeper. Like Cain killing Abel, the stated aim of the Hutus was none other than to completely eradicate the Tutsi population, by killing every single Tutsi in Rwanda, from the very youngest to the very oldest.

The Rwandan genocide confirms that we haven't really changed since Biblical times. Jealousy and envy continue to be perhaps the most dangerous of all human emotions, since they can completely strip people of all reason, to the point of murder of the innocent.

Moreover, Left to Tell is evidence for the world that the thin veneer of civilization too easily strips away, revealing a human heart filled with a very deep darkness. As Pastor Murinzi, the person who hid Ilibagiza and seven other Tutsi women, says in the book:
"I've seen these killing sprees before - once the bloodlust is in the air, you can trust no one, not even your own children." 

A mixed heart

At certain points in her book, Ilibagiza bears witness to the capacity of the human person to be both good and evil at the same time. For instance, she describes how some Hutus would take in Tutsis and hide them in their homes, while also going out each day to participate in the killings of other Tutsis.

Ilibagiza even found this kind of strange dichotomy in Pastor Murinzi. While he hid these women and did not participate in the slaughters of other Tutsis, the pastor was fully capable of turning away other Tutsis to face certain death. For instance, at the very start of the killings, Pastor Murinzi refused to hide Ilibagiza's brother and his friend, and they were both killed.

Moreover, as time went on, Ilibagiza noticed that even the pastor started to behave more cruelly toward the women. Increasingly, he seemed influenced by the propaganda that Tutsis were either evil or less than human, and he was capable of treating the women harshly and with hostility.

However, even if his personal views were changing, the pastor was convinced that he could not turn in the women without risking his own life, as he would be punished for having hidden them. Moreover, he still didn't want to commit what he knew was murder, and he was worried that if the women were discovered, he would have been forced to murder them with his own hands - which was not an unreasonable fear, as there were other such cases.

Western incompetence and betrayal

As is clear from Left to Tell, the Western world completely abandoned Rwanda during the genocide. The UN withdrew its peacekeeping force "shortly after the killing began," in a modern equivalent of looking the other way as a citizen is beaten and killed on the street in broad daylight. Ilibagiza states that:
"Belgium, the country's former colonial ruler, had been the first to pull its soldiers out of the country; meanwhile, the United States wouldn't even acknowledge that the genocide was happening!"
Only ONE Western person actually had the courage and principles to try to help. Happily he was a Canadian:
Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of UN peacekeepers, refused to obey his orders to leave and remained with a couple hundred soldiers. He was a brave and moral man, but he was also alone in a sea of killers. We heard him often on the radio begging for someone, anyone, to send troops to Rwanda to stop the slaughter, but no one listened to him. 
Towards the end of the genocide, as the Tutsi rebels had gained a lot of ground and almost won the war, France sent in a contingent of soldiers. With the French troops stationed fairly nearby, Pastor Murinzi finally took Ilibagiza and the other women out of hiding one night, and secretly brought them to the French camp for protection.

The French welcomed the women in their camp and showered them with assurances of safety. The women rejoiced that the worst was behind them. Then a few weeks later, the French decided to pull out of Rwanda. Many of the Tutsis were no longer in the camp, but a few still remained, including Ilibagiza. The French soldiers piled all the Tutsis who remained into a truck, and drove out to hand them over to the Tutsi army. Only, their drive didn't go according to plan.

Here is how Ilibagiza describes what happened next:
....We were more than halfway to the RPF camp when the truck stopped. The French captain came around to the back, pulled the tarp open, and said, "We have reports of gunfire in the area, and we have orders to avoid fighting at any cost. We're turning around, so this is where you'll have to get out." 
...I climbed out of the truck to reason with him."Please, Captain, you know better than anyone what will happen if you leave us here. There are killers all around us! Please, I'm begging you...take us another mile to the RPF camp, or take us back with you...don't leave us here to be killed!"
"I'm sorry Immaculee. I have my orders."
...We couldn't believe what was happening. A dozen or so Interahamwe [Hutu killers] were standing ten feet away, watching us and listening to our conversation with growing interest. I felt dizzy, the road was spinning, and all I could see for a moment was a blur of angry faces.
I steadied myself on the side of the truck, and for the first time noticed all the bodies on the ground - corpses everywhere along the road, as far as I could see.I looked at the captain, pleading with my eyes one last time. It was useless - he was immovable....
...At least 15 Interahamwe were now standing a few yards from the truck, with machetes in their hands and smirks on their faces.
...We had no choice but to come out. One by one, my friends hopped out, until all 30 of us were standing there facing the killers.
When everyone was out, two French soldiers lifted Aloise [in a wheelchair] down onto the road and deposited young Kenza and Sami [children] beside her. Then the soldiers climbed into the cab, and the truck pulled away at high speed, leaving us in a cloud of dust and uncertainty.
How could the French captain have justified such an outrageous and cowardly betrayal? While I understand that he was following orders, I can't help thinking, where was his heart? How could he, in good conscience, speed away from 30 unarmed refugees who were surrounded by their avowed killers? For all he knew, he was leaving them there to face certain death.

Ilibagiza never names this captain in her book. In an effort to foster forgiveness, she states at the start of Left to Tell that she intentionally withheld or changed many names in the book. Still, I wish I knew where this French captain was now. Does he have any remorse about this event?

The biggest miracle in this book has got to be this one: that Ilibagiza and these 30 Tutsi refugees survived this face-to-face meeting with an armed gang of Hutu killers. Perhaps the Hutus were afraid that the French would return, or perhaps they were worried about the nearby Tutsi army. In any case, these armed killers chose not to attack on that occasion, although they did mock and taunt the refugees at close range.


Ilibagiza wrote Left to Tell to share her hope and faith in the midst of evil and great human suffering. She is, and was then, obviously a person of deep religious faith. She prayed for many hours each day while she was in hiding, and she credits God's intercession in saving her life.

Yet for myself, this book was perhaps less a sign of hope than a sobering reminder of just how depraved people can become. The shocking atrocities of the Rwandan genocide are so overpowering that they are hard to shake from one's mind.

God's ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. In the midst of such carnage, which could easily lead many people to despair and even to lose their faith altogether, perhaps another miracle is that Ilibagiza stayed close to God, and that her faith grew ever deeper after the genocide.

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