Rwandan Genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza tells her story of love, faith, hope and forgiveness to hundreds of Black Hills State University students, faculty, staff and local community members.
Crammed in a 3-by-4-foot bathroom with seven other people, Immaculee Ilibagiza lived for three months in silence eating only the table scraps from the family of the pastor who was hiding them. She held her breath as 300-400 men searched the four-bedroom home several times looking for any evidence of people hiding. She knew if the men found them, they would all be killed.

It was during those 91 days that the young college student decided between giving up hope and holding on to faith that she would survive.

Hundreds of Black Hills State University students, faculty, staff and local community members packed into the Donald E. Young Sports and Fitness Center last week to hear Ilibagiza’s inspirational story of survival. For two hours, the Rwandan Genocide survivor told the story of how an Easter holiday trip home from college forever changed the course of her life. Throughout her story, Ilibagiza, who recently became a United States citizen, spoke of the importance of love, faith, hope and forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is possible in every situation. Forgiveness is freedom … finding that peace.”

The 1994 Rwanda civil war claimed nearly one million lives including those of Ilibagiza’s entire family.  Ilibigaza recounted the day Wednesday, April 7, 1994, when her brother woke her up and said the president’s plane had been shot down. The president had belonged to the Hutu tribe and members of the Tutsi tribe were blamed. The violence began almost immediately. “We put on the radio and heard they had blocked all borders of the country.”

On the second day of the war, Ilibagiza said 10,000 people packed into her family’s home asking her father, the director of the Catholic schools, what to do. “In the group of 10,000 people I am the only person alive.” She said her father’s decision to send her into hiding with a trusted member of the enemy tribe saved her life - that along with a rosary he handed to her before he sent her off.

People wondered why her father would send her into the care of someone from a tribe that was slaughtering Tutsis, but Ilibagiza’s father knew he was a good man.

“My father used to tell us “Don’t put people in boxes. Treat people individually as they come to you. Make an effort. It is easier to say someone from that country did wrong so everyone is the same. Always make an effort not to put people in boxes. If you do, you will end up missing out on angels in your life.”

During her time in the bathroom, Ilibagiza said she went through many levels of emotions – impatience, fear, anger. “I had so much anger. If I ever came out, I would avenge my family and become a killer.”

She turned to the rosary her father gave her and prayed all day every day, but when she got to the part in the Lord’s Prayer that said “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” she stopped.

“I asked God, if he knew how to forgive, to help me out. I didn’t know how you can forgive someone who is trying to kill your family. I wanted an answer.”

One day Ilibagiza began to understand.

“People who hurt us don’t get it. They are fighting their own evil, finding some way to project that pain, fear and anger. Hating someone who doesn’t get it, who is blind, doesn’t make sense. Even the killers, they have the capacity to change. People are not evil. People do evil. But as long as we live, we all have the capacity to change.”

Three months after the genocide began, Ilibagiza and the seven other captives left the hiding spot. It was only then that Ilibagiza learned that her entire family had been killed – her mother, father, two brothers, grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, friends, and schoolmates.

While in hiding, Ilibagiza taught herself English which helped her get a job with the United Nations in Rwanda, and in 1998 she immigrated to the United States where she continued her work with the UN. The best-selling author now travels, spreading her message of hope and forgiveness.