A Book Review by Jack Doueck – February 2014
In November of 2013 I attended an inspirational speech by Immaculee Ilibagiza – a beautiful African woman from Rwanda, who spoke to an audience of about 600 business people that day. She told us how, in 1994, at the age of 22, she was home from college when the death of Rwanda’s Hutu president started a three-month slaughter of nearly one million ethnic Tutsis.
The Hutus marched through the country with machetes chopping their neighbors to bits. They murdered her parents and her brothers, her friends, her classmates, her teachers. She survived by hiding in a Hutu Pastor’s tiny (4 foot by 3 foot) bathroom along with seven other starving Tutsi women for 91 cramped, terrifying days. She described the unspeakable evil that was perpetrated which included the details of the brutal murders of her parents and brothers.
When the nightmare was finally over, she returned to her home – and found it was burnt down to the ground. She entered that bathroom weighing 115 pounds, and when she came out of hiding she weighed just 65 pounds.
With nowhere to go and her whole world destroyed, Immaculee was just devastated.
What was her reaction to this obscene adversity?
Would it have been acceptable for it to have been hatred? Revenge?
While she sat in a refugee camp a French sergeant made her an offer… “to give you some justice… Just give me the names of the Hutus who killed your parents and brothers and I will have them killed for you”. She thought about it. “All I would have to do was whisper a name and I could avenge my family and the families of hundreds of thousands of corpses rotting in the streets…” She thought.
Instead, she insisted, “Hutus aren’t evil Captain…”. She refused the offer and prayed to God. She prayed for the killers to put down their machetes and ask for mercy. She prayed that the captain would be blessed with the ability to forgive the killers. She prayed that she would be able to completely forgive the murderers and she prayed that her life’s work would be about helping others to forgive.
Immaculee describes in her book, that even after she came out of hiding and was on her way to a refugee camp, a group of Hutu killers surrounded her with guns and machetes and taunted her “we have been looking for this cockroach… I can’t believe she is still alive… We killed the rest of them, but this little cockroach gave us the slip!”
She prayed to God, “Take the evil from the hearts of these men, and blind their hatred with Your holy love… If they kill me, God, I ask You to forgive them. Their hurts have been corrupted by hatred, and they don’t know why they want to hurt me.”
The book is about how she made a great comeback, how she overcame her devastating adversity in all five dimensions of her personality: physically – she gradually overcame her starvation. Financially, she worked hard and succeeded in getting a job at the United Nations, and writing a book that became a best-seller. Spiritually, she was able to forgive the murderers by believing that they were overcome by evil. Her faith in God was never stronger, and she dedicated her life to helping others. Intellectually, she taught herself English and learned every day how to cope with a new world. Emotionally, she was not bitter. She accepted the loss of her family, found the love of her life and settled down, built a family and had children.
She is the supreme example of someone who can teach the world how to forgive – even the most horrifying atrocities.
Using the power of faith and forgiveness, she was able to learn, to appreciate the life she had, and to give of herself to others and build her dream.
At one point in the book she writes: “I loved my new job at the UN… Each day was more exciting than the last…. I was continually learning new skills, meeting new people, and honing my English. And not only was I rich in God’s blessings, but I was getting a paycheck too! Soon I was able to send money to my aunts and buy food and new clothes for my friend and thank them for all they have done for me since the war….”
That paragraph says it all.
Faith, forgiveness, learning, appreciation/gratitude, giving — and a strategy to succeed and move forward. That is the epitome of the six steps to overcoming adversity!
She ends her book with this: “Anyone can learn to forgive those who have injured them, however great or small that injury may be. I see the truth of this every day….a genocide survivor whose family had been murdered called me from Rwanda not long ago, crying over the phone and asking me to explain the steps I’d taken to forgive the killers. ‘I thought you were crazy to forgive them, Immaculee – that you were letting them off the hook. But the pain and bitterness I’ve been carrying in my heart for 11 years is about to kill me. I’ve been so miserable for so long that I don’t have the energy to live anymore…. But I keep hearing how you forgave your family’s killers and moved on with your life… That you’re happy and have a husband and children and a career! I need to learn how to let go of my hatred too. I need to live again’.
I told her how I put my trust in God, …. She thanked me and later told me that she’d asked God to help forgive the killers, too.
There was a woman in Atlanta who told me her parents had been killed in the Nazi Holocaust when she was a baby: ‘My heart has been full of anger my entire life… I’ve suffered and cried over my parents for so many years….but now that I met you and learned what you went through and how you forgave – I think I can forgive too. I can let go of my anger and be happy.’
A 92 year old lady hugged me ‘I thought it was too late for me to forgive. I’ve been waiting to hear someone say what you did – I had to know that it was possible to forgive the unforgivable. I am at peace now.’
The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda – and our world – by healing one heart at a time. I hope my story helps.”
Indeed it did Immaculee.