The Most Beautiful Soul I Ever Met
This past weekend I met a woman who exuded a peace that was tangible, and it intrigued me so much that I prayed, "Lord, what do I need to do to get that kind of peace?"
This woman was Immaculee Ilibagiza, and over 10 years ago I read her book, "Left To Tell". I was so immersed in her story that I literally stayed up the entire night and finished her book. As I read it my mind was reaching far into the depths of my soul to try and grasp what had happened in Rwanda in 1994, and how one million Tutsis could be massacred with machetes and any other brutal object for killing within 90 days by the Hutu people.
One million people hacked to death in 90 days.
To this day I still can't wrap my mind around it. I was visualizing the horror of these people as they helplessly sat in terror watching their children, husbands and wives being chopped to pieces before their eyes, knowing there was nothing they could do to help them, and they would be next to feel the bludgeoning pain of the machete slicing off their limbs to their death.
It was like the worst horror film you could ever watch, but it wasn't a movie. It was real. How could this happen?
If you are like me, you may not have even known it was going on at the time. I vaguely remember seeing a magazine laying on one of my professor's desks that had a picture of a bunch of dead bodies laying on the ground. The professor mentioned something about a war in Rwanda. That was the last I heard or thought about it, until years later when I read Immaculee's book, and I could never forget what I read.
In America, sometimes we can be, how should I say it....self absorbed and when we hear about stuff like this we can either be indifferent to it because we have no reference point with which to relate or we can even dismiss it as a war between some savage tribes in Africa.
But these were not some savage tribes in Africa, they were people just like you and me. They lived beside each other. They went to school together. They ate together. They married and dated each other. They went to church together. They were friends.
And then suddenly, a massive killing spree began the day after Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (a Hutu), was killed when his plane was shot down. The Hutu majority began an annhilation against the Tutsi minority.
It started with Hutu militia men, but it soon turned into average, every day Hutus picking up a machete and killing their friends and neighbors simply because they were Tutsis.
Immaculee was a Tutsi and she miraculously survived the genocide by staying hidden in a 4 x 3 bathroom of a Hutu pastor with seven other people for 90 days until the mass killing came to an end. The killing was so massive and swift that over 10,000 Tutsis a day were being murdered.
Can you imagine the bloodshed and bodies that had to be lying everywhere? Can you imagine the terror Immaculee must have felt hiding in that bathroom as hundreds of killers with machetes swarmed outside the pastor's house calling her name and saying they were going to kill her?
"Where is Immaculee? We want Immaculee!" they called out.
Then she heard the voice of a family friend say, "I have killed 399 cockroaches. Immaculee will make 400. It's a good number to kill."
She described fear gripping her like nothing she had ever experienced.
"Their voices clawed at me, and I felt like I was lying on a bed of burning coals. A sweeping wave of pain engulfed my body, and a thousand invisible needles stabbed my flesh. Yet I tried again to pray: Dear God, forgive me for my lapse of faith....I trust in You, God...I know that You will save us. You are stronger than the evil in this house."
But as she prayed the evil voices in her head got louder and she knew the killers would show her no mercy if they found her. Her mind raced over and over again as her clothes became drenched in sweat. If they catch me, they wil kill me. If they catch me, they will kill me. If they catch me, they will kill me.
She continued clutching the rosary her father had given her before she had ran off in hiding the last time she had seen him. The killers were in the pastor's house looking under beds, in suitcases, in the attic.....and then she felt faint and her consciousness slipped away.
She began floating above the other women. She could see them down below her trembling with fear, holding their bibles over their heads when suddenly peace overtook her and she heard Jesus speak:
"Mountains are moved with faith, Immaculee, but if faith were easy, all the mountains would be gone. Trust in me, and know that I will never leave you. Trust in me, and have no more fear. Trust in me, and I will save you. I shall put my cross upon this door, and they will not reach you. Trust in me, and you shall live."
As soon as He said this she was back on the floor again staring at a giant cross of brilliant white light stretching from wall to wall in front of the bathroom door.
She shouted, "We're safe! Trust me....everything is going to be okay!" The other women looked at her like she had lost her mind and quickly pulled her to the ground thinking surely she had just got them all killed by her outburts.
But God was miraculously protecting them.
At one point Immaculee said one of the killers got right to the bathroom door and was getting ready to open it, when suddenly he looked at the pastor and told him, "You're a good Hutu, you wouldn't hide any Tutsis," and just like that he turned and left.
Finally, after 90 days the mental torture and confinement in the bathroom was finally coming to an end, as the rebel RPF Tutsi army had been able to take over and put a stop to the brunt of the mass killings. However, her nightmare and struggle wasn't over as she had dropped down to 65 lbs and would soon find out that her whole family, her mother and father and two of her brothers had been killed. Only one brother had survived and that was because he was out of the country.
After the convincing of Immaculee and the other women, they were taken by the pastor to a safety point where the French army had come in to help the Rwandan people. However, after staying there for a short while the French ended up abandoning them on a road in the midst of a group of Hutu killers.
After Immaculee and the other Tutsis were forced out of the truck, Hutus carrying machetes began surrounding and taunting them.
"These are the cockroaches that the French soldiers were protecting. Who's going to save you now cockroaches?" As one of the men came towards Immaculee she stared him straight in his eyes and began to pray for God to use her to touch his heart with the power of His love.
After what felt like a lifetime, she said the killer broke her gaze and looked away. Then he turned around and dropped his machete as if the devil had left his body. In the same way God had miraculously protected her and those women in the bathroom, He was once again protecting her and the other Tutsis as they walked the rest of the way down the road to safety at the camp headed up by the Tutsi rebel army RPF.
Immaculee was one of the few Tutsis who survived the genocide without having been raped or scarred by a missing limb from a machete. Later on, Immaculee would go on to work at the United Nations, move to the United States and begin travelling around the world telling her story. Although there were other survivors, what makes Immaculee's story so profound is the aggressiveness with which she pursued love and forgiveness to the Hutu people and those who had killed her family.
She even went so far as to track down one of her family's killers in prison and tell him about the love of God and that she forgave him. In her books, "Left To Tell" and "Led By Faith" she says how at first hatred tried to consume her as it did many other Tutsis. It tried to make her hate every single last Hutu and think of them as evil.
She said she would have visions of becoming a vigilante, killing and bombing all the Hutu's, but the more she imagined the revenge the more she could feel the trappings of Satan and hate filling her heart, and God's presence leaving her. As she listened to other surviving Tutsis talk about revenge killings against Hutus and telling her that no Hutus could ever be trusted, that they're all animals and evil; she knew the only way to prevent more bloodshed and to escape her own mental prison was forgiveness and love.
This was how she found peace in the midst of such unspeakable turmoil and tragedy when it appeared as though everything had been taken from her and her whole life had been turned around.
And this forgiveness and love that she sought after was the peace that I felt exude out of her this past weekend when I heard her speaking at a retreat that I was invited to. This peace and love was so tangible and overwhelming that I wanted it. I knew this type of peace and love could only come from someone who had a deep relationship with Christ and spent much time in His Presence.
Her peace also began to make me reflect on other things. These are some of my other reflections from Immaculee and her story:
Peace can transcend our circumstances.
Hate doesn't discriminate. It finds its place in the hearts of those with unforgiveness, bitterness and offense.
People of all different races and nationalities are capable of the worst evil when they fill their hearts with prejudice and hate. (Hence the Holocaust in Germany; slavery in America; the Rwandan genocide.)
Love is the most powerful weapon against hate.
Forgiveness is freeing to the person who has been hurt.
God's power is real.
If you haven't read her story I would greatly encourage you to make "Left To Tell" or "Led By Faith" two of your must reads, especially if you are struggling with unforgiveness. It will help you to see that if this woman can forgive and move beyond such unimaginable tragedy, there is no trauma we can't overcome, and no weapon that can be formed against us that will prosper if we seek God in the midst.
What a beautiful soul Immaculee Ilibagiza truly is, and I can see why she was left to tell her story.
God bless you Immaculee.