Interview with Immaculee Ilibagiza
Author of Left To Tell and Led By Faith
I have often wondered, “What would I do if someone killed someone I love?” In today’s world a lot of the violence is in the name of revenge. You need to go back decades or centuries, or in the case of the Middle East, millennia, to find the original insult or wrongdoing. In the case of the Middle East it’s, as Bill Moyers of PBS said, “The longest-running family quarrel in history.” It’s been so long that most Israelites, Christians, and Muslims have forgotten what it was even about, yet the conflict goes on, and on, and on. That’s why, when I watched Immaculée on Oprah and on 60 Minutes and I read her books, Left to Tell and Led by Faith, I knew I needed to talk with her to see how she came to that place of forgiveness of the people who slaughtered her family, friends, and neighbors. The time has come when we must learn to forgive the “others.” Unless we do, there will always be a reason and justification for revenge and the fighting will continue. Fortunately it can no longer continue on our planet the way it has for the last 3,000 or 4,000 years because living in a world with high technology that is ruled by “tribal warfare” is no longer an option. And when I use the term “tribal” I am not limiting it to the traditional meaning of the word. I have witnessed tribal warfare by those who drive tanks and Cadillac Escalades.
Another note worthy of mention is the mountain gorillas. Only 655 are left in the world and half are in the northern Rwanda patch of forest. Bringing peace through forgiveness to this area has also brought back the much-needed protection for the gorillas. All living things are part of the web of life and as our awareness evolves we realize our interdependence.
I hope you get out of this interview as much as I did.
Lotus Guide: Some of my questions may be on a deeper level than what you are used to because I happen to be working on forgiveness myself.
Immaculée Ilibagiza: I think we always are.
LG: After reading your book, Led by Faith, and trying to understand all you have been through I barely feel qualified to ask some of the questions I have because I have never experienced anything even close to what you have.
II: Please ask anything you want.
LG: I think to help explain where you are today we need to have a brief background of your experience in Rwanda. I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to understand the depth of the hatred between people who were for all appearances the same. We are used to that when dealing with obvious differences like skin color and religion, but this seemed to come from an intentional design on the part of other groups of people with their own agendas from other countries.
II: Yes. What happened in Rwanda started with colonialization. The first group were Germans who colonized the country; then they gave the country to Belgium. When the Belgians came they found a country that was very organized. It was a surprise for them to see a country in Africa that was so organized, with a king and every area had a chief. And the king was a Tutsi. Anyone who had more cows, which was a sign of wealth, would become Tutsi. If a Tutsi loses a cow, he would be poorer; he would become a Hutu. Like any other country, there are the rich, and the middle class, and the class that does not have much money is always the largest. There wasn’t much of a noticeable difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Sometimes even between two brothers, one of them would become a Hutu and the other become a Tutsi. We’re now looking at the consequences it can have on a country when it divides itself, no matter what the division is based on.
So then in a very short time the Hutus overthrew the king. Many people believe that he was poisoned. And then they trained the Hutus to take over. The people who took the power in the first government were people who didn’t even know how to read sometimes. They just wanted to have the power so they could overthrow the Tutsis. What was once a class division had become a political division. So there was a big conflict between the tribes. So the Hutus had one agenda, and it was to kill Tutsis or send them away. This was the first civil war in 1959.
The second war was in 1967. In 1973 they made another war against Tutsis who were going to school. In 1994, it was again really the leaders who arranged it. And to this day, I don’t think there can ever be genocide if the leaders are not behind it. People don’t hate each other enough to get up and start to kill each other. You must have strong people behind it.
LG: Yes, they’ve done a lot of research over the years; it’s the “madness of crowds.” There is a crowd psychology, like a lynch mob, for instance. Most people in a lynch mob would never lynch a person if they were by themselves, but in a mob, or a crowd, you can hide. And we do some of the same things in today’s world. Some of our belief systems, our nations, and more recently our corporations can turn into a mob mentality.
II: That is so right. The important thing I would like to say is that if it could happen in Rwanda it can happen anywhere there are strong leaders behind it. People that want power so badly end up having evil in their hearts. When you see firsthand something like this happen and understand the process behind it, you should realize it can happen in any country. You can’t believe that it happened to this beautiful country. People say to each other, “How can this happen right here?” And those who took part in the war are now regretting it.
LG: There was a teacher who did an experiment a few years back, and she divided her class into blue eyes and brown eyes, just for an experiment, and by the third week, she had to stop the experiment because they started fighting on the playground; the blue eyes started making up stories about the brown eyes-they weren’t as smart-not as strong. There have been a series of experiments and studies that point to the fact that we have a mental process that strives to divide. Some seem to think it’s part of our evolution that helped us survive. And the only way we can get past this is doing what we’re doing right now, which is dialogue, talking and putting light on it.
II: Yes, once you acknowledge the conflict and put a little light on those things that go on in the mind, you can feel it coming and make a conscious choice to take this action or that. One problem was the fact that we couldn’t study the history of such things as the Jewish Holocaust; it was forbidden.
LG: Unfortunately we don’t always learn from history but if you are not allowed to know what happened then you will never learn. That’s why it’s so important for people to hear, firsthand, stories like yours.
I have a question about faith. I’m somewhat confused, as many are, when I hear the word “faith.” I have seen times when faith seemed to work miracles in people’s lives but on closer examination there were many people in the same situation who had faith and things didn’t work out for them at all. How do you reconcile this within yourself when you went through so much suffering?
II: Oh. What a question. There were these thoughts that were coming to me when I was begging God in my heart, “Please don’t let them find us, don’t let this happen to us,” and this voice would come to me and say, “Oh, who do you think you are? What about people who are dying? Do you think they are praying? And you even dare to ask for you?” A part of me wanted to give up and I felt I had no hope. And then I remember another voice telling me, “You are a human being. Don’t try to know the minds of other people and understand what they are doing, what is happening to them. Who knows what they are asking?” For example, and this is in my book Left to Tell, there’s a letter my brother wrote to me. He sent it home before they killed him. He was a person who was so scared of dying in his life. He was afraid of the dark and he was a fighter, an athlete, but he was so scared of dying. And when he wrote to me I realized that in every situation God has a way to speak to people, even in the face of death. For example, he said, “If I have to die and if I don’t make it, don’t worry, I will go to heaven. And if we have to die, for the salvation of this country, let it be.” So for somebody who was so scared of death, all of a sudden he’s ready to face it, I think it is the grace of God.
Wherever forgiveness is in my heart, there also is what I call God. A lot of people’s prayers are like begging but if you just do the best you can and surrender to a greater will then it seems to work out.
LG: I think that with everything going on in the world today, and with the position that the United States is in with so many conflicts in the world, we’re taking a deep honest look at ourselves here in the United States, finally, and to do that, I think we need to figure out this next question. According to some research, three out of five conflicts are motivated by revenge. The only thing that seems to heal this is forgiveness. Can you go into what you went through in the process of forgiveness? How did you “truly” forgive, Immaculée?
II: Oh, that’s such a good question. I remember in the first week of hiding, forgiveness was not even in my reality; I was so angry and scared. In my life up to that point I had my parents, my brother, I had people loving me. I never knew anyone hating me in my life. I thought everyone was so honest in life, even the government. In that kind of world I didn’t really see or understand all that was going on around me. And all of a sudden I am sitting in the bathroom and I’m thinking, “What will happen to me? What has caused this to be this way?” So that week I was more just realizing the reality in the world: “What is going on? I am not calling myself a Tutsi to be sitting in this bathroom.” I was just lost. I was so overwhelmed with this anger and thinking, “If I get a chance to live, I will never speak to Hutus, I will hate them and their children, I would never be friends with them after what they did to me, my brother, my mother, my dad.” All I could think of was “these evil people.” I hated them, thinking they were not humans. This was all real. I was so angry. And then the pain has a way of teaching us, even though we hate it. I remember one time I asked the guy who was hiding us, a Hutu pastor, to put the radio outside to hear what was going on in the country. Then I could not believe what I had just heard on the radio. What was going on in the country: They have killed thousands of people who were hiding in the stadiums, thousands of people who run to churches. And I remember one thing that pushed me to the edge was the order they gave to start searching the homes of Hutus. And that was my situation. I could only think of what I had been listening to on the radio about arms and legs, machetes, and grenades. I thought to myself, “They can’t search.” It was so painful to imagine what would happen to me if they found me.
And then somebody said a prayer when they were coming, but I wondered, “Where is God?” Because my vision of him stopped right there. If I suffer, it means God is not around. So that is how I saw things. If I don’t suffer, then God is with me. I remember saying a prayer not knowing if God is there or not, and I remember almost having a vision of voice telling me, “Oh, God doesn’t exist. If he existed, you can hear what he was saying here.” I just gave up. Then I gave up asking him for anything. And then I remember the voice telling me, “Just ask God to give you a sign if he exists. Ask with all the might in your heart. If he is there, he will answer you.” And somehow, I went, “Okay. Maybe I can just choose to listen to this little voice that says if I ask, it’s possible.” And so I asked, “If you are there, if you exist, don’t let the killers find us. Then if you do that, I will try to know who you are; I will try to know what you want.” So that’s the first time I felt a huge commitment. The killers came inside the house, they searched in every place you can imagine, and they came right to the door of the bathroom, and they were searching everywhere you can think of. They finally said to the pastor, “You know what. We trust you.” Then they left. The last part they would have searched was the bathroom we were hiding in. So when he told us what happened out there, I said, “Okay, God, I will hold on to you, now I believe in you, but we have to know each other. What do you want? But I hope you aren’t asking me to forgive because you know I can’t do that. I don’t even know how to do it.” And I remember sweating out of anger. Just trying to imagine what I will do when I get out. I will put the bomb under the country and everyone will blow up. I can just be like Rambo and I can shoot everybody. I wanted to be anything horrible, terrible, and kill these people.
I found that there are three steps to forgiveness. The first step was to feel the anger. To really feel it as it is, in your body. You know when you are angry at somebody you can feel it as justice. You feel like you have taken over and are in control. And then the pain of holding them and carrying them everywhere you go is so painful, and for me the question was, “Who hated most, me or Hutus?” And then the second step, I remember when it was really painful, my body was aching, I couldn’t even remember how to smile. I remember asking myself, and telling God in my heart, “I surrender. I don’t know how to forgive, but I feel like it is the only thing that was asked of me. I wish I could be naive and innocent again. Smile to people, be happy to people. Believe in the goodness in them. But right now I only believe in their evil. I wish you could give me that joy I used to have as a child.” And I didn’t know how that would come, but I felt like God was saying, “Let it go. That is the only way you can feel better.” I was thinking to myself that the anger I had toward the Hutus was so much, was so heavy, I didn’t know what to do with it. And it was aching my body. I said in my heart, “I give it to you, if you know how to forgive, help me out.” And to tell the truth, there was one time I thought I would never know how to forgive and a part of me that didn’t want to forgive them. I have such a good reason to hate them. And then maybe God would find a way to make me feel better, but not forgive them. But I didn’t want to be the person who was asking God, “Help me out to be peaceful, help me out for them not to find us,” and yet I am holding this anger. I had to realize that we are all children of the same God.
LG: Yes, there’s a part in the Bible where it says, “Why would my right hand cut off my left hand?” We are all one humanity. It looks like we’re divided but energetically, we’re like this thin film of consciousness, a planetary consciousness, in a planetary body, and I think the Bible speaks of it as being one in the body of Christ, Pierre de Chardin speaks of the noosphere surrounding the earth, and progressive spiritual thinkers have been speaking of “spiritual evolution” for centuries. But the reality is that you and I, speaking right here, right now, we are the same person, speaking to ourself, from this higher consciousness that is evolving and insisting on unity and oneness.
II: That is so true. And that is really the lesson you get there, let go of that voice that tells us that we are different. Not only are we praying for peace in the world, we also need to pray for peace within our own lives. And you don’t have to take care of everybody. But send them love. Think of them as people who need to express themselves, who are trying to become. When you forgive, there are so many people who feel it, that know it, and you have let go of the anger toward other people. Instead of them now continuing to build up the anger of the revenge, or what they can do to you, and your loved ones, you give them a chance to think and to feel their hearts themselves. If you hold anger they have that passion of continuing to be angry with you, then they are trapped and live with their fear of what you can do to them. But once you can forgive them in the depth of your heart, something happens. And the great thing about it is they will tell someone, maybe their child, their wives, their friends. Maybe not what they have done, because it’s not good. Then you give them a chance to grow. And you don’t have to go to save them, because these feelings of love, we all know it and love does its own work.
LG: Yes, this has to be the most important lesson, and maybe our ultimate lesson on this planet, as we grow into a global society, because in today’s technological world you can only imagine what would have happened in Rwanda if the Hutus had access to fighter jets with advanced technology or an atom bomb. So we really need to get this under control, this armed conflict; our barbaric past has to come to an end. Otherwise, there’s going to be one person who will bring it all to an end because unlike even 200 years ago, it only takes one person to kill a million people now.
Okay, I know this is a politically incorrect question but being politically correct is one of the things that have brought our planet to the brink of destruction so…
I’d be really interested to hear what you have to say about this. According to Amnesty International, there’s usually an average of 20 religious conflicts going on in the world at any one time. These are armed conflicts by people of “faith” who have a belief in a loving, although capricious, God. More often than not they are of the same skin color, the same genetics, and living in the same area; the only thing that divides them is their beliefs. What have you learned from your experience in Rwanda that you feel would benefit them? In other words, people of belief who have the belief that they have the ultimate belief that gives them the ordained right by their God to change other people or remove them from the planet.
II: Oh, my God. I wish I could have a quick answer to that, you know, one thing that would completely answer that question. But you know what I think, if you really understand what love is and what it does to you, you really see yourself in other human beings, and try to act with love. I wish there could be a government of love. A ministry of love. Somewhere where people have the business of being compassionate. The business of knowing what is going on in the heart of another person. To just hear what you think and what you are feeling. I just want to tell you the journeys I went through, the struggle I went through in my heart by hiding, the tears I shed for my mother, for my father, what would happen if you went through that. And I really think that if there is one thing that gives me peace in life, and which allows me to act as who I am, I can come to this country and feel like I have peace in settling here, is that knowing that deep down, we are the same. Deep down we have the skin that gets hurt the same way, deep down we like people who talk to us with love, and we feel bad with those who talk to us harshly, and we can pretend it doesn’t touch us, but yet it does. That is how you can defend another person who is being treated unjustly. Because even if you don’t know them, you know those things hurt. When we believe in something, you can’t critique somebody else for believing what they believe in, it’s a belief, which means you don’t know for sure. I used to have a boyfriend, he was from another region, all Christians, but they had different beliefs. And I had a different belief in one small thing but I accepted him as he was but he wanted me to change if we were going to get married. And I loved him with all my heart, and I wished I could change. But what does it serve you if I change something, just for you, and not because I’m really convinced? And is that really change?
LG: Yes, because usually what we’re asking another person to do is to pretend like they believe something that they really don’t believe. I think people forget that to believe something it needs to be believable. Bertrand Russell, a great Christian writer, once wrote that he would never die for his beliefs, because he could be wrong. And if we can all can grasp that, that all of our beliefs, almost traditionally and historically, almost every belief that we’ve ever had on this planet has ended up either being wrong or misleading and if we look at our beliefs now, so much of it is changing and in constant evolution; to get attached and identified to some fixed idea of what the reality of the world is, is really absurd and possibly a delusion of grand proportions. We need to hold on to that part of ourselves that we’re children and constantly learning.
II: That is why I love children. They are so innocent. They touch the fire, they let it burn them, and they learn from that, and what is most important is how we practice love. I have seen people in my religion, in Rwanda, killing those who are teaching us to love. So it’s really how you grasp with your heart; it’s not how much you know. It’s how much you can practice that love. I will write again and again, you can never go wrong by caring for somebody, you can never go wrong by giving, by caring, by loving, but you go wrong by hurting somebody, by lying to somebody. You can go wrong by hating somebody. But if in your heart you are doing what you think you wish to be done to you, to another person, you can never go wrong. And I think that is the secret. How can we get there?
LG: Well, like most truths, they’re usually simple. All beings are searching for one thing, to love and to be loved and to connect with other beings doing the same. And I think that’s about as simply as you can put it.