by Katherine Michalak
In June of 1994, I was nine years old. I didn’t know the Rwandan genocide was happening across the globe from my family’s rural Colorado home. While Rwanda’s Tutsi minority population was chopped to pieces by their machete-swinging Hutu neighbors and one-time friends, I tried not to step on prickly pear cactus. My family had just moved to the San Luis Valley in South-Central Colorado. A rugged, high desert valley punctuated by pinon trees and yucca, my new back yard felt more hostile than homey.
But I had no concept of true hostility. Though my parents may have mentioned the 800,000 Tutsis who were slaughtered before the end of the civil war, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame took control, they certainly didn’t usher my little girl self into the pain of details, the guilt of our national failure to stop this holocaust. I was only nine years old, too young to contemplate the horrible depths to which humanity sinks.
At thirty, I am reading Immaculee Ilibagiza’s memoir, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, and I am no longer ignorant. Ilibagiza shows every detail of her gruesome experience as a hunted Tutsi, from the deaths of many of her family members to the ninety-one days she spent hiding in a three-foot by four-foot bathroom with seven other women. Through Ilibagiza’s straightforward, patient narration, the genocide makes its way irrevocably into my consciousness: once having witnessed, through the written word, the appalling reality of this ethnic cleansing, I can never forget.
Ilibagiza was ten years old before she learned she was a Tutsi. Her parents, inclusive, altruistic individuals, attempted to erase prejudice in the village of Mataba by indiscriminately befriending Hutu and Tutsi alike—and they never spoke of ethnic differences to their four children. Thanks to extensive intermarrying, Hutus and Tutsis resembled one another enough for Ilibagiza and her siblings to perceive the two groups as a single race. Although she and her brothers were among the best-educated children in the region, their parents did not teach them Rwandan history; it wasn’t until a humiliating experience during ethnic roll call at school that she learned of her scarlet letter Tutsi identity.
Over thirty years later in New York City, mother to an adolescent daughter and pre-teen son, Ilibagiza continues her parents’ legacy of sheltering the younger generation from political and cultural negativity. Limiting her children’s video and TV exposure, she allows them to see only programming which is “non-violent, horror-free and spiritually uplifting” (220). This censorship provokes warring internal reactions on my part, eliciting questions about my own politically-ignorant childhood, as well as uncertainties regarding adult media consumption. Why is it we value exposing ourselves to the details of such transgressions as genocide? Why do we voluntarily witness, albeit secondhand through recorded coverage, humanity’s most chilling missteps? How often is it better not to know?
Perhaps the answers to these questions depend on contextualization—that is, on how we frame the violence we witness.
Ilibagiza’s parents raised her with an uncommon dose of love and religious faith. These attributes, rather than history lessons, were what imprinted her youthful consciousness—and these were the means for coping with life. She relied on these skills when trapped in a bathroom with killers calling her name. Hemmed in by savagery, she prayed incessantly, until she found “a refuge in a [spiritual] world that became more welcoming and wonderful with each visit” (95). It was this inner, faith-based sanctuary that ultimately allowed her to forgive the Hutu murderers—and to say the words, in person, “I forgive you,” to Felicien, the man who dismembered her mother and one of her brothers (204).
She has since gone on to lecture around the world, sharing her story as a means of promoting forgiveness under even the most trying circumstances. She divulges painful details to her audiences, but she does so in the context of a positive message. She recognizes, as did her parents, the responsibility that comes with knowledge. The human heart naturally reacts to tragedy, and if not otherwise nudged, it often reacts with cynicism, hatred, vengeance. All those sentiments, lest we forget, which caused Rwanda—that country some call a land of eternal spring—to reek of corpses only twenty-two years ago.
During the first five years after the Rwandan holocaust, I exited my politically ignorant childhood, only to enter a teenage apathy. At fourteen I reasoned, “Why listen to depressing news if there’s nothing I’m going to do about it?”
Why, indeed, if it will make the flowers in your heart shrivel and your own weapons come down hard in defense? Why not, however, if it will speed the germination of compassion, forgiveness, and hate’s antidote, love?
Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculee Ilibagiza
Hay House 2014