The following is an excerpt from Left to Tell: Discovering
God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Irwin.
It is published by Hay House (March 2006) and available at all bookstores
I heard the killers call my name.
They were on the other side of the wall, and less than an inch of plaster
and wood separated us. Their voices were cold, hard, and determined.
"Shes here . . . we know shes here somewhere. . . . Find
There were many voices, many killers. I could see them in my mind: my former
friends and neighbors, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving
through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name.
"I have killed 399 cockroaches," said one of the killers. "Immaculée
will make 400. Its a good number to kill."
I cowered in the corner of our tiny secret bathroom without moving a muscle.
Like the seven other women hiding for their lives with me, I held my breath
so that the killers wouldnt hear me breathing.
Their voices clawed at my flesh. I felt as if I were lying on a bed of burning
coals, like Id been set on fire. A sweeping wind of pain engulfed my
body; a thousand invisible needles ripped into me. I never dreamed that fear
could cause such agonizing physical anguish.
I tried to swallow, but my throat closed up. I had no saliva, and my mouth
was drier than sand. I closed my eyes and tried to make myself disappear,
but their voices grew louder. I knew that they would show no mercy, and my
mind echoed with one thought: If they catch me, they will kill me. If they
catch me, they will kill me. If they catch me, they
will kill me. . . .
The killers were just outside the door, and I knew that at any second they
were going to find me. I wondered what it would feel like when the machete
slashed through my skin and cut deep into my bones. I thought of my brothers
dear parents, wondering if they were dead or alive and if we would soon be
together in heaven.
I put my hands together, clasped my fathers rosary, and silently began
to pray: Oh, please God, please help me. Dont
let me die like this, not like this. Dont let these killers find me.
You tell us in the Bible that if we ask we will receive . . . well, God, I
am asking. Please make these killers go away. Please dont let me die
in this bathroom. Please God, please, please, please save me! Save me!
The killers moved from the house, and we all began to breathe again. They
were gone, but they would be back many times over the next three months. I
believe that God had spared my life, but Id learn during the 91 days
I spent trembling in fear with seven others in a closet-sized bathroom that
being spared is much different from being saved . . . and this lesson forever
changed me. It is a lesson that, in the midst of mass murder, taught me how
to love those who hated and hunted meand how to forgive those who slaughtered
My name is Immaculée Ilibagiza. This is the
story of how I discovered God during one of historys bloodiest genocides.
Into the Bathroom
I closed the door behind Vianney and Augustine and joined the other Tutsi
Pastor Murinzi carried a flashlight and led us down the dark hallway to his
bedroom. Our eyes followed the beam of light along the walls until it landed
on a door that I assumed opened to the yard.
"This is where youll stay," he said, swinging the door open
to reveal our new home: a small bathroom about four feet long and three feet
wide. The light shimmered as it bounced off the white enamel tiles on the
bottom half of the walls. There was a shower stall at one end and a toilet
at the otherthe room wasnt big enough for a sink. And there was
a small air vent/window near the ceiling that was covered with a piece of
red cloth, which somehow made the room feel even smaller.
I couldnt imagine how all six of us could possibly fit in this space,
but the pastor herded us through the door and packed us in tight. "While
youre in here, you must be absolutely quiet, and I mean silent,"
he said. "If you make any noise, you will die. If they hear you, they
will find you, and then they will kill you. No one must know that youre
here, not even my children. Do you understand?
"Yes, Pastor," we mumbled in unison.
"And dont flush the toilet or use the shower." He shone his
light along the wall above the toilet. "Theres another bathroom
on the other side of that wall, which uses the same plumbing. So if you absolutely
must flush, wait until you hear someone using the other bathroom, then do
so at exactly the same time. Do
The flashlight clicked off, and his last words were spoken in the dark. "I
think that theyre going to keep killing for another week, maybe less.
If youre careful, you might live through this. Id hate for the
killers to get you . . . I know what they
He shut the door and left us standing in blackness, our bodies pressing against
one another. The musky heat of our breath, sweat, and skin mingled together
and made us feel faint.
We tried to sit, but there wasnt enough room for all of us to move at
the same time. The four tallest had to push our backs against the wall and
slide to the tile floor, then pull the smaller girls down on top of us. It
was past 3 A.M. and we were all wide-awake, yet we didnt dare speak.
We sat as best we could, listening to the crickets outside and to our own
I prayed silently, asking God to protect Vianney and Augustine and keep my
parents and Damascene safe. I thanked Him for delivering us to the bathroomI
truly believed that God had guided Pastor Murinzi to bring us here, and for
the first time in days, I felt safe. If I hadnt noticed the bathroom
we were currently in after so many visits to the house, no one else would.
I asked God to bless Pastor Murinzi for risking his own safety to help us
. . . but then I winced at the prayer. A flush of anger burned my cheeks as
I remembered how hed sent my brother and our friend into the night.
I prayed that God would eventually help me forgive the pastor.
The moon emerged from behind a cloud, and a thin streak of pale light slipped
through a crack in the red curtain, providing enough illumination for me to
make out the faces of my companions. Sitting beside me was Athanasia, a pretty,
dark-skinned 14-year-old with big beautiful eyes that caught the moonlight.
Sitting on top of her was 12-year-old Beata, still wearing her school uniform,
who looked lost and very frightened. I pulled her onto my lap, cradling her
in my arms until she closed her eyes.
Across from me was Therese, who, at 55, was the eldest of the group. She wore
a colorful, traditional Rwandan wrap-dress popular with married women. She
looked more worried than any of us, probably because she only had two of her
six childrenClaire and Sandawith her. Claire was very light-skinned,
and even though she was my age, she was nervous and withdrawn and wouldnt
make eye contact. Her little sister Sanda was only seven, and the youngest
of the group. She was cute, sweet, and surprisingly calm. She never once cried
or looked frightened, even when the rest of us were tremblingI think
she must have been in shock the entire time we were in that bathroom.
The pastors repeated warnings to be quiet had burned into us. We sat
in an uncomfortable heap, too afraid to adjust our positions or to even breathe
too heavily. We waited for the gray light of dawn to fill the room, then carefully
pried ourselves apart to take turns standing and stretching. A two- or three-minute
break was all we allowed ourselves before resuming our awkward positions on
When morning broke, the birds in the pastors shade tree began singing.
I was jealous of them, thinking, How lucky you are
to have been born birds and have freedomafter all, look at what we humans
are doing to ourselves.
IN THE EVENING, THE PASTOR OPENED THE DOOR and found us all in a sort of trance.
I was bathed in sweat, exhausted, clutching my rosary in both hands, and oblivious
to my surroundings. I was still mouthing prayer after prayer while staring
vacantly at the others. Therese was using one hand to cover her eyes and the
other to hold her Bible firmly on top of her head. And young Beata was crouching
on her knees, arms in front of her, hands clasped in prayer.
The pastor called our names, but not one of us heard him. Finally, he shook
us to awaken us from our stupor. I looked up at him, blinking, confused, and
completely taken aback when he began laughing at us.
"What are you ladies doing? For heavens sake, relax. The killers
left seven hours ago. I cant believe youre all still praying."
To me, those seven hours had passed in what seemed like a few minutes, yet
I was utterly drained. In all my years of praying, Id never focused
so completely on God, or been so keenly aware of the presence of darkness.
Id seen evil in the eyes of the killers, and had felt evil all around
me while the house was being searched. And Id listened to the dark voice,
letting it convince me that we were about to be slaughtered. Every time I
succumbed to my fear and believed the lies of that poisonous whispering, I
felt as though the skin were being peeled from my scalp. It was only by focusing
on Gods positive energy that I was able to pull myself through that
first visit by the killers. My father had always said that you could never
pray too much . . . now I could see that he was right.
I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside
of me. Everything strong and good in memy faith, hope, and couragewas
vulnerable to the dark energy. If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldnt
be able to survive. I could rely only on God to help me fight.
The visit by the killers had left us all spent. Pastor Murinzi brought us
a plate of food, but despite our hunger, we were too tired to eat. The food
was untouched when he returned around midnight.
The pastor returned again in the middle of the night during a heavy storm.
The rain beat down so loudly against the iron roof that he was able to talk
freely without the fear of being overheard. "We were lucky today. They
searched all over the house and looked in every room. They looked in the yard
and dug through the dung heap behind the cow pen. They crawled into the ceiling
and under the furniturethey even stuck their machetes into my suitcases
to make sure that I wasnt hiding Tutsi babies. They were crazed, like
rabid animals. Their eyes were glazed and red . . . I think theyd been
"But when they reached my bedroom, they saw that it was neat, so they
didnt want to mess it up. They said that theyd leave the bedroom
for now but warned that theyd search it next time when they came back."
"Next time!" we gasped.
I couldnt imagine reliving the same ordeal. Surely God wouldnt
put us through that suffering twice!
"You never know when theyre going to come back," the pastor
said. "They could come at any time, and God help us all if they find
His parting sentence echoed in my mind, keeping me awake all night and through
the next day.
Pastor Murinzi returned the next evening in a panic. "A friend told me
that the leader of a death squad thinks the killers did a bad job searching
the house yesterday," he hissed. "Some of you were seen in the house
a few days ago, and there are rumors that youre hiding here. A different
group of killers is being sent to search more thoroughly."
I moaned as my body went limp. I simply didnt have the strength to live
through another of the killers hunting expeditions. God,
why dont you just lead them to us
now and get it over with? I entreated. Why do you let us suffer like this?
Why do you torture us?
How could we escape again? The house that once seemed so huge had become my
cell, a death trap. I could think of only one escape: I wanted to go to heaven.
Oh, God, I prayed soundlessly, I have no heart left
to fight. Im ready to give up . . . please give me strength and protect
me from the demons that are all around me. Show me how to make the killers
I raised my head and opened my eyes. When I saw the pastor standing in the
doorway, a crystal clear image flashed through my mind. "I have an idea,"
I told him in a hushed but insistent voice. "Can you push your wardrobe
in front of the bathroom door? Its tall and wide enough to completely
cover it, so if the killers cant see the door, theyll never find
us. It will be as though theyre blind!"
Pastor Murinzi thought for a moment and then shook his head. "No, it
wouldnt change anything; in fact, it would probably make matters worse.
If they look behind the wardrobe and find the door, they will be even more
vicious with you."
"Oh, no! Pastor, please, you must . . ." I was certain that God
had sent me a sign. In my soul, I knew that if the wardrobe was in front of
the door, wed be saved. But the pastor was immovable, so I did something
Id never done in my life: I got on my knees and bowed down to him. "Please,
Im begging you," I said. "I know in my heart that if you dont
put the wardrobe in front of the door, theyre going to find us the next
time they search. Dont worry about making them angrythey can only
kill us once. Please do this for us . . . God will reward you if you do."
I dont know if it was the sight of me begging on my knees or the fear
that Id be overheard that convinced him, but he relented. "All
right, all right. Keep your voice down, Immaculée. Ill move it
right now. I hope it helps, but I doubt it will."
He disappeared, and a moment later we heard the wardrobe sliding in front
of the bathroom door. The other ladies looked at me and whispered, "That
was such a good ideawhat put it into your head?"
I couldnt remember if Id ever seen the pastors wardrobe
before, but I knew for certain that the idea to move it came to me when I
prayed for help.
"God," I simply replied.