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 and online.


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.

"She’s here . . . we know she’s here somewhere. . . . Find her—find Immaculée."

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. It’s 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 wouldn’t hear me breathing.

Their voices clawed at my flesh. I felt as if I were lying on a bed of burning coals, like I’d 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 and my
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 father’s rosary, and silently began to pray: Oh, please God, please help me. Don’t let me die like this, not like this. Don’t 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 don’t 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 I’d 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 me—and how to forgive those who slaughtered my family.

My name is Immaculée Ilibagiza. This is the story of how I discovered God during one of history’s bloodiest genocides.

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Chapter 9
Into the Bathroom

I closed the door behind Vianney and Augustine and joined the other Tutsi women.

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 you’ll 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 other—the room wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 you’re 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 you’re here, not even my children. Do you understand?

"Yes, Pastor," we mumbled in unison.

"And don’t flush the toilet or use the shower." He shone his light along the wall above the toilet. "There’s 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
you understand?"

"Yes, Pastor."

The flashlight clicked off, and his last words were spoken in the dark. "I think that they’re going to keep killing for another week, maybe less. If you’re careful, you might live through this. I’d hate for the killers to get you . . . I know what they
would do."

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 wasn’t 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 didn’t dare speak. We sat as best we could, listening to the crickets outside and to our own labored breathing.

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 bathroom—I truly believed that God had guided Pastor Murinzi to bring us here, and for the first time in days, I felt safe. If I hadn’t 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 he’d 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 children—Claire and Sanda—with her. Claire was very light-skinned, and even though she was my age, she was nervous and withdrawn and wouldn’t 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 trembling—I think she must have been in shock the entire time we were in that bathroom.

The pastor’s 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 the floor.

When morning broke, the birds in the pastor’s shade tree began singing. I was jealous of them, thinking, How lucky you are to have been born birds and have freedom—after 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 heaven’s sake, relax. The killers left seven hours ago. I can’t believe you’re 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, I’d never focused so completely on God, or been so keenly aware of the presence of darkness. I’d seen evil in the eyes of the killers, and had felt evil all around me while the house was being searched. And I’d 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 God’s 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 me—my faith, hope, and courage—was vulnerable to the dark energy. If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t 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 furniture—they even stuck their machetes into my suitcases to make sure that I wasn’t hiding Tutsi babies. They were crazed, like rabid animals. Their eyes were glazed and red . . . I think they’d been smoking drugs.

"But when they reached my bedroom, they saw that it was neat, so they didn’t want to mess it up. They said that they’d leave the bedroom for now but warned that they’d search it next time when they came back."

"Next time!" we gasped.

I couldn’t imagine reliving the same ordeal. Surely God wouldn’t put us through that suffering twice!

"You never know when they’re going to come back," the pastor said. "They could come at any time, and God help us all if they find you."

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 you’re hiding here. A different group of killers is being sent to search more thoroughly."

I moaned as my body went limp. I simply didn’t have the strength to live through another of the killers’ hunting expeditions. God, why don’t 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. I’m 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 blind again.

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? It’s tall and wide enough to completely cover it, so if the killers can’t see the door, they’ll never find us. It will be as though they’re blind!"

Pastor Murinzi thought for a moment and then shook his head. "No, it wouldn’t 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, we’d be saved. But the pastor was immovable, so I did something I’d never done in my life: I got on my knees and bowed down to him. "Please, I’m begging you," I said. "I know in my heart that if you don’t put the wardrobe in front of the door, they’re going to find us the next time they search. Don’t worry about making them angry—they can only kill us once. Please do this for us . . . God will reward you if you do."

I don’t know if it was the sight of me begging on my knees or the fear that I’d be overheard that convinced him, but he relented. "All right, all right. Keep your voice down, Immaculée. I’ll 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 idea—what put it into your head?"

I couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen the pastor’s 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.

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