Left to Tell by Immaculée Ilibagiza

Genocide: an ancient crime; a relatively new word; a horrific event in which one group of people attempts to completely eliminate another group; a modern crime.  All of these apply to the word, one of the most awful in human history.

1994, a year within the lifetime of everyone over the age of 15 reading this piece, was the year of the Rwandan genocide.  The haunting title of this book tells us that the author was the only one of her family “left to tell” the story of the annihilation of her immediate family and the attempted annihilation of her tribe, the Tutsi, in the African country of Rwanda in that final decade of the bloody 20th century.

Immaculée’s family led an almost idyllic existence in their little village of Mataba — “paradise” in her words — on the shores of Lake Kivu in their beautiful country.  Her father was a well-respected elder of the village, called upon to settle family disputes and give fatherly advice to every resident there.  Both he and her mother were teachers, a profession to which the uneducated paid homage.  The family was devoutly Roman Catholic, but the lines of tribe and faith were often erased by village loyalty and mutual friendship — and sometimes by marriage.  As in much of Africa, European colonial dominance left a bitter taste in the mouths of the locals as the colonial powers often took advantage of tribal loyalties and animosities when they wanted one tribe to “do their dirty work” for them against another.  So it was in Rwanda.  When the Belgians departed, an undercurrent of jealousy and hatred stirred among the Hutus against their better-educated fellow countrymen.

Immaculée and her three brothers were raised without knowledge of what tribe they belonged to.  Their parents considered all Rwandans brothers and sisters.  Perhaps they hoped that raising their children without prejudice would serve as an example to all who looked up to them.  All the siblings were brilliant and happy, pursuing education with the intention of helping their less educated Rwandan brothers and sisters become better citizens of their country.  It came as a shock when her fourth grade teacher in the village school called roll at the beginning of the school year by tribe:  “Hutus, stand up!” he shouted; six children stood.  “Tutsis, stand up!”  Several children stood.  Her teacher was furious that Immaculée stood for neither.  He threw her out of the class because she “did not know what she was.”  This was her first experience with ethnic roll call and ethnic hatred.

Her brothers and their parents made little of the experience, her brothers through ignorance, and her parents because they wanted to smooth the ruffled feathers of the Hutus who were in the majority. They also believed that their love for all their fellow villagers would conquer the simmering hatred.

Alas, it was not to be.  When the fated time came for the pot of ugliness to boil over in incredible and unbelievable violence, Immaculée was home on Easter vacation during her freshman year in college.  When the Hutus of Mataba filled with blood lust that spring, Immaculée’s father, Leonard, attempted to make peace with them.  Hundreds of Tutsis had gathered in Leonard’s front yard expecting him to protect and guide them.  His efforts proved fruitless.  The Tutsis drove the Hutus away by throwing stones at them, but they knew that this was only a temporary measure.  They knew that the people who were formerly their friends, neighbors, and even relatives would return.

That night, Immaculée gave her father her scapular to keep him safe.  He, in turn, gave her his Rosary.  The violence on the verge of erupting in Mataba was only a composite of what was occurring all across Rwanda.

As the Hutus gained a mob mentality, Immaculée’s brother, Damascene, insisted that she seek refuge in the home of the local Protestant minister (and Hutu), Pastor Murinzi.  Against her will, but obedient to her brother, she fled to the pastor’s home.  When the pastor led her to a hidden bathroom of his spacious home, Immaculée was shocked to find eight other terrified women already there.  This cramped space was their home for three months while their fellow Tutsis were hacked to death.

Left to Tell is the incredible story of the survival of those women and of Immaculée.  It is a story of bravery, faith, prayerfulness, love, hate, survival, death, bloodlust, and, finally forgiveness.  It is the story of a nation gone mad with fear and hatred and how it is recovering through love, justice, and forgiveness.  Immaculée’s story is the story of Rwanda since the holocaust of 1994.

It not an easy book to read, but it is a page-turner.  Neither is it a history of tribal conflicts in Africa — or even in Rwanda.  It is the very personal story of one woman, her suffering, and her will to survive.  She would live to tell her story, and learn what happened to her beloved family — father, mother and three precious brothers — in the ugliness of the Rwandan holocaust. This determination and hope sustained her, not only through the those three months hidden in the bathroom, but in her later quest for answers and closure.

Immaculée is a remarkable woman; Left to Tell is a remarkable story.