Saturday April 6th marks the 19th anniversary of the tragic events of the Rwandan Genocide. In 1994 the African country was hit with rapid violence that broke out between two Rwandan Tribes, the Hutu and Tutsi. For 4 months, starting in April and ending in July the Hutu killed around 500,000 to 1 million Tutsi. Out of the survivors one was Immaculee Illbagiza, who at the age of 19 experienced the horror of those dark days. Written by Steve Erwin with the insight of Immaculee, you are taken on a journey from her safe and innocent beginnings, living with her father, mother and brothers. Like any normal girl she went to school, had friends and was taught to have a very personal relationship with God.
From Humble Beginnings
Throughout the first chapter Immaculee paints a playful picture of her life, how she went to church with her family, and the activities she did with her father, mother and brothers. She also gives an insight into the first time she was met with racist discrimination at school.
We follow her through her studies and her struggle with being Tutsi in a Hutu dominating world, as she fights for her place in one of the top high schools and later the top university. Throughout all of this she hints to the coming events with mentions of radio broadcasts, her childhood friendships and news. You can really feel the closing dread and the fear that was felt as she tells the story.
The Horror Unfolds
You finally see events unfold as she speaks about an Easter holiday that brought her home to her family. Her older and younger brothers, along with her father,mother and a friend’s brother gather around the radio listening to news about the assassination of the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira (this was the catalyst that started the genocide). Immaculee speaks of the nervousness of her normally cool-headed older brother and at its peak she continues talking about the slaughter of innocent people, friends and family by Hutus who were driven mad with hate.
Into Hiding & The Horrors of Human Beings
This book really captors the extent of human behaviour, as Immaculee explains that friends that she grew up with turn against her and her family as well as how her faith and prayers played an important part of her survival. This is the main point of 3 months in which she along with 7 other Tutsi women hide in a tiny bathroom,( 3 feet (0.91 m) long and 4 feet (1.2 m) wide, in the House of a Hutu Pastor who decided to help them (although reluctance was shown on his part)
The most painful parts of this book comes in her time in the bathroom, she and the other woman couldn’t speak to each other. She describes the hunger, the pain and horror that was going on in the world around them. The description she gives is so vivid, so powerful and yet so horrifying that you think how can people be this evil? One part sticks with me the most is in the Chapter named ‘Struggling to Forgive’, she describes an incident in which a mother and her baby were caught by a group of Hutus who were patrolling an area near the house Immaculee was hiding in. She speaks of the cry of the mother and baby as they was ripped away from each other, then soon after only one crying can be heard. The baby. She describes it as follows:
“One night I heard screaming not far from the house, and then a baby crying. The killers must have slain the mother and left her infant to die in the road. The child wailed all night; by morning, its cries were feeble and sporadic, and by nightfall, it was silent. I heard dogs snarling near by and shivered as I thought about how that baby’s life had ended. I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul and then asked him, How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?”
I have to admit, after reading that paragraph and I found it difficult to continue, because these people ( The Tusti) were treated like animals (and Immaculee describes the Hutu as animals). Throughout the book the Hutu refer to the Tutsi as ‘cock roaches’ and ‘snakes’ going as far as the comment that, ‘a baby snake is still a snake, don’t leave it alive kill it too’.
The Strength of Faith
This brings to me to subject of faith, throughout the book Immaculee prays, meditates and refers to the bible. This is all she does during her time in the bathroom. The Chapter ‘Struggling to Forgive’ is a powerful chapter as she shows her conversation and her prayers with God, where she asks how could she forgive those who were out there murdering people. I enjoyed this chapter because it really shows the inner struggle going on between her and her faith. She is filled with anger, they were killing people without a second thought to what they were doing, they had killed members of her family. They were friends who had turned against her, who were hunting her as if she was an animal. She refers to them as children who have no idea what they have done and how it affects others. She states that, “Their minds had been infected with the evil that had spread across the country but their souls weren’t evil. Despite their atrocities they were children of God,” She also makes very good point stating that she could forgive a child but it wouldn’t be easy since they were trying to kill her. And at the point, as she reasons with herself, as she notes that she couldn’t ask God to love her and reject his family (since they were also god’s children) she began to pray for them, asking God to forgive their sins.She prays that they would recognize their error and hope that they pray for forgiveness from God themselves. Once she was able to do this, her anger towards the killers ( as they are referred to in the book) melts away.
‘Left to Tell’ is not only a journey into the darker side of human nature through the eyes of one the Genocide’s survivors. It is a tale of faith and strength during the darkest of times in human history. It captors your heart and soul. It makes you wonder why do we do this to each other when we are all the same in God’s eyes. It also has another important lesson, Immaculee also talks about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust that happened there, stating that ‘all the big countries said never again’, making the following quote more right than ever before, ‘ If we do not learn from history then we are doomed to repeat it‘.