- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2008

The American holiday season is first and foremost a time for family. We gather from afar, renewing childhood bonds, reacquainting ourselves with distant relatives and greeting new family members.

Expectations are high; family is where we are supposed to experience the greatest security, deepest care and truest of loves. When these fail — when abuse or neglect has occurred at the hands of family members — anger and resentment can fester for years, even decades.

If this holiday season brings up these kinds of unwanted feelings, listen to the simple words of an African woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza, who now travels the world speaking on how forgiving the unforgivable brings freedom of heart.

In the spring of 1994, Immaculee, as she likes to be called, was a 24-year-old college student visiting her home in Kigali, Rwanda. Unbeknownst to her, terrible hatreds were growing among the Hutus, the populous tribe that shares Rwanda with the Tutsi tribe. While Tutsis like Immaculee lived, worked, befriended and intermarried with the Hutu, the Tutsis were generally like a ruling class, and bad blood had grown between the tribes.

Hutu rage boiled over on April 6, and they began a systemic slaughter of Tutsis. By the time the genocide was over, almost 1 million people, mostly Tutsis, perished.

Immaculee’s parents told her to seek shelter with a Hutu pastor, and she ended up sharing a tiny bathroom with six women and a girl for three months.

“We were in constant mental and physical torture during the 91 days we spent hiding inside the pastor’s cramped bathroom,” Immaculee wrote in the recent In Character quarterly, published by the John Templeton Foundation.

Waves of hatred washed over her as Hutu mobs sang and chanted slogans outside the house.

She even heard people murdered.

“One night, we heard screams … and then a baby crying. The killers must have killed the mother and left the child to die by the road. The child cried through the night. And then the cries were silent and I heard dogs snarling,” she wrote.

“How can I forgive people who would do such a thing?” she asked God. His answer was swift. “You are all my children. The baby is with Me now.”

The words touched Immaculee, but even as she clutched the rosary her father gave her, she wrestled with hatred, bewilderment and fear, for Hutu killing squads still came to the pastor’s house, searching for Tutsi “cockroaches.”

The scariest search occurred in the second week of captivity, Immaculee told me recently. “They went inside the house, on top of the house, in the ceiling, under the beds; they even opened suitcases to see if anyone was hiding.”

She prayed desperately to God, “If you are there, if you exist, please don’t let the killers find the door to this bathroom.”

One man came right up to the door, she said, but instead of opening it, he turned to the pastor and said, “You know what, we trust you. There’s no way you can hide these cockroaches and snakes.”

“And he went back without opening the door. He was five inches away from us. So that’s when I said, ‘My goodness, God is real. He heard my prayer.’ And then when I was feeling He was really, really real, I started feeling, I better try to know Him.”

The pastor later pushed a large wardrobe in front of the bathroom door, but as search parties kept returning, he became scared for his own family and talked of forcing the women out. He relented when they cried for mercy.

And so for weeks and months, the eight sat wordlessly in the 3-foot-by-4-foot space. No sounds were allowed; they flushed only when the other bathroom was in use. The pastor gave them plates of food, but Immaculee’s weight still dropped from 115 pounds to 65 pounds.

Prayer, however, was freely available, and during her confinement, Immaculee began quizzing God repeatedly about how He or anyone else could forgive the unforgivable.

Next week: Liberation, body and soul

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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