Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza hid in a tiny bathroom with seven others for 91 days in 1994, while madness stalked the land. Hutu militias killed between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandans, most of them Tutsis.
When Immaculee finally stepped into the daylight, she learned that her mother, father and two brothers were dead.
One day, she was asked to come to prison to see the man who led the gang that slaughtered her family. The prison warden urged her to "do whatever I liked" to the disheveled man who shuffled in, she wrote in In Character, a quarterly journal published by the John Templeton Foundation.
At first, she was shocked. The killer was a family friend — a Hutu man who had treated her like a daughter and whose children had played with her.
Then it was Immaculee's turn to shock the men. She refused to harm the man and instead forgave him. The prison warden was furious. "How dare you forgive a killer? Don't you like our people? Didn't you like your parents?" he asked her.
But after three months of silent fasting and praying, Immaculee had experienced her own crucible and discovered that forgiveness was the way out of hell.
The genocide was so monstrous, "I had to find out what is happening from God," she explained to me recently. A Catholic, she had a Bible and a rosary, and "prayed 27 rosaries each day. Each rosary takes like 25 minutes, so it was from morning to night."
She also said the Lord's Prayer "about 200 times a day," but kept choking on the passage about "forgiving those who trespass against me." With those words, she said, "I realized, I am lying."
She began to beseech God. "My anger is killing me. … I can't take it. I know I have a good reason to hate, but I just can't take hating so many millions of people. It takes too much from me."
The answer came. Don't try to change the Lord's Prayer — ask Him what He meant.
She read about Jesus' Crucifixion, especially his passionate prayer for God to forgive his tormenters, for "they know not what they do."
"Somehow, in that moment, those words became my light," Immaculee said. The neighbors and friends who succumbed to bloodlust didn't know what they were doing either, she reasoned. And as she surrendered to forgiveness, her "anger lifted up" and she again felt peace.
She began praying in earnest for the killers, so that by the time she met with her family's killer, she was far beyond hatred. Instead, "all I had to give was forgiveness," she said.
Today, Immaculee, who is married and the mother of two, gives talks around the world about the power of forgiveness. She tells her story in a book, "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust," and created a charity (www.immaculee.com) to assist genocide survivors.
Her major message is that "forgiveness is something that belongs to the person who has been wronged."
Forgiving "doesn't mean you condone the wrong or you have to make yourself a victim again," she says. It means "letting go of the bitterness and anger."
"I don't want to minimize anyone's situation, hatred or hurt," she added. "But I have lived it. … It is possible to forgive."
Over the years, she has seen her simple message affect people including Holocaust survivors and family members who were long estranged. But she is especially amazed by the transformation of the prison warden.
A year after her visit to the prison, she said, "He came to me … and said, 'Child, you don't know what you did to me. That day you forgave a killer changed my life.'"
Before, he said, he had been consumed with revenge. As the days passed, his pain and anger just seemed to grow even stronger.
"But when you were able to forgive him," the prison warden told Immaculee, "it was the first time I realized it was even possible to forgive."
"And it was then," she said, "that he felt free."
• Cheryl Wetzstein is on medical leave. This column originally appeared Dec. 21, 2008.
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Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor. Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...
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