Immaculée Ilibagiza huddled with seven other Tutsi women in the 3-by-4 -foot bathroom of her pastor’s home, silently praying and clinging to her rosary as she heard Hutus shouting her name outside the door.
After three months of such close calls, Ilibagiza escaped. She is perhaps the most famous survivor of the Rwandan genocide and New York Times best-selling author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. A devoted Catholic, she will be hosting a retreat and sharing her message of healing and hope at Resurrection Parish in Tualatin, Oct. 25-26.
“The only thing that got me through was my faith in God,” she says.
Ilibagiza was a 23-year-old electrical engineering student at the National University of Rwanda when the genocide started in April 1994. While she was at home for Easter break, the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down over the capital city of Kigali, setting off months of attacks and counter-attacks.
Ilibagiza’s father urged her to run to the local pastor’s home for shelter. There she sat for 91 days, praying with the rosary that was a gift from her father, who was a director of Catholic schools. She would never see her father again — he and the rest of her family were murdered brutally.
During the ordeal in hiding, Ilibagiza dropped from 150 pounds to 65 pounds. As her body faded away, her mind and spirit strengthened. With a Bible and a dictionary, she studied English.
After her escape, Ilibagiza came to New York to work for the United Nations promoting peace. When she’s not traveling, she lives in New York and raises four children, two of whom are adopted from Rwanda. She is also close to her surviving brother. Ilibagiza raises money to help not only orphaned children in Rwanda, but other children in Africa.
When she was in hiding, she felt God asking her to forgive. She took that seriously, meeting with two of the Hutus who murdered her family and forgiving them.
The trauma still haunts her from time to time. She turns to faith for help.
"The rosary is the prayer that saved my life," she says. "Through the rosary you are humbled. You don't get what you want all the time. If you don't get what you want, the Lord will help you understand or let you know it was not good for you. Clarity comes. Once you pray rosary you have compassion."
Tragedies in Syria spark horrific memories and make her sad.
"The world can seem to be falling into an abyss," she says. "Lack of love, lack of respect can bring us there. We need to pray. I am so thankful the pope is encouraging prayer. If we pray, that is a war against evil."
To register for the retreat and to get more information go to www.immaculee.com or call the Marian Prayer Center in Milwaukie at 503-786-9600. It is also possible to register at the door.