SALT LAKE CITY — For Immaculée Ilibagiza, April 7, 1994, divides her life into before and after.
Before that day, her family lived among neighbors they loved in a nurturing Rwandan village where if a child fell asleep at someone else’s home, it was safe. If it was dinnertime, that child was fed. Their village had no crime and the neighbors trusted each other. Her family was close, protective, loving.
Within the space of hours, none of that would be true, although it would be three long months — spent hiding with seven other women in the cramped 3-foot-by-4-foot bathroom of a neighbor who was a Protestant pastor — before she’d know for sure what she’d lost.
She survived the genocide in Rwanda that began the day after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Hutu president of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. Their deaths led directly to the murders of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsi, at the hands of Hutu tribe members. Ilibagiza was 23, home on a short break from college.
Immacule Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994, speaks to a group of students at American Heritage School in American Fork on Friday, May 19, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Friday, Ilibagiza was both worlds and decades away from the massacre, standing on the stage of an auditorium at a Utah County private, nonprofit school in American Fork, her mission multifaceted: She hopes to teach children about forgiveness — the big, hard-to-fathom kind that seems impossible to provide because of the gravity of the wrongs endured. She hopes to establish ties between children at the Utah school and those at a school in Rwanda. And she hopes to interest Americans in helping Rwandan children become educated at both a secondary and a college level. They need scholarships and supplies and encouragement. They need a future.
But mostly, she wants to talk about forgiveness. It’s a lesson she learned in that cramped bathroom more than 20 years ago. To utter any sound, even crying, would be death, so she talked silently to God and then listened for his voice in her head.
When she emerged, she said, it was like the end of her world. Her family except for one brother away at college had been murdered — mom, dad, two brothers, a set of grandparents, several uncles.
“Those are things you only read in bad books, in horror movies,” she said to the students.
But she already knew she had to forgive…