December 6, 2013
On Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, Immaculee Ilibagiza returns to Bismarck by popular demand for the 36th annual Prayer Day at the University of Mary. Her keynote presentation, "Immaculee Ilibagiza's Story of Faith, Hope and Forgiveness," starts at 11 a.m. in the McDowell Activity Center on campus.
The massacre of Ilibagiza's people, the Tutsis, began in Rwanda, Africa, in April of 1994. Hutu extremists went from one community to the next, house-to-house, slaughtering men, women and children. Their intent was to destroy the entire Tutsi population.
Ilibagiza was born and raised in a small village in Rwanda. She enjoyed a peaceful childhood with her loving parents and three brothers. Education was very important in her household, so it was no surprise that she did well in school and went on to the National University of Rwanda to study electrical and mechanical engineering. It was while she was home from school on Easter break on April 6, 1994, that Ilibagiza's life was transformed forever.
To protect his only daughter from rape and murder, Ilibagiza's father told her to run to a local pastor's house for protection. The pastor quickly sheltered Ilibagiza and seven other women, concealing them in a hidden three-by-four-foot bathroom. For the next 91 days, Ilibagiza and the other women huddled silently in this small room while the genocide raged outside the home and throughout the country.
While in hiding, anger and resentment were destroying Ilibagiza's mind, body and spirit. It was then that Ilibagiza turned to prayer. Prior to going to the pastor's home, Ilibagiza's father, a devout Catholic, gave her a set of rosary beads. She began to pray the rosary as a way of drowning out the anger inside her and the evil outside the house. It was that turning point towards God and away from hate that saved Ilibagiza.
After 91 days, Ilibagiza was finally liberated from her hiding place only to face a horrific reality. Emerging from that small bathroom weighing just 65 pounds, she found her entire family brutally murdered, with the exception of one brother who was studying abroad. She also found nearly 1 million of her fellow Rwandans murdered, including her extended family, friends and neighbors.
According to the United Human Rights Council, 200,000 people took part in perpetrating the Rwandan genocide. In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women and children perished, perhaps as many as three-quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were murdered because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.
Despite the horrific tragedy, Ilibagiza's story is one of mercy. After the genocide, Ilibagiza came face-to-face with the man who killed her mother and one of her brothers. After enduring months of physical, mental and spiritual suffering, she was still able to offer the unthinkable, telling the man, "I forgive you."
Today, Ilibagiza is regarded as one of the world's leading speakers on faith, hope and forgiveness. She has shared this universal message with world leaders, school children, universities, multinational corporations and churches, and at events and conferences around the world, including a recent presentation to more than 200,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Since her first Prayer Day appearance at U-Mary, Iligabiza has released several new books, including, "Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide," and "Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa." Iligabiza's first book, "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust" (Hay House), was released in March 2006 and quickly became a "New York Times" Best Seller.
Ilibagiza has appeared on "60 Minutes," "The CBS Early Show," CNN, EWTN, The Aljazeera Network, in "The New York Times," "USA Today," "Newsday," and many other media outlets. She was recently featured in Michael Collopy's "Architects of Peace" project, which has honored people such as Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
Mpower Pictures and Steve McEveety ("The Passion of the Christ," "Braveheart") are preparing to produce a major motion picture about Ilibagiza's story.
Doors open at 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 6 and seating is limited. Registration is available online at www.umary.edu/prayerday or by calling 701-355-8102 or 800-408-6279, ext. 8102. The event continues with a book signing and lunch at noon, an afternoon address at 1 p.m. and a Eucharistic Liturgy at 2:15 p.m. with Bishop David Kagan presiding. The cost for the day, including lunch, is $10.