BEAVERCREEK — One hundred years after Our Lady of Fátima appeared to three shepherd children in Portugal, best-selling author and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza traveled to St. Luke Catholic Church Oct. 13-14 to share her own message.
In 1994, 22-year-old Ilibagiza huddled with seven women in a pastor’s 3-by-4-foot bathroom for 91 days. Outside of the home, the genocide was raging across Rwanda, as machete-carrying soldiers broke into house after house, slaughtering men, women and children. Ilibagiza emerged three months later, alive — but just 65 pounds, only to find her family had been brutally murdered.
“Why am I here?” Ilibagiza, now in her mid-40s, asked a church full of people Oct. 13. “I’m just grateful to share my story — the lessons to realize how hatred can do so much bad — to have been burned by anger and to see where it was taking me. I could have died just out of anger — and yet this experience is forgiveness. I would not have gone to forgiveness without praying the rosary.”
Much of Ilibagiza’s message in Beavercreek was about the power of prayer.
During those 91 days in the bathroom, Ilibagiza prayed the rosary. She also taught herself English using a Bible and a dictionary. Eventually, she wrote down her story. And now, she shares her story around the world through speaking engagements and her seven books. Her best-selling book, “Left to Tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” has been translated into 42 languages.
Ilibagiza said she first learned to pray at home, with her family.
“In my family we prayed every night. Not one night ever went by without us kneeling in front of the cross and a picture of Our Lady, and saying our Catholic prayers,” she said.
Ilibagiza recalled when she was 11-years-old she first heard the story of Our Lady of Fátima at school. When she got home, she and her friend, hiding their intentions from her mom, pretended to be shepherds and prayed for a similar apparition.
“By the end of month, I remember thinking, ‘Why is Our Lady not coming?!’” Ilibagiza said to the crowd, laughing at her childhood-self.
She soon learned that three hours away in a small town called Kibeho, coincidentally or not, Mary appeared to schoolchildren.
In the Our Lady of Kibeho miracle, the Marian apparitions showed a vision of Rwanda descending into violence, possibly foretelling, warning the children of, the future genocide of the country.
Ilibagiza was home during a college break when the mass killing began and she was forced into hiding. Fear and anger ultimately led her to prayer.
“Through the genocide and through the apparitions of Our Lady especially, experience has a way to teach you much stronger than just hearing words,” Ilibagiza said. “It was through the genocide I realized that God has to be personal. The experience of God. You really have to ask — each one of us — do I believe in God?”
Outside of the bathroom, her worst nightmare was becoming a reality.
“My worst nightmare in my life was thinking, ‘Who can die first in my family?’ And I’m thinking, ‘If my mom dies, we can’t live without her. But if my dad dies, I wouldn’t be able to take it. If my brother dies, my mom would die. They can’t. What are we going to do? Who is going to die first?’” Ilibagiza told the crowd.
When she was liberated, she learned that her entire family had been killed, with exception of one brother who was studying out of the country. Nearly one million Rwandans died during that three-month span.
After the genocide, Ilibagiza came face-to-face with the man who killed her family. She forgave him.
“To see what I lost, I never thought I could be happy, knowing what happened,” Ilibagiza said. “It shocks me, it surprises me as much as it surprises you. But I can tell you it only came from prayer, from the rosary. My heart transformed and came to forgiveness for killing my family.”
On the centennial of the apparitions in Fátima, Ilibagiza offered a message to the families sitting in front of her.
“Our mother, Our Lady, used to tell us — and in Kibeho — my children, pray with sincerity. But if you don’t have sincerity, pray for sincerity. Pray with love. But if you don’t have love, pray for love.”
Contact Anna Bolton at 937-502-4498.