Immaculée hears the killers calling out her name, saying “we know she’s in here somewhere.” They are her former friends and neighbors, people that she knows well. She holds her father’s rosary and prays to God to keep her alive. The killers move on, but Immaculée will soon come to learn that although her life was spared, she was not “saved.”
Immaculée was born in Mataba, a village in the province of Kibuye. As a child, she was surrounded by the love of her family, friends, and neighbors. She did not know about tribal differences and did not hear the words Tutsi or Hutu until she started school. Immaculée’s father, Leonard, was strong and protective, and her mother, Rose, was energetic, hard-working, and nurturing. Both were teachers. Immaculée’s family had two cars, and some people in her village called Leonard Muzungu, which means both “white man” and “rich person.” The family was devoutly Catholic, and when Immaculée was a child, she and her friend Jeanette approached a priest, Father Clement, about becoming nuns. The eldest of Immaculée’s three brothers, Aimable, was introverted and shy. Her second oldest brother, Damascene, was “brilliant” and cheeky; he and Immaculée were best friends. Her baby brother, Vianney, was “lovable but pesky.”
When Immaculée was in fourth grade, her teacher, Buhoro, scolded her for not knowing whether she was Hutu or Tutsi. Despite being well educated, Immaculée and her brothers did not know about the ethnic divide in Rwanda and how this was shaped by German and Belgian colonialism. Immaculée remembers a time when she was three years old and her family hid from Hutu extremists in the house of a Hutu friend named Rutakamize. At the time, Immaculée didn’t understand what was happening, but now she knows that the extremists were killing Tutsis and burning their homes.
At age fifteen, Immaculée was ranked second in her class of sixty students. She planned to attend college and become a pilot, professor, or psychologist. However, she soon learned that she had not been selected to receive a scholarship to attend high school because she was Tutsi. Determined that his daughter would still go to high school, Leonard sold two cows in order to pay for her tuition. After studying hard, Immaculée passed the exam to be accepted at the Lycée de Notre Dame d’Afrique—one of the top schools in Rwanda. Although Immaculée loved the Lycée, people in the surrounding area were highly hostile to Tutsis.
In October 1990, in Immaculée’s final year at the Lycée, war breaks out when Tutsi rebels cross the border from Uganda and begin fighting the Rwandan army. Shortly after, a local Hutu man threatens to kill Immaculée as punishments for “what your rebel brothers are doing.” The government begins to spread propaganda about Tutsis, calling them “cockroaches.”
Immaculée graduates from the Lycée and is awarded a scholarship to attend the National University in Butare, meaning she will be the first in her family to attend college. Immaculée adores university life and begins dating a fellow student named John. Leonard does not care that John is Hutu but is concerned that he is Protestant instead of Catholic. Immaculée begins to witness the Interahamwe, a youth wing of President Habyarimana’s political party, harassing and beating up Tutsis. The president signs a peace agreement with the Tutsi rebels, but soon after, a colonel in the Rwandan military, Theoneste Bagosora, promises to bring an “apocalypse” to Rwanda.
Immaculée goes home for Easter, but her family’s celebration is darkened by Damascene’s warnings that the Interahamwe have grenades and a list of the Tutsi families in the area. Damascene urges that they escape, and Immaculée agrees. However, Leonard responds that their fear is making them irrational. That night, Damascene bursts into Immaculée’s room to tell her that President Habyarimana has been killed. Immaculée’s family listens to the radio and learns that her Uncle Twaza is one of a large number of Tutsis killed in revenge for the president’s murder. It is the morning of April 7, 1994, and the genocide has begun.
The Rwandan prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, is killed while giving a phone interview to the BBC. Rose begins to pack their bags. That night, the family hears on the radio that ten Belgian UN Peacekeepers have been killed, and that Westerners are fleeing Rwanda. In the morning, the Interahamwe begin killing people in Immaculée’s village. Thousands of men flock to Immaculée’s house to ask Leonard for advice. For a brief time, the sheer number of Tutsis keeps the Interahamwe away. Damascene and Leonard insist that Immaculée goes to hide in Pastor Murinzi’s house, because, as a young woman, it is too dangerous for her to remain there. At first Immaculée refuses, but eventually she agrees to go along with a family friend named Augustine.
Immaculée has known Pastor Murinzi since she was a child; he is also John’s uncle. After Immaculée arrives at the pastor’s house, Damascene comes to visit and says that their house has been burned down. Leonard and Rose escaped on a motorbike, but he does not know where they went. Damascene says goodbye and leaves.
Later, Pastor Murinzi shepherds five more Tutsi women into the small bedroom where Immaculée is staying. That same day, the killers come by, shouting “Kill them all!” The women hide in a crawl space, and after the killers leave, Pastor Murinzi laments that they will need another solution, as he is sure next time the killers will keep coming back to search the house. He tells Immaculée that it is too dangerous for him to hide men, and that Vianney and Augustine therefore cannot stay. Immaculée ushers the boys out, trying to assure them that everything will be fine.
Pastor Murinzi shows Immaculée and the other women a small bathroom where they must hide in absolute silence, so that the pastor’s own children will not even realize that they are there. The oldest of the women is fifty-five and the youngest is only seven. Immaculée hears a mob of killers coming again, and is shocked when—looking at the mob from the window—she sees many of her friends, neighbors, and classmates among them. Immaculée spends almost all of her time praying. Although she is terrified, she never fails to be comforted by God’s love.
One day, she overhears Pastor Murinzi’s son, Sembeba, telling the pastor that he thinks the massacre of Tutsis is a good thing. Sembeba mentions the rumors that his father is hiding Tutsis inside the house. Pastor Murinzi furiously sends Sembeba out, reminding him that his own mother was Tutsi. Later, Pastor Murinzi comes into the bathroom looking traumatized. He explains that the whole country has been shut down and will remain so until all Tutsis are dead. He tells the women that they may be “the only Tutsis left alive in all of Rwanda.” Immaculée is devastated, but finds a glimmer of hope when she hears a BBC radio broadcast saying that the RPF (the Tutsi rebels) have arrived in Kigali.
Days later, Pastor Murinzi comes in and calls Leonard a “bad Tutsi,” saying that he was helping the RPF plan an extermination of Hutus, and that if the women in the bathroom are killed, it will be because of Immaculée. Immaculée argues that the pastor is only blindly believing propaganda. As Pastor Murinzi leaves, Immaculée asks to borrow a Bible from him, and he agrees. She spends fifteen to twenty hours a day praying, and her relationship with God grows stronger than ever.
Pastor Murinzi lets his two most trusted children, Lechim and Dusenge, in on the secret of the women hiding in the bathroom. Lechim and Dusenge are kind to the women, helping to bring them food and tea. Soon, two more Tutsi women named Malaba and Solange join those already in the bathroom. The women tell stories of the horror outside. As time passes, all eight women become thin, unwell, and infected with lice. While listening to the radio, Immaculée has a sudden moment of insight: she decides to learn English so that she can communicate with English-speaking Tutsis after the war. She also has a vision of herself one day working at the United Nations. Using a dictionary Pastor Murinzi gives her, Immaculée finds joy in studying English every day.
In early June, John arrives at the pastor’s house, having fled Kigali after the RPF arrived. In the bathroom, John and Immaculée embrace. However, John does not make an effort to be kind to Immaculée and, after some time, she realizes the love between them is gone. Soon, there is news that French soldiers are coming to Rwanda and will set up camps for Tutsi refugees. One night, after everyone is asleep, Pastor Murinzi secretly brings the women into the main house to watch a movie with the volume turned off. One of the pastor’s servants sees the light of the TV and informs the killers that the rumors are true: Pastor Murinzi is hiding Tutsis in his house. The killers search the house, shouting Immaculée’s name. Immaculée prays fiercely, and the killers leave.
In early July, another houseboy tries to insist on cleaning the small bathroom, making it clear that he suspects the women are hiding in there. Pastor Murinzi manages to get in contact with the French soldiers, who agree to take in the women. The killers will come back the next day, so at 2 A.M., the pastor sneaks the women out, with his sons and John guarding them. The women are taken in at the French camp, where Immaculée sees two old friends, Jean Baptiste and Jean Paul. She learns that her entire family has been killed except Aimable, who is away studying in Senegal. Immaculée is soon taken to another French camp, where she finds her aunts, Esperance and Jeanne. Esperance gives Immaculée a letter that Damascene wrote to her before he died. The letter is dated May 6th, 1994, and is blurred with teardrops. In the middle of writing it, Damascene learned that Leonard, Rose, and Vianney were all killed. Immaculée learns of the horrifying details of Damascene’s final days, but also of his courage when faced with his killers.
Once the soldiers learn that Immaculée is fluent in French, they ask for her assistance in translating the stories of the Tutsi refugees, most of whom can only speak Kinyarwanda. Before long, however, the French camp is disbanded, and the French soldiers take Immaculée and the other refugees halfway to an RPF camp, making them walk the rest of the way alone. When they arrive, the RPF soldiers are suspicious as they do not believe that so many Tutsis could still be alive. Yet miraculously, one of the soldiers—an old Hutu student of Rose’s named Bazil—recognizes Immaculée and confirms that she is Tutsi.
Eventually Immaculée and eleven other refugees go to Kigali to stay at the house of Aloise, a spirited disabled woman who credits Rose with saving her life when she was young. In Kigali, Immaculée immediately sets her mind to getting a job at the UN, and practices her English in preparation. However, she is told that there are no jobs and is turned away. She returns to the university in Butare, which has been decimated. However, she is able to retrieve her letters, her diploma, and thirty dollars of scholarship money that she had stashed away. She returns to the UN, where eventually a kind man named Pierre Mehu gives her a job. Soon, Immaculée is reunited with her college roommate, Sarah, who suggests that Immaculée move in with her. Immaculée agrees. She writes to Aimable to tell him the terrible news about their family.
Immaculée returns to Mataba, where she finds Damascene’s mutilated body. She takes Damascene’s remains and buries them, along with Rose’s body, at their destroyed family home. Immaculée goes back to Kigali, but after seeing her family in a dream, she returns to Mataba to forgive the killers who murdered Rose and Damascene.
In the epilogue, Immaculée explains that in late 1995, she was reunited with Aimable. Today, he is a doctor who lives in Kigali with his wife and child. Immaculée prays for God to send her a soulmate—a Catholic man from anywhere in the world to be her husband. Soon after, she meets Bryan Black, an American who is in Rwanda to set up the International Criminal Tribunal. Two years later, the pair are married in a traditional Rwandan ceremony. They move to the US and have two children, Nikeisha and Bryan, Jr. Immaculée now works for the UN in New York City. She concludes by advocating the power of forgiveness and love.