In Left to Tell, Immaculée Ilibagiza explains how living through the Rwandan genocide—an event so horrifying that one might expect it to lead to a crisis of faith—ultimately strengthened her Catholic faith and relationship with God. Indeed, she credits her miraculous survival to God, and in this way, the book depicts faith as a self-reinforcing cycle, wherein Immaculée’s trust in God produces miracles, which in turn bolster her religious convictions. As Immaculée’s faith grows stronger, so does she as a person, and it is this strength that helps enable her survival. While the overt aim of the book is not necessarily to convert people to Christianity, Immaculée’s main message is that in the midst of the genocide, her faith was greater than ever, and that this experience points not only to the importance of faith but to the existence of God.
Immaculée was always a very religious person. Her family was devoutly Catholic and, as a child, she visited a local priest to enquire about becoming a nun. Although Immaculée’s faith was always strong, it was made far stronger during the genocide. There are a number of reasons for this. In the midst of the horror, Immaculée relied on God more than ever, putting her survival in His hands. Furthermore, there was essentially nothing to occupy her while she was hiding silently in Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom, and thus at certain points she spent fifteen to twenty hours a day inside the bathroom praying. She also borrowed a Bible from the pastor, using it (and a dictionary) to teach herself English. While the world around her was falling apart, Immaculée focused her attention entirely on God. This preserved her sanity and will to survive while increasing the zeal of her faith.
Immaculée describes several moments in which she believes God directly intervened in order to save her life. For example, in a sudden moment of inspiration, she persuades Pastor Murinzi to place his wardrobe in front of the door to the bathroom, thereby obscuring the bathroom door from view. This means that when the killers come to search the pastor’s house, they do not realize that the bathroom even exists. Immaculée credits this moment of inspiration to God. Later, there are several moments in which the killers are inside the house, calling Immaculée’s name and implying that they know where she is. However, each time, the killers ultimately leave, which Immaculée again believes was God leading them away from her. When she and the other women in the bathroom finally escape the pastor’s house and travel to a camp run by French soldiers, they pass a group of Interahamwe who do not appear to notice them. Immaculée believes that God “blinded” the men in this moment in order to allow her to escape.
During the genocide, Immaculée is totally reliant on her faith not only because she is constantly on the brink of death but also because she is totally alone outside of her relationship with God. Except for her brother Amiable who is studying in Senegal, Immaculée’s immediate family members are all killed in the genocide, along with all their Tutsi friends and neighbors. The women with whom Immaculée hides in Pastor Murinzi’s bathroom were essentially strangers to her before they were stuck there together, and they cannot speak to each other due to the risk of being discovered by Pastor Murinzi’s staff or family members. In the midst of her extreme isolation, Immaculée turns to God and finds comfort in knowing that, because of Him, she is not alone. Her relationship with God is one of the only reliable things in her life, and it is also one of the only things linking her experience before the genocide to everything that comes after.
Throughout the book, Immaculée describes moments when she was seconds from seemingly certain death. Each of these times, she prayed as fiercely as she could, and each time, she escaped. However, it is not just her survival that Immaculée credits as a miracle. Toward the end of the book, she describes Rwanda’s incredible revitalization in the years after the genocide, noting that “to me, there is no greater proof of the existence of miracles than the depth, scope, and speed at which my African homeland has been restored and transformed.” Immaculée’s identification of miracles where others might not see them is further testament to the strength of her faith. Rather than looking to the genocide as proof that God has abandoned Rwanda, Immaculée finds evidence of God’s love wherever she can. In this way, Immaculée’s memoir creates a portrait of human faith as a deeply resilient thing which needn’t be destroyed by tragedy—but can instead be strengthened.
God, Faith, and Miracles ThemeTracker
God, Faith, and Miracles Quotes in Left to Tell
Both of my parents were teachers, and adamant believers that the only defense against poverty and hunger was a good education… Mom and Dad were the first high school graduates in their families, and they were determined that their children would go even further than they had in school. Dad led by example, working hard and studying throughout his life. He received many honors and promotions during his career, rising steadily through the ranks from primary teacher to junior high school principal. He was eventually appointed chief administrator for all of the Catholic schools in our district.
My parents were devout Roman Catholics and passed on their beliefs to us. Mass was mandatory on Sundays, as were evening prayers with the family at home. I loved praying, going to church, and everything else to do with God. I especially loved the Virgin Mary, believing that she was my second mom, watching out for me from heaven.
But our parents didn't teach us about our own history. We didn't know that Rwanda was made up of three tribes: a Hutu majority; a Tutsi minority; and a very small number of Twa, a pygmy-like tribe of forest dwellers. We weren't taught that the German colonialists, and the Belgian ones that followed, converted Rwanda's existing social structure—a monarchy that under a Tutsi king had provided Rwanda with centuries of peace and harmony—into a discriminatory, race-based class system. The Belgians favored the minority Tutsi aristocracy and promoted its status as the ruling class; therefore, Tutsis were ensured a better education to better manage the country and generate greater profits for the Belgian overlords. The Belgians introduced an ethnic identity card to more easily distinguish the two tribes, deepening the rift they'd created between Hutu and Tutsi. Those reckless blunders created a lingering resentment among Hutus that helped lay the groundwork for genocide.
As I said, if these killers are driven only by hatred, we will force them away. But if the government is sending them, if these attacks are part of an organized plan to exterminate Tutsis, we are in serious trouble. The government has guns and grenades—it has an army and a militia—and we have no weapons at all. If the government plans to kill us, all we can do is pray. Let us use the time we have to repent. Let us pray for God to forgive our sins. If we are to die, let us die with our hearts clean… It doesn't matter if we live or die—the important thing is that we fight against this evil that has come to our homes!
My brother, my soul mate, put his hands in mine, and they felt soft and light as feathers. No matter how hard I squeezed them, I couldn't feel the weight of his palms against mine—it was like holding the hands of a disappearing soul. My heart felt like it was exploding.
We sat in an uncomfortable heap, too afraid to adjust our positions or to even breathe too heavily. We waited for the gray light of dawn to fill the room, then carefully pried ourselves apart to take turns standing and stretching. A two- or three-minute break was all we allowed ourselves before resuming our awkward positions on the floor.
When morning broke, the birds in the pastor's shade tree began singing. I was jealous of them, thinking, How lucky you are to have been born birds and have freedom—after all, look at what we humans are doing to ourselves.
I knew that he wasn't entirely to blame for his ignorance because he'd learned his contempt for Tutsis in school . . . the same school I went to! Young Hutus were taught from an early age that Tutsis were inferior and not to be trusted, and they didn't belong in Rwanda. Hutus witnessed the segregation of Tutsis every day, first in the schoolyard and then in the workplace, and they were taught to dehumanize us by calling us "snakes" and "cockroaches." No wonder it was so easy for them to kill us—snakes were to be killed and cockroaches exterminated!
It was past noon, and I'd been praying the rosary since dawn for God to give His love and forgiveness to all the sinners in the world. But try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to pray for the killers. That was a problem for me because I knew that God expected us to pray for everyone, and more than anything, I wanted God on my side.
I took a deep breath and thanked God for answering my prayers and bringing me the tools I needed to learn English. Even though I’d be losing prayer time, I knew that God would be with me while I studied. He intended for me to learn this language, and I could feel the power of His intention coursing through me. I would not waste a minute of my time in self-pity or doubt. God had presented me with a gift and my gift in return would be to make the most of His kindness.
I knew that whatever I envisioned would come to pass if I had faith and visualized it with a pure heart and good intentions, and if it were something God thought was right for me. It was then that I realized I could dream and
visualize my destiny. I vowed that I'd always dare to dream for what I wanted. And I would only dream for beautiful things like love, health, and peace, because that is the kind of beauty God wants for all His children.
Damascene managed to get to his feet one more time, and then he smiled at the killers. His fearlessness confused them—they'd murdered many Tutsis and always enjoyed listening to their victims plead for their lives. Damascene's composure robbed them of that pleasure. Instead of negotiating or begging for mercy, he challenged them to kill him. “Go ahead,” he said. “What are you waiting for? Today is my day to go to God. I can feel Him all around us. He is watching, waiting to take me home. Go ahead—finish your work and send me
to paradise. I pity you for killing people like it's some kind of child's game. Murder is no game: If you offend God, you will pay for your fun. The blood of the innocent people you cut down will follow you to your reckoning. But I am praying for you . . . I pray that you see the evil you're doing and ask for Cod's forgiveness before it's too late."
I prayed that God would touch the captain's heart with His forgiveness, and I prayed again for the killers to put down their machetes and beg for God's mercy. The captain's anger made me think that the cycle of hatred and mistrust in Rwanda would not easily be broken. There would certainly be even more bitterness after the killing stopped, bitterness that could easily erupt into more violence. Only God's Divine forgiveness could stop that from happening now. I could see that whatever path God put me on, helping others to forgive would be a big part of my life's work.
I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.