Saturday, November 8, 2008

Left to Tell

In previous posts I have mentioned going to Rwanda in the summer of 2007. At that time I had immersed myself in the history and culture of the people. I had read Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza - twice. I have a blog of my travel notebook called White Boy In Rwanda that chronincles my journey, both the pysical trip and the spiritual journey. Below is one of the last posts of the White Boy blog. It is a reflection piece and in it I quote from Immaculee's amazing book. Her message is all about forgiveness. I will return to that blog from time to time with excerpts. Often my journey to Rwanda comes echoing back to me. Sometimes I will see the face of a beautiful African American child and it reminds me of a child there. Sometimes, when issues of forgiveness come up I think, my God, if Rwandan's like Immaculee can forgive all that has happened to them and still look ahead, what can't I forgive? Sometimes it will be a song, the voice of a fellow traveller or an email. I am now reading Immaculee's new book, Led By Faith. I can't fairly evaluate it. I love everything she could ever write because I love her and her message of love, hope and forgiveness. If you have read Left to Tell or White Boy before this will be familiar to you. But sometimes it helps to be reminded...

If you have read much of this notebook/blog, you have read about Immaculee Ilibagiza. Her book, Left to Tell is one of the most important books I have ever read and has influenced my spiritual walk immensely. If you don’t know, Immaculee survived the genocide by hiding out in a tiny bathroom for 91 days with seven other women in hunger and silence. For all of this time Immaculee and her friends were waiting to die. They waited quietly as the killers searched for them just outside the bathroom door. Immaculee heard her name called out by the very men responsible for deaths of her beloved family members. She survived this horrific ordeal through prayer. She prayed her rosary and spoke to God in ways that I will probably never truly comprehend.

She and the others in the bathroom narrowly escaped death many times but she did escape. She did survive. Her parents, two of her brothers and all of the Tutsis in her village were brutally killed. Immaculee survived. She went to the prison where the killer of her mother and dear brother Damascene was held…

As burgomaster, Semana was a powerful politician in charge of arresting and detaining the killers who had terrorized our area. He’d interrogated hundreds of Interahamwe (extremist Hutu) and knew better than anyone which killers had murdered whom.

And he knew why I’d come to see him. “Do you want to meet the leader of the gang that killed your mother and Damascene?”“Yes, sir, I do.”

I watched through Semana’s office window as he crossed a courtyard to the prison cell and then returned, shoving a disheveled, limping old man in front of him. I jumped up with a start as they approached, recognizing the man instantly. His name was Felicien, and he was a successful Hutu businessman whose children I’d played with in primary school. He’d been a tall, handsome man who always wore expensive suits and had impeccable manners. I shivered remembering that it had been his voice I’d head calling out my name when the killers searched for me at the pastor’s. Felicien had hunted me.

Semana pushed Felicien into the office, and he stumbled onto his knees. When he looked up from the floor and saw that I was the one waiting for him, the color drained from his face. He quickly shifted his gaze and stared at the floor.“Stand up, killer!” Semana shouted. “Stand up and explain to this girl why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother. Get up I said! Get up and tell her!” Semana screamed even louder, but the battered man remained hunched and kneeling, too embarrassed to stand and face me.

His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. His skin was sallow, bruised and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores.

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.

“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immacculee. We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?” Semana yelled at Felicien. “After he killed Rose and Damascene, he kept looking for you… He wanted you dead so he could take over your property. Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.

I flinched letting out an involuntary gasp. Semana looked at me stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face. He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculee?”

Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.

“I forgive you.”

When Semana had Felicien dragged back to his cell he was furious with Immaculee…

“What was that about, Immaculee? That was the man that murdered your family. I brought him to you to question… to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?”

I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.” (p. 202- 203)

Now when I am asked, “Where was God?” “How can you believe in a God who would let this happen?” I think of Immaculee and Richard and Bishop John and of all of Rwanda who survived to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. God is in the message of forgiveness held closely by the leaders of this wonderful nation and in the hearts of those who are unknown to the world. Where is God? God is in the heart and soul of Rwanda.

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