75. The Greatest Gift

75. The Greatest Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Forgiveness

The Greatest Gift

Never does the human soul appear so strong as when it foregoes revenge and dares to forgive an injury.

~Edwin Hubbell Chapin

Whenever a stranger hears my accent and asks where I’m from, I want to answer: I was born in Paradise. For me, growing up in Rwanda was paradise.

My tiny African homeland is so breathtakingly beautiful it’s impossible not to see God’s hand in her mist-shrouded mountains, lush green hills and sparkling lakes. But it was the beauty of the people that made Rwanda so idyllic to my young heart.

Everyone in our little village got along like a big, happy family. As a youngster I wasn’t even aware our country had two tribes—the majority Hutu (then numbering 7 million of Rwanda’s 8.2 million inhabitants) and the minority Tutsi, of which I was a member.

I never felt unsafe or threatened when I was out playing and was the happiest girl in the world at home surrounded by the warmth and affection of my three doting brothers and the most loving, protective parents imaginable.

My parents were teachers and looked up to in the community. There was always a place at our table for anyone in need, and people traveled from miles around to seek my parents’ advice and counsel.

But things were not as they seemed. My parents had shielded me from the simmering ethnic tensions in our land. When I was twenty-four years old those tensions erupted in a storm of violence that forever swept away the paradise I knew as a child.

On April 7th, 1994, the Rwandan’s president’s plane was shot down and extremist Hutu politicians unleashed a diabolic plot. All commerce was shut down and it was announced on the radio that the business of the nation would be killing Tutsis. Seven million Hutus were commanded to pick up a machete and carry out the following orders: Kill every Tutsi you know, kill every Tutsi you see, kill every Tutsi man, woman, child, and infant—kill them all, leave none alive.

Hatred enveloped the hearts of people I had known and trusted all my life—neighbors, teachers, schoolmates and friends.

When the killing began, hundreds of terrified Tutsi families swarmed to our home seeking sanctuary. But when my father saw the heavily armed government militia surrounding our property, he feared the worst and hurriedly pressed his rosary into my hand.

“Run to the pastor’s house,” he urged, “he is Hutu, but he is a good man and will hide you. Go, Immaculée… go now!”

I spent the next three months crammed into a 4 by 3-foot bathroom with seven other terrified Tutsi women as the slaughter raged outside. I heard the screams of those being hacked to death just beyond the bathroom walls.

I lived in constant fear of death—or worse. I prayed day and night with my father’s rosary pleading for God to spare my life, but I would learn there was a difference between being spared and being saved. Hatred began taking hold of my heart, just as it had in the killers. I wished them dead; I wanted them to suffer like they were making so many others suffer. Had someone given me a loaded gun, I might have crawled out of my hiding place and tried to kill them all.

When I said The Lord’s Prayer, the words “forgive those who trespass against us” simply would not form on my lips. How could I forgive the unforgivable, forgive those I wanted to kill myself?

The sickening thirst for revenge was foreign to me; my parents raised me to love my neighbor and live according to the Golden Rule. I grew more terrified of what was happening to my soul than what the killers might do to my body—I did not want to survive the slaughter if it meant living with a spiteful heart incapable of love.

I prayed for God to show me how to forgive those I had grown to hate. Suddenly, I saw an image of Jesus in the moments before his death, crying out to God to forgive those who were crucifying him.

In that instant, I realized the killers were children of God who had lost their way. I prayed: “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” The hatred drained from me and my heart flooded with God’s love. For the first time I was aware of the power of forgiveness to heal and transform—it was the greatest gift I have ever received.

When the killers were finally driven from the country, I emerged from hiding and learned of my family’s fate. Thank God my eldest brother survived because he was studying abroad. My father had been shot protecting the families who had come to him for help, my mother was hacked to death on the street when she ran out of hiding to help a child, and my youngest brother was machine-gunned to death with thousands of other unarmed Tutsis corralled in a sports stadium. My elder brother had his head chopped open by family friends; I heard that before he died he forgave his killers.

In all, more than a million innocent souls were murdered during that bloody nightmare.

Discovering the details of my family’s murder reignited my struggle to prevent anger and hatred from taking hold of my heart, but I had also discovered the one way to win that struggle was through forgiveness… and I knew what I had to do.

Several months after the genocide, a politician friend arranged for me to meet the man who led the murders of my mother and elder brother.

When I arrived at the jail I was stunned by what greeted me. A sick and disheveled old man in chains was shoved onto the floor at my feet.

“Félicien!” I cried out. He had been a successful Hutu businessman whose children I’d played with in primary school. Back then, he was tall, proud, and handsome—with impeccable manners. In front of me now, he was a hollowed-eyed specter in rags covered in running sores. His hatred had robbed him of his life.

The jailor kicked him in the ribs yelling, “Stand up, Hutu! Stand up you pig and tell this girl why you murdered her mother and butchered her brother!”

Félicien remained on the floor, hiding his face from me in shame. My heart swelled with pity. I crouched down beside him and placed my hand on his. Our eyes met briefly and I said what I had come to say: I forgive you.

Relief swept over me, and a sigh of gratitude slipped through Félicien’s parched lips.

“What the hell was that about, Immaculee?” the furious jailor demanded as Félicien was dragged away. “That man murdered your family! I brought him here so you could spit on him. But you forgave him! How could you do that?”

“Because hatred has taken everything I ever loved from me,” I said, “Forgiveness is all I have left to offer.”

I turned and walked out of that prison free of anger and hatred and I have lived as a free woman ever since.

~Immaculée Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin

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