Thursday, October 1, 2009


Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza

Several years ago I was going through a terrible personal crisis and a fellow mother at my daughters school put this book in my hand saying, "I think you should read this."  I stammered a thank you, not really getting the connection to why I should read it at this particular time in my life, but it turns out to have been JUST the right book at JUST the right time.  Later she admitted she had no idea why she felt compelled to lend it to me, but when I told her how powerfully it impacted my life at the time, she was thrilled.. to say the least. 
Left To Tell is an incredible story of survival during a completely unimaginable harrowing experience had by Immaculee Ilibagiza and the other women of this story.  It begins with Immaculee's youth where she learned her first startling lesson about the ethnic hostility among tribes in Rwanda.  She was in a public school for the first time in grade 4 when the teacher yelled for children to stand when their tribe name was called.  Immaculee did not stand at any tribe name.  She was thrown out of her class in disgust when she claimed she did not know what tribe she was from.  Her brother told her that whatever tribe her friends were from, that was the tribe SHE was then from.  She must be "one of them"... in other words, one of the majority she was associated with.  It turns out she was actually one of the Tutsi, and therefore a death sentence was already placed on her young head, along with every one of her family.

Several years later it is April 1994 and the president has just been assassinated.  The genocide has begun.  During the next 100 days over 1 MILLION people were brutally murdered by the rebels, merely for belonging to the "wrong" tribe.  To save herself Immaculee was told to go to a pastor's  house, and along with 6 other women, to wait out the violence:

Pastor Murinzi carried a flashlight and led us down the dark hallway to his bedroom.  Our eyes followed the beam of light along the walls until it landed on a door that I assumed opened to the yard.

     "This is where you'll stay," he said, swinging the door open to reveal our new home:  a small bathroom about four feet long and three feet wide.  The light shimmered as it bounced off the white enamel tiles on the bottom half of the walls.  There was a shower stall at one end and a toilet at the other -- the room wasn't big enough for a sink.  And there was a small air vent/window near the ceiling that was covered with a piece of red cloth, which somehow made the room feel even smaller.

I couldn't imagine how all seven of us could possible fit in this space, but the pastor herded us through the door and packed us in tight.  "While you're here, you must be absolutely quiet, and I mean silent," he said.  "If you make any noise, you will die.  If they hear you, they will find you, and then they will kill you.  No one must know that you're here, not even my children.  Do you understand?"

For the next NINETY-ONE days these seven women lived in the crampest quarters.  But this was only a small part of the hardship.  The lived every second of those ninety-one days in paralyzing fear that they would be hacked to death by machete's or blown to bits by a grenade at any given moment. 

Imagine that for just one second. 

Now imagine it for ninety-one days worth of seconds. 

I heard the killers call my name.

     They were on the other side of the wall, and less than an inch of plaster and wood separated us.  Their voices were cold, hard, and determined.

    "She's here.... we know she's here somewhere... Find her---find Immaculee."

     There were many voices, many killers.  I could see them in my mind:  my former friends and neighbors, who had always greeted me with love and kindness, moving through the house carrying spears and machetes and calling my name.

     "I have killed 399 cockroaches," said one of the killers.  "Immaculee will make 400.  It's a good number to kill."

     I cowered in the corner of our tiny secret bathroom without moving a muscle.  Like the six other women hiding for their lives with me, I held my breath so that the killers wouldn't hear me breathing. 

    Their voices clawed at my flesh.  I felt s if I were lying on a bed of burning coals, like I'd been set on fire.  A sweeping wind of pain engulfed my body; a thousand invisible needles ripped into me.  I never dreamed that fear could cause such agonizing physical anguish.

Left to Tell is a story about the power of one's faith.  And in reading it, you feel as if you are paying a reverant homage to those that were butchered and to those that were "left behind" to tell the story of the horrors of the genocide.  And many of those who were left behind, still hold the amazing faith that brought them through those dark days of the killings.   Told in powerful language, and seering passion for survival, I believe that every human being on this earth should read it.  Especially when there are still, at this very moment, heinous crimes against humanity being perpetrated around the globe.  So, have we really learned our lesson here? 

One thing  I took away from this book,  at that devestating time of my life, was that my problems were puny, insignificant, and nothing in comparison to someone like Immaculee, and many like her.  It quickly sunk my feet firmly to the ground, and made me humble and grateful for my home and family and country.  It renewed my faith in God or in a universe that can cradle you and protect you in times of crisis. 

You can read more about Immaculee and her book at her website here.

2 Blabs:

Mel (He Followed Me Home) said...

That is just unimaginable. Thanks for sharing and posting such a powerful review!. I think everyone needs a reminder every once in a while that things aren't as bad as they seem. I know I stress over little things too much :(

deborah said...

oh my... I have to read it. I have read a number of books re: the genocide etc. I guess that's what keeps me drawn to Africa. :)
thanks for sharing it!

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