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Walking Through The Ruins

Excerpt from "Led BY Faith"

by Immaculee Ilibagiza

The following is an excerpt from Led by Faith, by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Irwin. It is published by Hay House (September 16, 2008) and available at all bookstores and online.


Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide

Immaculée Ilibagiza

with Steve Erwin

Chapter 2

Walking Through the Ruins

The genocide was over, but the war inside me seemed to keep raging.

As the summer of 1994 drew to a close, my country was still in chaos, my world had been turned upside down, and I thought that I might never breathe easily again. Everything I had known was gone, and everything I saw was changing before my eyes. Approximately two million Hutus had fled into exile across Rwanda’s borders, fearing that holocaust survivors would kill them for revenge. And hundreds of thousands of killers and genocide organizers were either dead, captured, or regrouping in the thick jungles of Zaire.

Then there were the victims, for which the count kept going up: at first it was set at 200,000, then 500,000 . . . finally, it would end up at more than a million dead. More than a million innocent Tutsi men, women, and children had been murdered! They had been killed by machete, spear, fire, and gun. They had been brought down by clubs, tortured with knives, and sexually assaulted with broken bottles. The methods were as low-tech as they were efficient and cruel. But no matter how death came to them, my immediate family was all dead and gone, as were countless Tutsi neighbors, relatives, and friends.

Before the genocide, Rwanda was teeming with life: More than a million Tutsis lived side by side with several million Hutus, and villages and towns crowded every hilltop and lined every valley in the land. But now the country was deserted; since only a couple hundred thousand Tutsis had survived, if that, there were more ghosts in Rwanda than people.

Nevertheless, I felt extremely fortunate. I’d survived, no one was hunting me, I’d found a job, and my friend Sarah’s kind parents had welcomed me into their home. Unlike so many thousands of other female Tutsis, I hadn’t been tortured or maimed; nor had I been raped and left with an unwanted pregnancy, HIV, or both.

After three months of semi starvation, my weight and my health were returning. And miraculously, some of my family had survived: My aunts and cousins in Kibuye were recovering from their ordeal during the genocide, and my brother Aimable was alive and well in Senegal and would be reunited with me before too long.

The Lord had answered my prayers and had led me through great hardship, and my job was giving me pleasure and even moments of joy. Yet as I was quickly learning, the reality of post holocaust life was a constant series of struggles. Yes, God had blessed me, but my loneliness remained ever sharp, a thorn in my heart.

In the mornings I was picked up by a UN minibus and driven to work, unless I decided to brave the streets and walk. My days in the office were spent surrounded by people who hadn’t been born in Rwanda, and I liked to close my eyes and lose myself in the babble of languages of these strangers from distant lands. It was easy to pretend that I was far, far away from my blood-soaked native soil.

But walking home in the evenings, I found it impossible to avert my eyes from what had happened. There was no way to ignore the horrible things that had been done to my people—pretending to be somewhere else wouldn’t take me away from the bombed-out or half-burned houses that comprised the new architecture of Kigali. If I dared to look inside the crumbling buildings, I’d likely find the bodies of an entire family rotting on the floor. As it was, I occasionally had to step over dismembered limbs lying in the road, and I’d see soldiers shooting at dogs who were feeding on human remains.

The dead had become such a health risk to the living that the government declared an official body-removal day—businesses shut down, and everyone was supposed to meet in groups to help carry the carcasses to disposal trucks. I’d seen too many bodies by then, so I chose instead to spend the day on my knees, praying for the souls of the deceased.

When I walked home from work, I handed coins to men and women on the street whose arms or legs had been hacked off during the massacre. There were so many that I’d usually run out of what little money I had before making it back to Sarah’s house.

When I started recognizing the faces looking up at me for help, I realized that the scenes of horror had become familiar. Suffering that was once unimaginable in my country was now commonplace. Worse still was understanding that outside of Rwanda, our tragedy had already been forgotten. More than a million people had been savagely murdered, yet the world had barely blinked.

In Kigali, signs of normalcy were emerging in the midst of the misery. A few vegetable markets reopened; when electricity flickered on for an hour or two, people gathered around a radio to hear a soccer match; and former barkeepers were selling banana beer from the trunks of their cars. None of these activities made much sense to me—watching the aftermath of the genocide mixed with the routines of daily life was unnatural and confusing. My parents and brothers had always been there for me when I needed help or guidance, and I felt lost without them. And living without their warmth and affection made this sad place even more bleak and alien.

How I missed the way we used to gather in our living room after dinner to share the stories of our day, kneel down together at evening prayers, or eagerly await a holiday reunion after my brothers and I had gone off to school. Family love had always held me together; now I was detached, in pieces.

It’s true that I was living with Sarah and her parents and siblings now, and they all went out of their way to be kind to me . . . but was I expected to replace my own family with another? Should I have forgotten that the past ever existed and live my life as though nothing had changed? So often when I thought about my parents and brothers, I couldn’t help envisioning the suffering of their last moments, images that made my body tremble and left my heart twisting inside my chest. To distance such painful thoughts, I fantasized that the genocide had been a long, terrible nightmare from which my mom and dad would awaken me with soothing words. But this fantasy became harder to hold on to as reality pressed in around me.

In those first weeks and months, it didn’t matter where I was—in the middle of dinner with Sarah’s family, sitting in church, or typing up a report at the office—my tears would fall without warning. Just a few weeks after starting work at the UN, I learned that people had started referring to me as “the girl who cries a lot.” The nickname wounded me, but it was true. I cried for what I’d lost, and I cried over what I saw.

These thoughts weighed so heavily on my mind that some mornings I could scarcely summon the energy to push myself from bed. Why not skip work and stay under the blankets? I’d ask myself. Why face another day of sorrow? Someone must know the secret of living with such burdens, but I sure don’t! Somehow I always managed to gather my strength and get to the office, but all day I moved like a robot. I did my job as well as I could and never forgot how lucky I was to have work when so many Rwandans had nothing. And while I smiled at my co-workers when they greeted me, and I accepted offers to go for tea or have little conversations, my actions and words felt preprogrammed and false. I tried hard to be cheerful, but my heart mirrored the anguish I saw on the street.

One afternoon as I was making my way back home, my legs wouldn’t carry me any farther. I leaned against the charred wall of a deserted house and let myself slide to the ground with a thud. Cars rolled by carrying diplomats to and from the airport; faces stared at me from the windows of evening shuttle buses bringing UN workers to their homes; a military troop carrier roared past, the raucous laughter and cursing of soldiers rising above the whining diesel engine; and two women returning from a newly opened market gossiped about their husbands as they walked by with their groceries swaying on top of their heads.

The world keeps turning, no matter how many have been slaughtered, I thought. How can people continue? Step over the dead? Walk through the blood? Does no one care? What is the point of suffering though this life if nothing we do matters to anyone else?

The cold stone of the crumbling wall cut into my back as I watched the daylight drain from the sky. I wanted to sink with the sun as it dropped from the world—I longed to follow it into darkness, leave the pain of life behind, and let my body decay among the ruins while my soul drifted away.

Please, God, take me into Your arms now, I silently pleaded. You have my dear ones with You already, so why do You want me to stay here in this cruel and ugly place? Why must I suffer trying to survive where it’s so lonely when my soul yearns to be with You? I’m ready to come to You now. Please take me . . . I am ready to die.

All I wanted was to slip out of existence. In my mind I saw Sarah’s worried family waiting for me at the supper table, wondering why I was so late. I hoped they wouldn’t feel too bad or blame themselves when I never returned to their home. Then I thought about my brother Aimable, but I decided he’d already lost so many loved ones that he could handle the death of one more. Besides, I’d be watching over him anyway.

My spirit was ready for heaven, so I sat without moving and waited to go.

An hour passed, and then two. My legs cramped up, my bottom began to ache from the stones beneath me, and my stomach started growling. I was annoyed by my discomfort—that the needs of my body were distracting me from freeing my soul. I tried to ignore the hunger as I had during my three months in hiding, but my stomach only growled more loudly. I guess I’d become used to eating because I suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about food. Again I found myself picturing Sarah and her family at the table, but now I wondered what her mom had prepared for dinner.

Ah, how humiliating to have my resolve overruled by my belly!

But I refused to give in to physical want, so I kept my mind and body still and my eyes tightly closed. My thoughts slowly dissolved into nothingness, and I fell into a dream. Suddenly, an angelic voice was ringing in my ears: “Stand up, Immaculée. You are still alive, and you need to move on! Look for God in all things, and don’t despair when your heart aches. God will always be there for you, and you can ask Him for any favor—with Him, all is possible. Now stand up!”

When I opened my eyes, my heart was dancing, and my spirit lifted me up off the ground. I drank in the evening sky that was brushing Kigali with a thousand shades of pink, and I was filled with gratitude.

How beautiful Your world is, Lord! my soul called out. Forgive me my despair, light my heart with Your love, and guide my feet along Your path. Thank You for sending Your angel to me. You always reach me in my hour of need; You are such a good Father!

Brushing the dirt from my dress, I hurried out of the ruined building and made my way home. Along the way, I sang “Amazing Grace” at the top of my lungs, even though people looked at me as though I were mad. A smile spread across my face, and then I laughed loudly as I thought about how God had used a little hunger pang to chase away my dark thoughts. My life was His, and I would live it in His service. Sadness and despair would be part of my life and would overtake me from time to time—that was a fact I had to accept. But I also accepted that God was there for me whether I was in a state of depression or a state of great joy. He was my Father, and all I had to do was call for Him and He would be there.

I ran down the hill to Sarah’s house. I couldn’t wait to eat.

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