CALDWELL-Immaculee Ilibagiza stood before 600 people on the stage of the Caldwell College student center auditorium and discussed how the power of prayer saved her life 13 years ago.
It was, she admitted, a simple message, but one that was born out of living through a complex nightmare of mayhem and death.
With literally nothing other than rosary beads and prayer to sustain her, Ilibagiza survived the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Hiding in a small room with seven other women for more than 90 days, she lived through the insanity of a systematic slaughter, when an estimated 1 million people-including most members of her family-were brutally murdered in the central African nation.
Unexpectedly, her story of survival created an eerie parallel to recent headlines in this country. Ilibagiza's lecture was held here on April 18-just two days after the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, where a lone gunman killed 32 people. The madness of that deadly episode became a disturbing backdrop to Ilibagiza's presentation.
"Many people cry out: why is there so much evil in the world?" she said when asked to compare her experience with Virginia Tech during the question-and-answer segment of the program. "Don't hate back. People must pray for each other.
"Prayer is the practice of love," she continued. "It can change the world. It sounds so simple, but it is true. Hold onto hope and find peace in your heart. Put your trust in God."
Ilibagiza's account of survival is chronicled in her book: "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust," which was published last year. At the time of the genocide she had been a university student. The daughter of a devout Catholic family and member of the Tutsi ethnic group of Rwanda, Ilibagiza-while surrounded by killers-embarked on an inward, spiritual journey. Throughout the ordeal she clung to her father's rosary beads, which he had given her just before she went into hiding.
Confronting dread on a daily basis, her soul searching was a wrenching quest, she recalled. "I had a fight within my heart. I had to find my strength. The killers were outside my door. How do you forgive killers? There were days that I was sweating because of my anger. I thought to myself: 'this is what it feels like to hate.' I started to say the rosary and felt the love of God. I forgave the killers and I started to pray for them. I know it's wrong what they did, but in my heart I wish them to change and find the truth."
When order was re-established in Rwanda in July 1994, Ilibagiza emerged from three months of seclusion as a skeleton. She regained her health and found employment at a local United Nations office. She later married and today has two children. One of her brothers also survived the genocide and today is a doctor in Senegal.
Ilibagiza acknowledged there is a spiritually therapeutic quality to the presentations-for audiences as well as for her. "I survived a genocide 13 years ago, but you must keep surviving. I'm a witness. If I can do this, then so be it," she said, referring to her mission as a public speaker.
Prior to the start of the killings, Ilibagiza recalled a period in early 1994 when the Rwandan state radio station, controlled by Hutu extremists, broadcasted inflammatory, hate-filled messages, referring to Tutsi adults and their children as "snakes."
According to various Internet sources, the Rwandan Genocide was a 100-day rampage that began on April 6, 1994. The violence, for the most part, involved Tutsis being killed by Hutu militias. Clubs, machetes and handguns were the crude weapons of mass destruction.
The April 6 flashpoint corresponds with the date when Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed; his private jet was shot down in a missile attack. Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Bu-rundi, also died in the crash.
Ethnic tensions had been festering in the country for many years. The seeds of the genocide, according to Internet sources, can be traced to the days Rwanda was under the colonial rule of Belgium, when bitter rivalries existed between Tutsis and Hutus. Rwanda became an independent country on July 1, 1962.