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Book Reviews

Immaculèe Ilibagiza’s Left To Tell

Book review by Learnmore Edwin Zvada,

There are seeds of good and evil in each of us, no doubt. You can be a model citizen but if the right buttons are pressed on you, that narrative can change very fast. By the same token, even the most vile person out there does doe out acts of kindness to those they care about from time to time. But are we to blame nature for our actions or the upshot of our demeanour is fated by our own choices? Immaculèe Ilibagiza puts the aforementioned into interrogative perspective in her book, Left To tell; Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.

The book is an autobiographical account of the author’s experiences during the Rwandan Genocide that lasted approximately hundred days from April to July 1994. The book was translated by Steven Irwin and Wayne Dyer wrote the foreword. She told the story as she remembered it of how she lost four members of her family, save for herself and her brother who was at school in Senegal. As she puts it, she didn’t just survive, she was Left to Tell.
Over a million Rwandans died in a period of 100 days, she writes. All of this was a climaxing of a longstanding tribal conflict that existed mainly between the Hutu and the Tutsi. This rift was partly fanned by Belgian colonialists who in 1935 introduced identity cards which bore one’s ethnicity. Around the time of Rwanda’s genocide, the ruling party was dominantly Hutu, who were also the majority by population. They resorted to exterminating the Tutsi, the Twa and the moderate Hutu as a way of doing away with the supposed economic and financial dominance of the Tutsi. The Tutsi were the minority and most of them had been chucked out of Rwanda during earlier tribal conflicts of 1959 and 1973. At the time, those Tutsi who had taken refuge in neighbouring countries like Zaire( now DRC) and Senegal were fighting their way into Rwanda under the leadership of the Rwanda Patriotic Front(RPF) which had been formed in exile. The main goal of the RPF was to stop tribal discrimination and restore equality amongst Rwandans.
However, the RPF’s cameo was seen as a hostile and treasonous move so the then government formed the Interahamwe and other paramilitary groups to force the RPF out of Rwanda and exterminate every Tutsi within Rwanda’s boarders. This narrative was fuelled when the then President’s plane was shot down in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. The government used propaganda to incite ordinary citizens to kill every Tutsi and other ethnic minorities. It’s incredible how those in power can sow seeds of hatred and drive normal and ordinary people to do heinous deeds under the guise of patriotism. The perpetrators took to spears and machetes and the government supplied more weapons in the form of guns and grenades. Machetes were distributed to people like food handouts. People were killed like flies and heaps of mutilated corpses were strewn around Rwanda.

Immaculèe tells of how she and seven other women hid in a tiny bathroom in the home of a Hutu pastor for 91 days. Each day, she came close to die at the hands of her own neighbours who had gone berserk for Tutsi blood. Her brother, Damascene, whom she loved dearly had his head was cut open by a machete because the killer wanted to see the brain of someone with a Master’s degree. Her father, brave men that he was, whom thousands had come to seeking guidance on the imminent threat to their lives was shot in the streets of the village she had grown up in. Women were raped and killed afterwards, babies were cut in half and left to be dogs’ food. And the world watched as Rwandans turned on their own. But Immaculèe points to something that is startling: The Hutu and the Tutsi had been intermarrying for some time. Yet, apart from the identity cards, the killers used the distinction between the physical features of the two tribes: the Tutsi being taller, leaner, and narrow faced. The Hutu, being shorter and broad nosed. In other words, this was a delusory criteria to begin with. But it means someone, somewhere sat down and constructed a fit propagandistic narrative that if directed at gullible ears, it could birth anarchy. Surprisingly, it did and a nation paid the price with the blood of its own people. History can be a tool of destruction if we let detractors write it for us.
But the most amazing and startling part of the story is not only how the author survived but how she came to know and trust God in the midst of it all. She would pray for hours on end, day in day out. God saved her and in time healed her pain. When Immaculèe was trapped in the bathroom with the other women, they couldn’t talk to each other for fear of being overheard. They only communicated using hand and head gestures when it was absolutely necessary. For the most part, she was left to think. Negative thoughts would come but she would ward them off using meditation and prayer. She would encourage herself and others when doubt came knocking at the door of her heart. At one point, she came face to face with the man who was leading the team that killed her parent and she forgave him. She ended up reuniting with some of her surviving family members, including her oldest brother, Aimable. She finally married and moved to the United States of America with her husband. When you forgive; you open room for the manifestation of the best in you.

In Left to tell, one can witness that dreams do come true and imagining those dreams coming true is one way of exercising faith. The Bible says, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Envisioning the future is a strong technique that can be used to realize one’s dreams. Immaculèe used this technique when she was looking for a job at the UN in Rwanda and later in the United States. She would see herself working at the UN, in the office she wanted and the exact job she was applying for.

One question to ponder is; What would you have done? Imagine you were a Hutu then and your neighbours are being slaughters in their homes and in the street at the behest of the government. What would you have done when your Tutsi friends came to you to seek refuge? Mind you, harbouring a Tutsi would attract the same penalty as being a Tutsi in the first place. And if you were Tutsi, having seen your family and friends murdered in broad daylight, would you have forgiven the killers given a chance to retaliate after the genocide was over? Would you have looked them in the face and say, ‘I forgive you’ like Immaculèe did? I can’t answer that question myself because I don’t know. What I know is that people like Immaculèe Ilibagiza are a rare kind and we can all learn something from her experience.

As a country, Rwanda went through something that will go down in history as one of the worst tragedies ever faced by a nation. It is an account of how the evil in us can be incited and inflated to become a weapon of mass destruction. But now Rwanda is on the rise in terms of social and economic development. It is slowly rising to become a formidable force in Africa and the World at large. The good in each of us can be triggered to kindle transformative action and spur growth for all humanity. THE CHOICE IS OURS!

About Constance van Niekerk

Constance van Niekerk, (Connie V) is a creative writer, poet, music lover, spoken word artist, freelance writer, blogger and educator. She has contributed to several anthologies and published her own collection, Echoes of My Heart: A Poetry Collection available for purchase on all Amazon Stores Worldwide. Follow her on Twitter : @convanniekerk Connect with her on Facebook and Linkedin.


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