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God’s faithfulness in the midst of genocide

Left to Tell, by Immaculee’ Ilibagiza

A few weeks ago a sister sent me an email forward about a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, Immaculee’ Ilibagiza, and how God had preserved her through the horrors there. I did a little research and knew there was something in this story for me.

I dreaded reading this book for several reasons. I feared the exposure to evil; I have enough of that on my plate already. I feared seeing that evil in myself. I feared seeing how weak my own faith was, and how poorly I would fare in similar circumstances. And I feared recognizing the downhill societal spiral gripping our own nation in Rwanda’s story.

But my fears were misplaced. The book is clearly and effectively written, and it is very sensitive about the atrocities. It speaks of the horrors of the genocide, but it never broaches sensationalism. Very precisely, this is not a book about the genocide, per se. It is a book about God’s faithfulness in it.

Immaculee’ initially saw her country as a paradise, but as she grew up she increasingly became aware of the deep-seated racial animosity between the two main tribes of Rwanda, the Tutsis and the Hutus. There had been violent outbreaks in decades past, and as she entered college tensions again were increasing. Radio stations began openly calling for the slaughter of the Tutsi minority, and when the president of the nation was assassinated, the powder keg exploded.

What ensued was a case study in how evil can break out and overrun a land. The rubric was racism, but that was only an excuse for lust and bloodlust. Among the first victims were moderate Hutus who spoke against the genocide, including the acting Prime Minister. Radicalism was ascendant, and the center could not hold.

Neighbors, lifelong friends, and fellow church members suddenly became killers and rapists, as all civil order vanished. The nation actually came to a commercial halt, as Hutus embraced the wholesale killing of Tutsis as their full-time job.

Over that backdrop of horror, Immaculee’ tells her tale. For three months she survives by being hidden in a small bathroom with seven other women. Initially she was overcome with a paralyzing and torturous spirit of fear. She was always a believer, but now her faith came down to desperate spiritual warfare. The battle was intense. The instant she left off praying and believing, the spirit of fear and death would overwhelm her again, as the machetes of her pursuers sometimes brushed against the other side of the bathroom walls, only inches away.

Immaculee’ focused on Bible verses of faith, such as found in Mark 11. She would silently meditate for hours on the meaning of one word at a time. Literally in the valley of the shadow of death, she began to envision God’s protective hand over her. Eventually she began to have the victory of faith over fear, and she saw repeated tangible evidence that her faith was supernaturally efficacious in the real world.

“I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me. everything strong and good in me – my faith, hope and courage – was vulnerable to the dark energy. If I lost my faith, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive. I could only rely on God to help me fight.”  -Immaculee’ Ilibagiza

Eventually a new challenge presented itself, as a different darkness strove to grip her heart. This time it wasn’t fear that sought Immaculee’, it was hatred. She realized that her family most probably had been slaughtered, and she began to desire vengeance. With that dark spirit enveloping her, she soon realized that if she was going to continue with the Lord she had to let go of unforgiveness. After a struggle, light crept in and she began to see the perpetrators as the worst victims of their acts. The were misled children who indeed would be punished for their choices, unless they repented. She again reached a plateau of peace and communion with the Lord, and her faith once again became a tangible and effective force.

Even in Mark 11, where Jesus speaks of the unlimited power of faith, forgiveness is given as a requirement. We simply cannot draw down on God’s power unless we are in right relationship with Him. And that means forgiving others.

Eventually the seven women left the bathroom and found shelter in a French compound. And finally, invading Tutsi forces retook the nation and restored order.

The story doesn’t end there, though. Immaculee’, with no family and in a devastated country, has huge hurdles to overcome in order to restart her life. The story of how she believes God for miracle after miracle and makes a rich life for herself is amazing. She is Catholic, but the way she takes verses on faith and visualizes her success makes a Pentecostal feel right at home. I found the way she co-labors with God in bold, practical ways to make her visions become reality refreshing to the utmost. I learned much from her, and watched closely as she had the spiritual insight to turn down a very appealing marriage prospect because it didn’t feel spiritually right. This is a woman who has spent a lot of time in the deep presence of the Lord.

I highly recommend this book, for the way it shows God’s ability to preserve and provide in the midst of dark circumstances, and for its very clear depiction of our role in the equation. We may ask why Immaculee’ lived while so many died. We cannot know the answer, which surely involves the mysteries of God’s will, but we can know that within the context of that will God is always faithful to those who look to Him. Sometimes it takes dire circumstances indeed for that truth to be revealed to us in a meaningful personal way. Immaculee’ has written her story of how God has been faithful to her even amid great trial and loss, and that story is edifying indeed.

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