Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

Immaculee Ilibagiza

When looking for a Rwandan book I deliberately avoided Hotel Rwanda. This was in part because I have already read it and I seldom reread books, and in part because I wanted a different story. Much as I do not want to read books which are about the troubles in a country only, with Rwanda I think it is unavoidable.  The atrocities are also so recent that maybe we should still be talking about them and keeping them very fresh in our memories.


Clearly ‘never again’ means very little to us as a species, but we can keep hoping!


I avoided this book for a long while; I have had it on my shelf for over a year. I don’t believe in the god the book is about and I find it hard not to get angry when people thank any god for saving them when all I can think about is why their god put them in danger in the first place.  But I put that aside and decided to read Immaculee’s story of survival. And what a story it was.


We all know what happened in Rwanda and this book is not about the bigger picture at all. It is about one woman and her experiences only. And for me that made it much more real and frightening. Immaculee Ilibagizawas a very ordinary young woman at university, visiting her parental home in her village when all hell broke loose in Rwanda. Unable to believe what was actually happening, her family did not flee to Zaire as they considered, but stayed in Rwanda. The result is that Ilibagiza is, other than her oldest brother who was studying outside of Rwanda at the time, the only member of her family left alive, left to tell the story.

Ilibagiza spent three months hiding in a bathroom with seven other women, a bathroom maybe big enough for two people to pass each other with a squeeze. They sat on top of each other and sat and stood in complete silence to avoid detection. For three months!

Periodically the Hutu killers would search the house they were hiding in. A wardrobe over the bathroom door was their only camouflage. They listened to the Hutu killers talking about their desire to kill all of the cockroaches; they heard the radio broadcasts of the president instructing Hutus to kill the snakes, even the baby snakes; they listened as it seemed that no one else in the world knew or cared what was going on. But they survived. They hung on.


Ilibagiza believes they were hidden from their wannabe killer by the love of god, her god that she prayer to all day every day. And I do believe that in her experience this is true. How they remained undetected can truly be considered amazing, miraculous even.


While I may not have the same beliefs as Ilibagiza, I found her story compelling and fascinating. That she emerged from the bathroom with her entire family dead, and did not go on a Hutu murdering rampage speaks volumes of her connection with her god. I know I would have found it almost impossible not to want revenge.

But surprisingly Rwandans seem not to have responded like that. Maybe when a million people die in 100 days the weight of death is so great that further deaths should be avoided at all costs.

Interestingly, the Hutu’s who were sent to jail for the murders are now starting to be released and return to their villages, the villages in which they went on their murderous rampages, killing friends and families. As Ilibagiza says, we can only hope that everyone has forgiveness in their hearts.

Left to Tell is an extraordinary tale of an ordinary person in extreme circumstances. It is a story of survival against all the odds, and a story of faith and belief. It is worth reading.