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Rwanda: 10 Years Later, Genocide Survivor Reflects On 'Collective Madness' (Part 2)

Rwanda's genocide erupted 10 years ago, with a savagery and thoroughness that shocked the international community. In just 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed. The killing was particularly efficient in the remote western province of Kibuye, where 22-year-old Immaculee Ilibagiza lived with her Tutsi family. Now a UN employee in New York, Ilibagiza shares with RFE/RL a personal tale about the genocide.

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By Robert McMahon
United Nations, 6 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years later, Immaculee Ilibagiza has written about 100 pages of a book, still sorting out her thoughts about the nightmare.

There has not been enough time to describe it all -- her father's attempt to save thousands of Tutsis; three months hiding in a bathroom; her brother's final, tear-stained note.

Ten years, Ilibagiza says, is not long enough to soften the memories of the "collective madness" of the Rwanda genocide. She has been away from Rwanda for six years, but in an interview with RFE/RL, Ilibagiza's thoughts roam quickly back to home in the lush province of Kibuye and the darkness that consumed it.

Ilibagiza betrays no bitterness at the events that claimed most of her family. Relaxing on a recent evening at the headquarters of the UN Development Program, where she now works, Ilibagiza stresses understanding and forgiveness: "I don't want just to hate somebody. I felt bad enough that I don't want just to hold this kind of bad feeling in my heart for long, if I can help it."

In the early spring of 1994, Ilibagiza was home on leave as a student from the country's national university. Signs of trouble with the Hutu majority had been mounting.

She recalls a dinner conversation in which her older brother, Damascene, implored her father to move the family away: "I can remember the last dinner we had in my family. We always had to sit together at night. I can remember every conversation we had. The teasing [my brother] was doing, where we were sitting when he was telling my father to go, when we were talking like we just don't want to upset him much. We just let it go, and we stayed and we ate. [I remember] every single thing. The radio I had in my hand, the color of their clothes. You know, it's like just yesterday. And then when I look at myself. I'm like, I was just 22."

The next day, 6 April, a plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was struck by missiles and crashed, killing all on board. A well-organized campaign by Hutu extremists against Tutsis soon followed.

Hutu anger was quickly evident along the dirt roads of Kibuye, Ilibagiza says, but there was still a belief that calm would prevail. Her father, Leonard, was the chief administrator of a Roman Catholic school and a figure of authority in the region.

As the crisis unfolded, Ilibagiza recalls her father, who had lived through two previous civil wars, expressing confidence that order could be restored: "Even that morning [after] the president died, we still thought that something is going to stop, [that] somehow it was going to stop somewhere. We were around Lake Kivu, a lake that goes to Zaire, to Congo. If we had taken it seriously, we should have left."

As word of reprisal killings spread in the days after the plane crash, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched an offensive. Prior to the plane crash, the RPF had been scheduled to share power with the Hutu government. It quickly was demonized by Hutu-dominated media.

Ilibagiza says government ministers began to openly threaten Tutsis on state radio: "That time, I remember this minister talking on the radio. He's like, 'If RPF are coming, they will never find any [Tutsis] in the country. We will kill them, their brothers and sisters. We will kill, and they will never find anyone.' It was like a shock to me to hear somebody, a minister, saying [it]. I would never believe it if I did not hear it myself."

In the early days, hundreds of people crowded around the home of Ilibagiza's father, seeking guidance. He appealed in vain for help from local Hutu authorities. Hutu officials began summoning Tutsis out of their homes to gather in stadiums and churches, where they were eventually massacred.

Within days, access to Lake Kivu, an escape route to the Congo, was closed. Ilibagiza said her father finally became resigned to the situation. The family began to disperse: "When I'm quiet, I think he did the right job, not to run away from people who want help, who want his strength. I think he was brave, really. That's how I felt. But for the sake of my family, I wish -- but how would he know? -- I wish he had made a decision before to run away, you know, to take us away and we just go."

Her father arranged for her to hide in the home of a local Episcopal priest, an ethnic Hutu named Simeon Nzabahimana. Early on the morning of 11 April, Ilibagiza was taken to his home and told to hide in a bathroom, where she found seven other young women.

The bathroom -- two meters long by one meter wide -- was assumed to be a temporary shelter. The eight women would spend the next three months there.

Ilibagiza said Hutu gangs came repeatedly to search the house, carrying lists of names of Tutsis unaccounted for. Each time they feared discovery, but the gangs never attempted to enter the bathroom: "It's a feeling I can't explain. I remember dry [mouth]. I didn't even have saliva to swallow. It was something like all your body became paralyzed. You don't think anymore."

Ilibagiza, who is Catholic, said she began a dialogue with God. She prayed constantly, promising not to seek vengeance on Hutus if her life was spared. At the same time, she had a growing certainty that none of her family had survived: "I remember I dreamt about Jesus, and he was telling me, 'Well, when you come out, there will be no one in your life in your family. And I want you to know that, even if they took care of you, I can take care of you better, so I want you to trust me. I'd like you always to pray' -- and that was so real. It was a thing that was so real that I didn't doubt."

On 7 July 1994, after most of the killing had ended, Ilibagiza and the other women emerged from their bathroom hiding place. She began to piece together what had happened to her family.

Her father was shot by soldiers soon after she went into hiding. Her mother, Rose, was killed by machete. Her younger brother, Vianney, was among hundreds of Tutsis who had gathered in a local stadium in search of food and were executed.

She was given a letter written by her other brother, Damascene, shortly before he was killed while attempting to flee via Lake Kivu. It described the first nightmarish month of genocide. In ink blurred, she believes, by tears, his note vowed to search for her if he reached safety.

Ilibagiza also lost four grandparents and seven uncles. When it was over, an estimated 60,000 Tutsis -- 80 percent of the Tutsi population in the Kibuye region -- were dead.

Investigations into the genocide have sharply criticized the UN Security Council and the UN's peacekeeping department for their failure to intervene. Ilibagiza, now employed for nearly 10 years with the UN, hopes the organization has learned the lessons of Rwanda: "It's not easy for me to know or to judge the whole thing. But I am always hoping that they learn from their mistakes. So, it's not like they were part of it. They were negligent, that is how I think. They were negligent, and that is so bad. Even today, anything can happen if you are negligent to a problem."

Today, Ilibagiza works in a building across the street from UN headquarters and commutes each day from a Long Island suburb. She has two young children and is pregnant with her third.

She will not tell them about the events to be commemorated this week. Better, she says, to tell her story in a book, which they can read and understand.

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