Monday, March 21, 2016

Holy Week Book Review: "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust" by Immaculee Ilibagiza

Before we get started I will fully confess that I have very limited knowledge of the Rwandan genocide. It basically amounts to the movie Hotel Rwanda and parts of a few books that I've read concerning forensic anthropologists who go into war torn places to help identify victims and preserve evidence. Even with my relatively meager knowledge, I know that about 1 million people were killed in a few short months. Killed systematically and brutally by coworkers, former friends, neighbors, sometimes even people they knew their whole lives. It has so many parallels to the Nazi led holocaust of Jews and other "undesirables" that it shows that "We can never forget" needs to be more than just a hollow thing that we say sometimes but a vigilant anthem that we keep in the front of our minds, or else this will happen again. And it has already.

(I'm assuming that the title gave it away but the subject matter today will be often unpleasant.)

Here's two things that I learned about Rwanda from this book-
1) It was colonized by the Belgians. So French is the secondary language most taught in schools. (Speaking of Belgian colonization, there's another depressing tale

2) Each member of the family has a unique surname. It's supposed to be specifically stand for what the parents were feeling at the time of the chld's birth. So, hopefully most names are Rwandan for things like "extreme joy!" and "Best day ever!". 

Immaculee and her family were a close knit, Catholic family living in the western part of Rwanda. They weren't wealthy, but they were respected and her parents held education of the highest importance. Both Immaculee and her three brothers were expected to, and did, work very hard and excel at school. They were also a Tutsi family, though this wasn't something of any important to them until the war started.

Immaculee had heard rumblings about unrest while she was away at university a few hours away from her family home. It was right around Easter break, and she had planned on staying at school to study. Her parents begged her to come home, which she did. Not long after she came home, along with a male friend, the war came to their doorstep in the form of men with machetes. Immaculee was told to flee to a local Hutu pastor's house for shelter. He sheltered her and 7 other women in a tiny bathroom that was hidden behind a wardrobe. The room was about 12 square feet.

Most of the time the women had to maintain silence.The pastor's house was searched all the time. There were several close calls. They could hear the machete wielding killers boasting about the atrocities they had committed. They heard the terrible acts themselves. They stay in the bathroom for 90 days.

Immaculee prayed almost constantly for the safety of her brothers and parents. She thought about what she would have to do to survive in her battered country if she survived the war, so she taught herself English.

Immaculee survives, and the story of hers and the other ladies flight from the pastor's house is harrowing. She does not get good news about her family when she reaches relative safety and meets with the other survivors. From her immediate family all but her older brother who is studying in Senegal at the time have been killed.

What this story really boils down to is forgiveness and prayer. Immaculee finds a way to forgive the people who killed her family because she knows she has to. She knows that holding on to that hate and anger in her heart would kill her. It's pretty extraordinary. If I were her I know my heart would be crying our for retribution and probably the very violent kind. The only way that she gets to the point of being able to forgive is through praying for God to work in her heart to enable her to forgive. And there are several times where the fact that she survived can only be chalked up to divine intervention.

This is one of those books that is a weighty, sad read but that you are happy you read in the end. Immaculee's strong faith and her devotion to prayer is incredible and inspiring. 3 stars out of 5!


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