MADISONVILLE, La. - Immaculee Ilibigiza's name literally translates to "pure and beautiful in body and soul." A more fitting name for a woman who's triumphed over so much is hard to imagine.
Immaculee is forever extending a helping hand. So when Hurricane Isaac set his eye on Louisiana, she was here in a blink, ready to repay a random kindness you'll hear more about later.
With a sympathetic ear, she listened to storm victims' stories during a recent visit, and then with an empathetic heart, she shared her own.
“It was the 7th of April, 1994. It was a clear cut from the past and the future,” she said.
Immaculee was 22 and home from college for Easter. Asleep in her bed, her life's dreams were shattered by her brother's panic.
“He said, ‘The president died last night!’ And I jumped out of bed. I knew it was going to be bad for us,” she said.
A genocide was born. Rival tribe Hutus vowed to annihilate her people. Far outnumbered, a confused crowd gathered. And Immaculee's dad, a peaceful elder whom she adored, and the village respected, offered haunting advice: hope, but only for the hereafter.
“He said, ‘Let's take this as a chance God has given us to repent our sins, so we can go to heaven.’”
And then, he whispered something even harder to comprehend than death. Placing a rosary in her hand, he told his only daughter to go to the home of a Hutu pastor.
“My brother came to him and said, ‘Dad! You're sending her to a Hutu, someone from the other tribe! If things go bad they will kill her!’ And my father used to tell us, don't judge people.”
It was the last time Immaculee saw her family. Her dad was right to trust the pastor, who hid her in his home behind a giant dresser in a bathroom, 3 feet by 4 feet, with six other Tutsi women and a 7-year-old girl, eight people in all.
“We were literally laying down on top of each other,” she said.
They used improvised sign language, shared one plate of food, and through the tiniest of windows saw the killers come searching.
“Everyone had machetes, long spears,” she said. “And these are not soldiers! These are men from my village, people I went to school with.”
Miraculously, the women were never discovered. And, after 91 nights and just 65 pounds strong, Immaculee emerged from hiding a survivor, but only to witness a dawn of the dead.
“We went outside like a new person and it was like the end of the world, dead bodies everywhere on the road.”
In just three months, the genocide claimed one million souls. Among them: her father, slain in the street; her mother, butchered pulling the killers off her little brother who died by the same blade; her big brother; her grandparents.
“My aunts, my uncles, my cousins,” she said.
But amazingly, Immaculee's sole survival is not what's inspired presidents and Popes. It's more. It's what happened next. She came face to face with her family’s killer.
The Hutu leader had been a neighbor and family friend and was in prison.
Immaculee said she spoke first.
“He couldn't look at me,” she explained, adding that she said, “I forgive you.”
He dropped his face and covered it, she said.
“I could feel something came out of him.”
Immaculee said during those 91 days in hiding, she changed. At first she wanted revenge, but after ceaseless reflection, she chose to reject the hate that killed her family and instead made their legacy a message of hope and forgiveness.
And so Immaculee wrote their story in a book, “Left to Tell,” published nearly six years ago. And that's when a group of Louisianans just happened to read it and reached out.
They went to Rwanda and helped build a school and church planting seeds of hope that yielded a crop of wide grins and confident kids: the next generation.
“I think this is going to be a good lesson for us as far as you sharing your story with us,” one Madisonville man told her during her recent visit.
And so the kindness of strangers has come full circle. And the woman who nearly drowned in a sea of inhumanity two decades ago reminds us: with faith and each other, we can weather any storm.
Immaculee, whose story is being developed into a major motion picture, is headed back to New Orleans later this week to talk to several schools and speak at a church retreat in Madisonville. For more information, click here.