Pilgrimage to Rwanda: Book about genocide inspires journey of faithWORTHINGTON — When a friend gave Kathy Lesnar a copy of the book “Left to Tell,” she cautioned Kathy, “Don’t even open the front cover until you’re ready for your life to change.” Neither woman realized just how prophetic that statement would be. Kathy not only read the book, she also went to hear author Immaculée Ilibagiza speak, eventually began to work with her and more recently joined Immaculée on a pilgrimage to Africa.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — When a friend gave Kathy Lesnar a copy of the book “Left to Tell,” she cautioned Kathy, “Don’t even open the front cover until you’re ready for your life to change.”
Neither woman realized just how prophetic that statement would be. Kathy not only read the book, she also went to hear author Immaculée Ilibagiza speak, eventually began to work with her and more recently joined Immaculée on a pilgrimage to Africa.
“I was totally moved by her story,” Kathy recalled.
Emphasizing that this is Immaculée’s tale to tell, Kathy gave an outline of her friend’s experiences during the Rwandan genocide:
Immaculée was a college student in 1994 when the mass killing resulting from extreme ethnic division occurred in Rwanda.
“The media portrayed Rwanda as a land of warring tribes, but it was a genocide,” stated Kathy. “It was one group of people who tried to get rid of another group of people. It was the government that created the racism, a ruling class minority — the Tutsis. The lower class majority — Hutus — had the uprising.”
On April 6, 1994, the moderate Hutu president’s plane was shot down, and he was killed.
“Within hours, the extremists put their plan into action, killing all moderate people involve in the government, journalists and any other moderate Hutus in key positions in the country who would stop their plan to eliminate all Tutsis,” Kathy detailed. “Over the next 91 days, the new government publicly called on all Hutus to ‘do their duty and kill all the cockroaches before they kill us.’ The government armed the people with machetes and spiked clubs to carry out a mass murder of nearly 1 million people.
“In the beginning, many Hutus were sympathetic to the Tutsis, but they quickly learned that if they did not turn their eye or enter into the killing spree that they, too, would be suspected of aiding the enemy, and they would be killed. Thus, nearly 200,000 Hutus were also killed during the genocide. In many cases, because of intermarriage, Hutus were slaughtered because of their affiliation with Tutsis. Sometimes even Hutu husbands killed their own Tutsi wife. Teachers were killing their students, doctors were killing their patients.”
When the slaughter started, Immaculée was home on break from college. Her family was from the Tutsi tribe, but the tribal divisions had never been emphasized in their Christian home. In fact, Immaculée never knew her tribe affiliation until she went to school. Her best friend and boyfriend were Hutus.
“Her brother walked in and said the president’s plane had been shot down,” recounted Kathy about that fateful day. “She knew it was going to be bad, so she got up and get dressed. She later said she didn’t realize it would be the set of clothes she would wear for the next four months.
“Her dad was the director of schools, and her mom was a teacher — very prominent positions in Rwanda — and they had used their position to help people. So all these people came to her dad. … They knew there was a good chance they would die, so everybody sat down right there and prayed, made themselves right with God and prepared to die.”
Knowing their daughter would likely be raped, Immaculée’s parents sent her running through the jungle to their pastor’s home.
“She didn’t want to go,” emphasized Kathy. “The pastor didn’t really want to hide her, but he put her in his private bathroom, which was just 3 feet by 4 feet. She thought she was only going to be there a couple of days. More people kept coming, and by the end of the day, there were eight people in that bathroom. They would take turns sitting and standing. They could hear people being murdered outside.”
As Immaculée waited with the other women, she was overcome by both fear and anger.
“She looked out the window and saw 200 people who were dressed crazy and carrying clubs and machetes, and they were calling her name,” Kathy detailed. “… Fear was like a knife in her body. Then she heard a voice in her head that said, ‘If you are so afraid, why don’t you ask God for help?’
“So she began to pray and asked God, ‘If you really exist, you’ll not let the killers find this bathroom door,’” Kathy continued. “The killers came and searched through the four-bedroom house. They went up on the roof, they cut open mattresses, they demolished the house, but nobody, in two hours, found that bathroom door, and she knew in that moment that God truly existed.”
Immaculée began to pray the Rosary that her father had given her, but when she’d get to the Lord’s Prayer, she struggled with the words “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” She didn’t want to forgive.
“But again, she turned to God and asked for direction, and she heard the same voice in her head, saying, ‘You are ALL my children,’” shared Kathy. “At that moment, she began to understand the God loves each and every one of us and that evil truly exists in our world, but just because someone’s mind is evil doesn’t mean their soul is evil.
“Immaculée turned to prayer, morning through night, and that’s what got her through the next 91 days. She also taught herself English in that bathroom; she asked the pastor for a French-English dictionary and also for a radio outside the door so they could hear what was going on.”
The women would get food — only table scraps since the pastor didn’t dare to even tell his family about the hidden women — every two to three days. By the time they left the bathroom, after 91 days, Immaculée weighed 65 pounds. The small group headed for a refugee camp, passing close to a group of militia who were still hunting down the Tutsis.
“It was like there was a spiritual cloak over them,” Kathy related. “At one point, they came face to face with Hutu killers. Again, God provided a miracle as she stared down the killers and walked calmly by without them harming any one of them. They reached the refugee camp and began their new life without their families. She learned at the camp of the death of her mother, father, two brothers and most of her cousins and aunts and uncles. All of her college friends were killed — virtually everyone she knew.”
With only the clothes on her back, Immaculée had to start over. She found a job at the United Nations office in Rwanda, and in 1998 immigrated to the United States, where she continued her work with the UN. She shared her story with co-workers and friends, who encouraged her to write it down in book form. “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” was released in March 2006, and it has been translated into 15 languages. Her story has also been made into a documentary, “The Diary of Immaculée,” and she recently signed a contract to produce a major motion picture based on her life.
“‘Left to Tell’ is not just about the genocide,” Kathy stressed. “It’s about so much more. … The Bible came to life for me through her story.”
More pictures and the story of Kathy Lesnar’s pilgrimage to Africa will be published on the People page in Saturday’s Daily Globe.
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