The Genocide in
Immaculee Illibagiza says she was finally speaking out in hopes of preventing further atrocities, not only in
“I remember looking up to the hill across the river. And I saw somebody actually with a machete cutting somebody. And we were all like, ‘Wow! Something’s happening here. They’re going to kill us,’” she remembers. “A person like when they’re cutting, cutting. And somebody was screaming.”
People were screaming all over the country. The Genocide had begun. It was extremely low tech – no gas chambers here – just machetes, spears and knives, wielded by Hutus, the majority tribe as they tried to wipe out the minority Tutsis.
There were no organized roundups as there had been in Nazi Germany; Tutsis were slaughtered in their tracks, wherever they were found.
The killing fields were everywhere. And when it was over, three out of every four Tutsis in
When it began, Immaculee’s father told her to run to a minister’s house three miles away, and to beg him to hide her.
The minister was a Hutu, a member of the majority tribe that was killing the Tutsis. But he had been a friend of the family’s. And he was a minister.
“And I went to him. I was shaking. I told him ‘My father asked me to come here because things are getting really bad in our village,’” she recalls. “And he took me. He said, ‘Come, come.’”
He put Immaculee and six other women in a tiny, rarely used bathroom in a remote corner of the house, hidden not only from intruders, but from the minister’s large family.
Immaculee and the other tall women sat with their backs against the wall. They pulled the smaller girls down on top of them; they couldn’t all move at the same time.
“So, when he took us in the bathroom, I was like, ‘Oh my God. I will be saved here. This bathroom is so hidden that we’re going to be saved,’” Immaculee explains.
Asked whether she was concerned about the extremely small size of the space, she says, “No. That was another question. I would try to fit in any hole I can just to hide.”
Seven women were huddled in a bathroom measuring three feet by four feet, for 91 days.
They took turns standing and stretching.
Sometimes, at night, when they couldn’t take it anymore, they retreated into a larger room adjacent to the bathroom. But it was more dangerous there: killers lurked just outside the window, so the women couldn’t stand up or talk.
“They were searching. They were there all the time,” Immaculee remembers. “It was constantly intense. Intense, intense.”
Several people had seen the Tutsi women arrive at the pastor’s house, but no one had seen them leave, so after a few days, dozens of Hutus stormed the house, hoping to find the women and kill them.
“There’s a little window in the bathroom. I went up and I looked through the curtains. And I saw like people running, running, running … inside the house. And we heard them. I can see the spears,” Immaculee explains.
“So they come inside,” she recalls. “I have never been so scared in my life. I remember it was like, life swept out of your body in a second. I became dry instantly. I couldn’t even find saliva to swallow.”
Pastor Simeon Nzabahimana showed me how he tried to divert the killers away from the women. He showed the angry mob other bedrooms and urged them to search his attic.
“And he was telling them, ‘I sent them away. Those girls, I sent them away. They can help themselves. I don’t want to be in trouble,’” Immaculee explains.
“The first time the killers came here to search your house, did you think they were going to find the women and kill everyone, including yourself?” I ask Rev. Nzabahimana.
“Yes. Yes. I thought so. I thought that if they had seen them they would have forced me to kill them or they would have killed me and killed them as well,” he replies.
“You think they might’ve forced you to kill them?” I ask.
“That’s what they did elsewhere,” Nzabahimana explains. “Wherever they found somebody hiding people they forced them to kill them. And afterwards they also killed the person.”
During the first search, one killer actually put his hand on the door leading to the bathroom, but he never opened it. After that the pastor showed Simon how he moved a bureau in front of the door to hide it from future searchers.
Everything outside the bathroom where Immaculee and the others were huddled, the entire country, had become a killing field. Hutus armed with machetes searched every house, every hill and killed every Tutsi they could find.
What prompted the Genocide? There are things you can point to. The Hutus had long-standing resentments against the Tutsis, who formed the nation’s elite. They had the better houses, better jobs.
Hate radio messages
Radio broadcasts called day and night for the Hutus to go out and kill Tutsis and the Hutus were told by their own leaders that if they didn’t join the killers, they would join the dead.
There are things you can point to, but do they explain what happened? What could possible explain what happened?
Here’s one explanation from one killer who had been Immaculee’s neighbour, Alex Ntibirukee, who spent 11 years in prison after admitting he killed six people:
“They told me that I would be rewarded with a piece of land and a banana plantation. They told the same to other people, but you see they didn’t give me any banana plantation.”
“They told you you would be rewarded with a banana plantation, if you did what?” Simon asks Ntibirukee.
“They told us to kill, and we killed. We just did it,” he says.
Asked what exactly he did, Ntibirukee says, “I got my machete and a nail-studded club and started killing.” He killed his neighbours, and me he had nothing against any of them; two of the victims were Immaculee’s second cousins.
Asked how he killed them, Ntibirukee says, “I chopped one with a machete, and killed the other one with the nail-studded club.”
He had grown up with Immaculee and been her family’s handyman. Asked if he and the others would have killed Immaculee had they discovered her, Ntibirukee says, “Because of the way I was, I would have attacked her definitely.”
For days, then weeks, then months, the seven women stayed squeezed into the tiny bathroom, surrounded by evil.
Asked what was going through her mind, sitting in the bathroom hour after hour, Immaculee says, “How are they going to catch us? Where they will start cutting you. If they will rape you.”
She says she was terrified the entire time she was cooped up in the tiny space. They all expected to be killed, eventually. One said she just hoped she’d be shot and not tortured; another made the pastor promise to put dirt on her corpse so dogs wouldn’t eat her.
And what did the women have to eat? Not much.
“I remember sometimes we used to eat just like, beans. And there was this little insect that came out of the beans. And he brought it. It was ‘Jesus, well how am I going to eat it.’”
But after a while, she managed to eat, by closing her eyes. Still, Immaculee said she lost 40 pounds – one third of herself disappeared during her three months hidden in the bathroom.
“I was completely a skeleton. I remember me myself thinking, looking at my hands. And I was like, ‘This is what the biologists used to tell us, you know. We are really—we have a skeleton like this.’ It was completely like—I can see every bone,” she remembers.
Looking at herself was like a personal anatomy lesson. “It was shocking,” she tells me.
Also shocking was that to keep their presence secret from others in the house, they couldn’t flush their toilet unless someone else in the house flushed the toilet on the other side of their wall. And they couldn’t bathe.
“We didn’t have any next clothes or any toothbrush to brush our teeth. Nothing. We couldn’t,” she explains.
Killers calls Immaculee’s name
When the horde of Hutus had stormed the house, Immaculee actually heard one of the killers shout her name. “I heard somebody calling my name. He said, actually that, ‘I have killed 399 cockroaches’ and he wanted me to be the 400th.”
Cockroaches is what the Hutus called the Tutsis.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was so scared that he knows where I am. He’s so sure. It was like dying alive, really when I remember the pain of that place it was like everyday you are—like something is dying, slowly dying thousands of times, yeah,” Immaculee recalls.
The pastor left his bedroom radio on so the women could hear the news. After three months of Genocide they heard that French troops had finally arrived in
Immaculee persuaded the pastor to sneak them there in the middle of the night.
They snuck out at two in the morning, on the day Immaculee calls “liberation day.”
Asked how they escaped, she says, “We stood up first of all, never really much standing up. I remember fixing my knees, like I couldn’t walk.”
But they managed to walk, and run, concealed by the night to the French compound.
She was safe, but soon sorry because Immaculee learned that her two brothers, and her mother and father had all been killed. Her father had been shot trying to get food for his neighbours’ children.
The killers put her father’s body on a roadblock.
RPF captures power
After a hundred days, a RPF army formed in exile had captured most of the country and stopped the Genocide. Today, Tutsis are still in control and are sharing power with Hutus.
The economy is coming back, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis have come back from exile, and the country hopes to attract tourists.
The country may be peaceful, but it’s still on edge. Some Hutus want to resume the Genocide. Immaculee knows Rwandans can never forget but believes they must forgive. Revenge, she told me, only prolongs the pain.
“And I don’t want it. I don’t want them after killing my family to give me this luggage in my heart, in my belly, you know, to hold this anger,” she says.
So Immaculee has even forgiven Alex, the man who killed two of her relatives and who would have killed her.
Asked if she felt angry when she saw him, Immaculee says no.
“You weren’t tempted to take his head and shake it against a brick wall?” I ask.
“No, completely in my heart I was aware it won’t change anything. It won’t change his heart. It won’t bring back people he killed. That’s the worst thing,” she replies.
“No. But it might’ve felt good,” I remarks.
“It doesn’t. That’s the funny thing. It won’t. I know well,” Immaculee says.
Now she’s a woman on a mission to spread the story of the Genocide hoping it can prevent future atrocities.
She has been giving lectures; she has written a book; and she is determined to stop the inevitable revisionists who claim the Genocide never happened.
“You started to hear on radios, people denying that it wasn’t Genocide. And that almost takes your breath away,” Immaculee tells me. “Like, what I have lived isn’t genocide? What is genocide? Every child, every woman, every man, Tutsi, at least in my village as I have seen, is dead.”
This segment was originally broadcast by CBS on Dec. 3, 2006. It was updated on June 28, 2007.