"It taught me the price of love, of peace, of freedom. I lost my family, but I gained understanding about life,” says Immaculee Ilibagiza, the true-life subject of Passage Theater’s solo presentation “Miracle in Rwanda,” running Saturdays and Sundays, March 18 through 26.
The “miracle” is Ilibagiza’s survival following three months of hiding in silence with seven other women in a closet-sized bathroom. Her experiences were recounted in the bestselling book “Left to Tell.” The book in turn inspired the play.
The Passage presentation is part of the company’s Solo Flights series, the annual presentation by a solo actor. Passage staff heard about the work through its theater network and arranged to present it with its original performer Leslie Lewis, a New York-based and Harvard-trained actor who co-created the work with New York director and writer Edward Vilga.
Ilibagiza was a 22-year-old National University of Rwanda engineering student when her world exploded on April 6, 1994. Rwanda president Juvenal Habyarimana, a member of the Hutu tribe, was assassinated by Hutu extremists determined to scuttle a peace agreement with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels. The extremists — supported by the army, mass media, and ordinary Hutus — then used the assassination to wage genocide against their fellow countrymen, the Tutsis, killing nearly a million people in three months.
With Ilibagiza’s Tutsi family marked for death, her father arranged for his daughter to be sent to the home of a nearby minister who hid her and seven other women in an inconspicuous three-foot-by-four-foot bathroom.
“There wasn’t enough room for all of the women to have their own place on the floor,” says one report. “So the larger (women) held the smaller women on their laps. The women had to maintain silence, as the pastor was hiding them even from his family, out of fear that a careless remark by one of his children might endanger them all. To carry out this subterfuge, the pastor could feed the women only what was left on the plates of his family members. The women could not even flush the toilet unless they heard another toilet in the house flush.”
“Those three months changed every aspect of my life,” says Ilibagiza in a printed interview with a religious publication. “When I went into that bathroom I was a child. I trusted people for who they said they were. I trusted our leaders. I trusted them to follow the laws they put in place — to be the first to uphold the first law of society, which is not to hurt anyone. But those three months in the bathroom taught me that those laws and those people — everything I trusted and believed in — were changeable. People didn’t necessarily believe or follow what they said. Even those people who told others to do good were capable of doing bad. What I found when I came out of that bathroom made me turn in on myself and search my heart to see what were my values; what did I believe.”
Rather than become bitter or despairing, Ilibagiza says the ordeal “made me figure out how I could contribute to the peace I believed in — even if the people in charge were not living by those values. I came out of the ordeal more my own person.
“At first I was broken, as you can imagine. All the people I had loved and who had loved me so much were dead. I had no one left so I had to lean on God. And I had to lean on the values I believed in, like kindness. I decided that no one had to prove their worth for me to treat them kindly. I needed to be kind because that was the only way to create the world I wanted to live in. My world had been destroyed by people who had forgotten about love; if I wanted a different world, I had to be different. So as a result of my experience, I have grown a lot in many ways. The experience strengthened my commitment to my own values regardless of what other people did.”
“You know, I understand why people can get angry at God, but the truth is, there’s no other way. If you turn your back on God, where can you go? Where can you live? What can you hold on to? There is nothing else.”
Acknowledging an anger that caused her physical and spiritual pain, she says, “I had many angry questions to ask of God: How could you let this happen? But the answer came in my heart: ‘When I gave you free will I meant it.’
“People get to choose. We’re not in a cage. Free will is a dangerous thing, and it’s also a wonderful thing. I really appreciate people writing about the genocide in Rwanda so that it inspires people to choose wisely. The world benefits every time people choose good. The person doing good benefits, and we all benefit.
“It’s not right for people to act as if they don’t care because a war is happening somewhere else, or if people far away are having trouble. We really shouldn’t act as if it’s not our business. A person who is losing his sense of love, or sense of gratitude, is going to affect other people by his actions. It’s like someone who is careless with fire; sooner or later everyone in the house will be affected. That’s how I came to understand the situation in Rwanda. We were all affected by a number of people who chose to be hate-filled; who made wrong decisions. Maybe we knew about it, but we chose to ignore it, instead of doing anything to pray for them, or educate them, or inspire them, or address the injustices that were troubling them.”
In his notes for the play, Vilga the playwright says that the actor depicts Ilibagiza’s entire range of human emotions. “Her terror escalates as literally hundreds of machete-wielding killers search the house where she is hiding again and again. Calling out her name, they are determined to find and butcher her as they have all the other members of her family. Immaculee moves beyond her intense fear into rage and despair, somehow in the end managing to find a deeper spiritual connection than she ever thought possible.”
Calling her “our generation’s Anne Frank — one who thankfully survived a holocaust,” Vilga says, “The true miracle of her story is her ability to choose her spiritual focus and to let go. Astonishingly, she somehow manages to find it within herself to forgive even those who had murdered her own mother and father and brothers.”
Vilga says the production that premiered in 2007 at the TheatreZone in Naples and been performed around the world, including in Rwanda, continues to elicit the same audience response: “If she can forgive something that horrible, maybe I can forgive someone I haven’t been able to forgive in my own life. Almost all our injustices and grievances pale in comparison, allowing her journey to inspire our possibilities.”
Miracle in Rwanda, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton. March 18 through 26, Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. $12 to $27. 609-392-0766 or passagetheatre.org.