NEW YORK — A Rwandan genocide survivor who became a U.S. citizen Wednesday says she was saved because her father trusted an exceptional member of an enemy tribe that slaughtered the rest of her family.
"My father always used to tell us, `Never judge people by putting them in boxes, because of their country, their race, their tribe,'" Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, told fellow immigrants at a Manhattan naturalization ceremony.
The 43-year-old mother of two is the author of "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust" – a best-selling book translated into 35 languages that has turned her into a successful speaker around the world.
Eyes brimming with tears, she received her citizenship 14 years after being granted asylum in the United States. Then, as the ceremony's keynote speaker, she took 50 other immigrants on the personal journey that transformed her from an angry, emaciated young Rwandan hiding from ethnic killers into a radiant American who forgives them and feels "that no tragedy is big enough to crush you."
The 1994 civil war claimed more than a half-million African lives, with members of the Tutsi tribe pitted against the ruling Hutus.
Life for her family – four siblings with parents who were teachers – changed on April 7, 1994, when she was a college student visiting her village and her brother announced that the Rwandan president died in a plane that was shot down.
He belonged to the Hutu tribe, and the Tutsis were blamed. The killings began.
Ilibagiza said her father decided she should flee to the home of a neighbor he knew and trusted – a Hutu.
She told fellow immigrants from 16 countries that "if I am here today, it's because my father had trust in the man from that tribe" – whose members "were supposed to be our enemies."
She spent three months locked into a tiny bathroom in his house with seven women and girls, sleeping practically upright and eating what little he could shove through the door daily. She was 23 and weighed 65 pounds, her bones protruding from her limbs.
"I was angry a lot; I thought, if I ever come out, I was going to be a killer," she said.
In despair, she said her Catholic childhood prayers. But when she got to "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" – she stopped.
"How do you forgive somebody who is killing you?"
Suddenly, one day, something unexpected happened inside her.
"I felt God was showing me there are two parts of the world: a part that was love, and a side that was hate – people like Hitler, and like people causing genocide in Rwanda," she said. "And people like Mandela, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King – people who have suffered but who will do everything to make sure that those who are wrong change their mind."
She began to think of those doing the killing "as people who were lost, who were blind," she said. "And if I did not let go of the anger, I would not be here today; I would have tried to kill people, and they would have killed me."
The eight captives left their hiding spot when the genocide was over.
The Hutus had won the civil war.
Everyone in Ilibagiza's family was killed, "my mom, my dad, my two brothers, my grandpa, my grandma, my aunts, neighbors, schoolmates, best friends."
She got a job with the United Nations in Rwanda, and eventually moved to New York.
Here, "I saw Koreans, and Indians and Chinese and I thought, `Those are not Americans,'" she said. "But no, they are Americans; every nationality here is accepted as Americans."
And they had their stories too – some equally tinged with tragedy.
Friends who watched her thrive, despite her past, urged her to write her story. They wondered, she said, "how can you be happy after what happened to you? Why are you smiling today?"
"Something in my heart was born anew; I did not have to hate no matter how much you hate me," she said.
She gets hundreds of emails and letters "telling me, `because of your story, I'm a better mom, I'm a better dad, I can forgive my wife, I can forgive my husband, my friends.'"
Ilibagiza's life now is not so different from other Americans. She's divorced and bringing up her two children – a 14-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy – on Manhattan's East Side.
On Wednesday, Ilibagiza planned to join friends for a celebratory lunch, "and I want a really good hamburger, because I'm feeling so American today," she said with a carefree laugh.