Mark Twain once said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Those words aptly capture the spirit of Rwandan-genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza. The suffering she endured in one of the speediest genocides of the 20th century is difficult to fathom. Perhaps more incomprehensible, is her ability to forgive a mass murderer when she came out alive after 100 days of terror, where almost 1 million of her fellow citizens were slaughtered.
Growing up in a country whose history was scarred with deep animosity between ethnic groups, Immaculee was nonetheless raised in a home where her parents taught her respect and kindness for one’s neighbor. And she was to be a recipient of that kindness when a pastor hid her, and seven other women, in a tiny bathroom during the genocide. For 91 days, Immaculee and these women sat in silent terror as they heard the blood-curdling screams of people being butchered outside. They smelled the stench of rotting bodies. When, three months into their hiding, they moved places, they saw piles of human corpses.
As if Immaculee had not suffered enough, she would soon learn that most of her relatives had been butchered to death. In the months following this realization, Immaculee was faced with a unique situation: she could visit the prison where the man who murdered her mother and brother—and who had sought to murder her—was being held. Before Immaculee knew of this man as a killer, she knew of him by name as Felicien, the father of friends she had played with growing up.
Her encounter with Felicien, as told in her own words in her book, Left to Tell, is nothing short of inspiring:
His dirty clothing hung from his emaciated frame in tatters. His skin was sallow, bruised, and broken; and his eyes were filmed and crusted. His once handsome face was hidden beneath a filthy, matted beard; and his bare feet were covered in open, running sores.
I wept at the sight of his suffering. Felicien had let the devil enter his heart, and the evil had ruined his life like a cancer in his soul. He was now the victim of his victims, destined to live in torment and regret. I was overwhelmed with pity for the man.
“He looted your parents’ home and robbed your family’s plantation, Immaculee. We found your dad’s farm machinery at his house, didn’t we?” Semana [the guard]yelled at Felicien. “After he killed Rose and Damascene, he kept looking for you … he wanted you dead so he could take over your property. Didn’t you, pig?” Semana shouted again.
I flinched, letting out an involuntary gasp. Semana looked at me, stunned by my reaction and confused by the tears streaming down my face. He grabbed Felicien by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculee?”
Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say.
“I forgive you.”
My heart eased immediately, and I saw the tension release in Felicien’s shoulders before Semana pushed him out the door and into the courtyard. Two soldiers yanked Felicien up by his armpits and dragged him back toward his cell. When Semana returned, he was furious.
“What was that all about, Immaculee? That was the man who murdered your family. I brought him to you to question … to spit on if you wanted to. But you forgave him! How could you do that? Why did you forgive him?”
I answered him with the truth: “Forgiveness is all I have to offer.”
It is only in understanding the depth of Immaculee’s suffering that one can see the depth of her mercy. She most certainly left a fragrant scent of violets not only on this one individual, but on a wounded country that can only be restored with the opposite of what brought it down.