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Rwandan genocide survivor promotes sacrificial message of Our Lady of Kibeho

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Twenty-five years ago, Immaculée Ilibagiza huddled motionlessly with seven other women in a tiny bathroom, praying her rosary as neighbors-turned-killers ransacked the house in search of victims. 

It was the height of the Rwandan genocide, a period of 100 bloody days that began April 7, 1994, during which extremist members of the country’s Hutu majority tribe killed between 800,000 and 1 million of the rival Tutsi tribe and moderate Hutus. By the time Ilibagiza left the bathroom, her mother, father and two brothers had been murdered. 

“I could have killed myself with the anger I had,” Ilibagiza told about 200 people gathered for a retreat she led at St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax Aug. 10. “Life was so miserable in that bathroom. But I saw life changing because of prayer. It’s not about what happened to you, it’s about how you have taken your suffering.” 

Ilibagiza has dedicated herself to sharing the message of Our Lady of Kibeho, the only Vatican-approved Marian apparition in Africa — one that she believes predicted the genocide. The message is one of prayer, penance, acts of self-mortification and reconciliation.

“I think that’s why Our Lady’s coming, to show us the way,” said Ilibagiza, who co-wrote the book Our Lady of Kibeho in 2008 with journalist Steve Erwin. “This is how you walk through the fire.”

Ilibagiza recounted how a beautiful woman wearing a white gown and a white veil had appeared to Alphonsine Mumureke, a secondary school student at Kibeho College in Rwanda, in November 1981. While the visions were a source of great joy to Alphonsine, they angered school officials and the clergy, who thought she was making a laughingstock out of the school. 

Alphonsine soon had a secret, heavy burden — the woman, who called herself the Mother of the Word, had asked her to relay messages to government authorities. Many Tutsis had been forced out of their homeland and were living as refugees, unable to return, Ilibagiza said. Our Lady told Alphonsine that the government needed to “let the refugees come back,” Ilibagiza said, and there would be peace. There was too much hatred building between the tribes.

“Our Lady was trying to wake us up,” she said. 

In January 1982, a quiet, devout girl named Anathalie Mukamazimpaka fell into a trance inside her dorm room, Ilibgaiza said. When Anathalie awoke, she said that she had spoken with the Virgin Mary. Because of Anathalie’s credibility, many more people began to believe in the apparitions, Ilibagiza said. 

The two continued to be tormented by other students, including Marie-Claire Mukangango, who was incensed by the claims and had set out to prove that the visions were made up or diabolically inspired. But Marie-Claire dramatically changed in March 1982, when she began to experience her own visions of Mary. At this time, Our Lady taught Marie-Claire the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, a prayer that goes back centuries, Ilibagiza said. 

Though the apparitions had usually been long, joyful visits in a typical Rwandan style, Marie-Claire said that Our Lady of Kibeho’s message on March 27, 1982, was more solemn. It was:

“The world is evil and rushes towards its ruin. It is about to fall in its abyss. The world is in rebellion against God. Many sins are being committed. There is no love and no peace. If you do not repent and convert your hearts, you will all fall into an abyss.”

The messages took an even darker turn during the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 1982. In front of a crowd of 20,000 people, Alphonsine screamed out “I see a river of blood! What does that mean?” 

Alphonsine described a vision of people killing and cutting each other to pieces, and thousands upon thousands of piles of headless corpses. 

Some believe that the prophecy of a river of blood was more than a metaphor. The New York Times reported May 21, 1994, that as many as 10,000 mutilated bodies from Rwanda’s genocide washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria in Uganda. Kibeho itself became the site of two massacres — one in 1994, as people took refuge in the church, and another in 1995, a military-led killing against Hutu refugees, according to media accounts. Marie-Claire died during the genocide, while Alphonsine and Nathalie were forced to flee Rwanda. 

The prediction of the genocide was a major factor in the church’s 2001 decision to declare the 1981 to 1983 visions “worthy of belief.” Though more than 30 people claimed to have visions at Kibeho, only these three were approved by the Vatican. 

While the common message was about repentance, Ilibagiza said, Mary also wanted to console.

“Anyone who goes through this world goes through suffering,” Ilibagiza said. “But it’s not that God wants us to suffer. It’s not that Our Lady wants us to suffer. What she came to tell us is … ‘let me help you, let me give you a hand to lead through this suffering. Let me give you a prayer to hold on to so that you can work through the suffering of this world.’ ” 

Holding on to anger can grow “obsessive,” Ilibagiza said, and shared how, locked in that bathroom, she wished she could kill every Hutu she saw.  But “to be angry with 8 million people was killing me,” she said. “The way out was to forgive. And I had to mean it.”

Ilibagiza said that she spent every day praying the rosary, eventually finding the strength to forgive even before she left the bathroom. After the genocide, she extended that forgiveness in person to the leader of the gang that killed her brother and mother. 

Chinelo Enwonwu Anaeme, a parishioner of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria, decided the night before to attend the retreat. She said that she had recently begun praying a more than month-long 20-decade rosary novena, and felt the message at the retreat was a confirmation of that decision.

“I feel like it’s Our Lady telling me, ‘you’re in the right direction,’ ” she said. 



 Find out more

To learn more about Our Lady of Kibeho or Immaculée Ilibagiza, go to immaculee.com


How to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary

Tradition identifies seven sorrows of Mary, each one based off Scripture passages. 

1.       The prophecy of Simeon

2.       The flight into Egypt

3.       The loss of Jesus in the temple

4.       Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary

5.       Mary stands at the foot of the cross

6.       Mary receives the dead body of Jesus

7.       Jesus’ body is placed in the tomb

The Rosary of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, also called the Chaplet of Our Lady of Sorrows or the Seven Dolors Chaplet, originated in the Middle Ages, but gained new traction after the Marian apparitions at Kibeho, Rwanda. The exact format may vary, but many people start the chaplet with an Act of Contrition and three Hail Marys in honor of the Virgin’s tears. 

Next, there is an Our Father, followed by seven Hail Marys. This is repeated seven times, each sequence in honor of a different sorrow. A meditation or scripture reading may be included at the start of each sequence, if desired. 

Sources: immaculee.com, marian.org/mary/prayers/sorrows.php



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019