WordsDay: Last Woman Standing—Review: Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza

Once known as “The Dark Continent,” Africa boasted a romantic reputation to Westerners as an unknown place of mystery and intrigue. The moniker still holds true today, although for a different reason: Most Americans know so little about current affairs on the continent that news from African countries might as well be struggling to escape a black hole.

Fortunately, Immaculée Ilibagiza’s memoir, Left To Tell, serves as a light in the darkness—even if the darkness it illuminates is among the darkest in modern history.

Ilibagiza recounts her experience as a twenty-two-year-old woman during the 1994 Rwandan holocaust—a three-month period of ethnic slaughter that left one million Tutsis dead at the hands of extremist Hutus. An army of rebel Tutsis, fighting its way out of exile from nearby Uganda, finally brought an end to the bloodshed.

“Tutsis were supposed to be taller, lighter-skinned, and have narrower noses; while Hutus were shorter, darker, and broad-noses. But that wasn’t really true because Hutus and Tutsis had been marrying each other for centuries, so our gene pools were intermingled,” Ilibagiza explains. “Hutus and Tutsis spoke the same language…and shared the same history. We had virtually the same culture: We sang the same songs, farmed the same land, attended the same churches, and worshipped the same God. We lived in the same villages, on the same streets, and often in the same houses.”

But a century of exploitation and manipulation by European colonialists created deep divisions between the two tribes. Ethnic purges erupted between them on several occasions over the years, but the death of Rwanda’s Hutu president sparked such violence that, by the time it was finished, dead, mutilated Rwandans were left stacked like cordwood along roadsides for miles.

Ilibagiza’s tale avoids gratuitous, graphic descriptions of the carnage. Instead, she captures the horror by bringing readers into her own intimate and frequently overwhelming reactions to the violence.

“I cursed my height and wondered why being tall was such a crime in my country,” she says. “What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t stop being tall, and I couldn’t stop being a Tutsi!”

When she flees her home and goes into hiding, Ilibagiza pulls the reader along in desperate haste, and together—author and reader, both fugitives—hunker down in terror and wait for the terror to pass.

Except that it doesn’t.

For three months, Ilibagiza and seven other Tutsi women hide in a bathroom four feet long and three feet wide. A Hutu pastor sympathetic to their plight keeps them hidden, although killers ransack his home over and over, trying to find the women.

During her months sealed away in the secret room, as the holocaust rages across the countryside, Ilibagiza loses everything important to her. When she and the other refugees finally manage their escape, Ilibagiza learns the grim fates of her immediate family. She alone, she realizes, is left to tell their story—and the stories of the million other victims of the genocide.

And it is there where the book’s true miracle takes place. While cloistered in the bathroom, Ilibagiza undergoes a profound personal journey of faith. That deep spiritual transformation prepares her for when she emerges from hiding: the scope of the disaster does not freeze her into shock but spurs her into action to help other survivors of the holocaust.

Still, many readers will find Left to Tell an emotionally difficult book to read. How, they might wonder, can people do the things to each other that people did to each other in Rwanda? In that vein, “Left to Tell” stands with Elie Wiesel’s Night and Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking as disturbing tales of epic inhumanity and tragedy.

But Ilibagiza’s tale also inspires. Despite tragedy, one can find hope; despite inhumanity, man can also find—and emulate—the divine.

Although published in 2006, Ilibagiza’s book remains especially relevant: The ethnic hatred that lead to Rwanda’s holocaust has again reared its ugly head in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. In recent weeks, civil unrest has boiled across the region. News from the Dark Continent remains dark.

Left to Tell serves as a powerful reminder that the world doesn’t have to be that way. Light still exists, and it can be found in each of us.

1 reply »

  1. Thanks, Chris, you just pointed the way to my mother’s Christmas present.

    I’d like to point out that the Tutsi “rebel” army that is getting so much news (ok, so much for Africa) right now is the same Tutsi army that put an end to the massacre. If my source is correct, it was provoked by Hutu on Tutsi violence in the Congo…by many of the same Hutus who perpetrated the Rwandan massacre. These Hutus fled when the Tutsi army marched on them and became “refugees” who now need blue helmet protection, while the Tutsi army probably feels like it has unfinished business to attend to. (my source is The War Nerd at

    Nope, i’m not saying that the Tutsis are right/good in this, only that the stories are often more complicated than they are presented as by people who are taking sides.

    Perhaps only people like Ms. Ilibagiza, who really know/understand the situation are capable of explaining it to us.