A Rwandan genocide survivor who became a U.S. citizen yesterday 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,' " Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi, said during 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 bestseller 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 Hutu killers into a radiant American who 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.
After the Hutus won the civil war, everyone in Ilibagiza's family had been killed. 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.
"Something in my heart was born anew; I did not have to hate no matter how much you hate me," she said.