EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Immaculee Ilibagiza is Rwanda’s Anne Frank. The difference is she survived to tell her tale, now being dramatized in a sell-out show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
When Rwanda turned into Africa’s killing fields in 1994, she and seven other Tutsi women were hidden in the tiny bathroom of a pastor to escape bands of machete-wielding killers.
They had to be silent, communicating only in sign language. Some days they had no food or drink. Eventually smuggled out to safety, they emerged as emaciated skeletons in a land where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed in 100 days of genocidal madness.
Immaculee, whose father, mother and two brothers were all killed, eventually moved to the United States, married a Trinidadian working for the United Nations and they now have two children.
Hearing one of her lectures inspired American actress Leslie Lewis Sword to write a one-woman show recreating her story. She plays all ten characters from Immaculee and her family to the pastor and a militia leader.
“Her message is forgiveness. She has found a way to move on after these unbearable hardships,” the actress said.
“It gives hope for Darfur, for Zimbabwe too. People are taking a look at these things too and asking what is happening there,” she told Reuters after another sell-out performance of “Miracle in Rwanda.”
Sword accompanied Immaculee on a trip back to Rwanda to revisit the house and its cramped bathroom, hidden behind a wardrobe in the pastor’s bedroom.
Immaculee relived her nightmare in her best-selling autobiography, “Left To Tell”, which echoes the diary of Anne Frank, the Jewish schoolgirl who hid from the Nazis for two years in Amsterdam with her family before being taken to a concentration camp.
“It is the same message as Anne Frank. Forgiveness sets us free. She knelt to pray with the murderer of her mother afterwards,” she said of Immaculee, a devout Catholic who clung to the rosary her father gave her the last time she saw him.
With just a bare stage, a black curtain backdrop and a stark spotlight, Sword chillingly recreates the stifling claustrophobia of Immaculee’s hiding place.
“We are in the same room as Immaculee, sweating with her, gasping for air with her. It is a physical theatre experience,” she said.
Meeting Immaculee changed the life of Sword and her businessman husband forever.
”On our last day in Rwanda, Immaculee brought me to an orphanage. When I got there I saw a room full of babies who needed a home. I thought -- well, I have a home.
“Seven months later, I came back and adopted two babies. Immaculee is their godmother.”