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When an apparition has been totally approved by the Vatican and also unleashes a flow of grace that feels like the grotto at Lourdes in France or Mount Krizevac in Bosnia-Hercegovina, one is prone to consider its accounts with extended interest, no matter how unusual the claims are.

At Kibeho in Rwanda, which was sanctioned by the official Church in 2001, the accounts go beyond "unusual" and into the "unprecedented," especially as has to do with reported "journeys" of several visionaries into the afterlife. We find ourselves reporting more on this apparition than we ever planned, as it seems continually to unfold with new information.

They were not just "visions," nor mystical "travels" as many mystics have reported. During the events in Kibeho, the seers went into such a deep sleep or really coma that priests and doctors were convinced that one was dead -- and began to talk of burial. There have been cases of this reported with certain mystics, but not ones associated with formal sites of apparition.

The first to experience this was also the first visionary, Alphonsine Mumureke -- who is now a nun in a town about an hour from Rome. Her episode occurred during March of 1982, when the Blessed Mother invited her to travel to a "special place." It would be an "overnight trip," she was told -- with a "return" on the 17-year-old girl's birthday.

Before they went, Our Lady supposedly warned Alphonsine to instruct the school director that while it would appear as if the girl were dead, not to bury her! -- an instruction that was naturally met with stunned disbelief. "My body will be here," the girl told him. "But I'll be away until Sunday." A note was also penned to the bishop.

The details of these journeys are in the book Kibeho, by Father Gabriel Maindron, and Our Lady of Kibeho, by Immaculee Ilibagiza (and Steve Erwin). Indeed, on that Saturday, March 20, Alphonsine was found lying in bed at the school dormitory, in what appeared to be a deep slumber, still fully dressed, her skin waxen, her hands neatly folded over her chest.

Those who came into the room (first a nun, this a Catholic school) were unable to budge her, even when shouting into her ears. A nurse was summoned along with an abbot and an official from the Red Cross and a stethoscope found Alphonisine's pulse to be impossibly slow. Her blood pressure was also far too low to sustain normal life and the schoolgirl's lungs gave scant evidence of inhalation (only once or twice a minute, and then barely perceptibly). Witnesses also included two priests and an abbot, Augustin Misago -- who would later become bishop (and approve construction of a shrine there). The girl was unconscious -- in this deathlike sleep -- for eighteen hours. The same was then to occur with a girl named Anathalie Mukamaimpka, the second seer to encounter Mary, and a third, Vestine Salina, who was among the original seven seers, only three of whom (Alphonsine, Anathalie, and one named Marie-Claire Mukangango) were officially recognized.

Of the places they were "taken," what can one say about Heaven's perfect existence -- a place where colors "sounded" like music and music seemed like colors -- where one can breathe "water" and drink light? We have reported elements of these visions previously. Intriguingly, Anathalie described a high place in Heaven -- which she was told was "Isangano" -- the "place of communion" -- where seven handsome men in pure white cloaks were in a circle creating gorgeous music but with no instruments, "each note filled with a different sensation of contentment and joy," in Ilibagiza's words. There was also a place where the Blessed Mother showed her "millions of people dressed in white." They were not blissful quite like the seven but still "overwhelmingly happy"; this was "Isenderezwa z'ibyishimo" or the "place of the cherished of God."

But there were also nether regions seen by all the seers, who had their experiences at different times during the early 1980s, and it is upon this that we now focus. One such place was dim as dusk. "Below us were people dressed in clothes of dreary and duller colors in comparison to the other worlds we'd seen," said Anathalie. The people here were content, but still suffering. It was called "Isesengurwa, a "place of purification" for those who "persevered."

"The last place we visited was a land of twilight where the only illumination was an unpleasant shade of red that reminded me of congealed blood," said this visionary, who still lives at Kibeho, seen often in deep prayer as she walks around the shrine. "The heat that rose from that world was stifling and dry -- it brushed my face like a flame, and I feared that my skin would blister and crack. I couldn't look at the countless people who populated that unhappy place because their misery and anguish pained me so greatly. Mary didn't have to say the name of this place... I knew I was in hell."

Alphonsine also described a "place of despair" where the road leading away from God's Light ends.

Remarkably, Vestine was unconscious during an apparition in 1983 for more than forty hours -- and in her case, there were points at which doctors debated a declaration of death because there was no pulse or blood pressure whatsoever and she had stopped breathing. Fortunately, they remembered what they had been told and decided to sit tight. A member of the Church commission was also present. Vestine's experience ended on Easter Sunday.

"Our Lady showed me an abyss filled with fire to explain that this is the eternal fire," said the seer. "But she told me that hell is not fire. It is the eternal suffering of not seeing God, of being deprived of God."

Anathalie said traveling in the afterlife was such that "you move without the slightest effort." As in near-death experiences, Alphonsine described moving, as in space, through stars.

Anathalie's description of Heaven also included men in white with clothes that were "sparkling -- really happy, very joyful"; in her case she was told it was called the place of "fullness of joy." These men were "servants of God." Others were dressed in blue, white, and red robes. She called purgatory "the place of trial" and hell "the place of punishment" for people called "incorrigibles."

Ironically, thousands were to die right there at Kibeho during a war that erupted a decade later, and those who visit sometimes report unusual experiences that seem related to purgatorial souls or spiritual warfare (such as strange storms that are confined to tiny vicinities -- this occurring like an attempt by the devil to thwart grace before the tremendous feelings of peace that are experienced after praying at the exact place of apparitions). Meanwhile, the visions of dark places contradicts modern notions of only heavenly places in the afterlife and they come at a time when much of the Church has stopped preaching about this aspect of eternity.

[resources: Kibeho, Left To Tell, and Our Lady of Kibeho; also: Seven Sorrows Rosary,]

[see also: The Other Side]

[See also: Michael Brown retreat in Louisiana and New Mexico]

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