putting a human face on genocide

Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute brought Carl Wilkens to Valencia campus through a $2,000 grant from the United States Institute of Peace, which was matched by a $2,000 donation from Orlando-based ShuffieldLowman Attorneys & Advisors.

One Person Can Make a Difference: Recalling Lessons from Rwanda

  • By Linda Shrieves Beaty

When the genocide in Rwanda began in 1994, Carl Wilkens found himself facing a terrible dilemma.

A Seventh-Day Adventist aid worker, Wilkens had lived in Rwanda for four years, building schools and starting his young family there. But as the violence between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis erupted, and the killing began to engulf the country, the U.S. embassy urged all Americans to get out of the country.

There was just one problem, Carl Wilkens told audiences at Valencia this week. The Wilkens family — Carl, his wife Teresa and their three small children –  employed two Rwandans: a housekeeper and a young man who was their night watchman. Both were members of the Tutsi tribe, whose members were being hunted down and killed by members of the majority Hutu tribe and its government.

Wilkens figured he had two choices: Leave the country and try to sneak out his two employees, which the U.S. embassy had forbidden, and which he felt might risk his family’s lives if  they were caught at the border. Or, he and his wife could leave their home in Kigali, and let their employees hide out in their home. Unfortunately, Wilkens knew that the Hutus would quickly find their employees and kill them.

In the face of such dreadful choices, Wilkens came up with a different solution.

He sent his wife and children to neighboring Burundi, and he chose to stay in Rwanda — where he could shelter his employees and other Tutsi friends.

“When Plan A is unacceptable and Plan B is equally unacceptable, I’d encourage you to stop and look for a Plan C,” Wilkens told the Valencia students and staffers at his speeches.

Wilkens, the only American who stayed during the bloody genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives, managed to save the lives of his employees — and he’s credited with saving the lives of hundreds of others, including children in nearby orphanages.

During the 100 days of nonstop killing, Wilkens went out into the bloody streets of Kigali, faced down soldiers and civilians armed with AK-47s and machetes, and bargained with Hutu government officials to let him help the children.  Before long, he found himself dealing with men who were ordering the slaughter of thousands of people.  He was uncomfortable with the idea, but a Tutsi friend and pastor suggested it. “He said, ‘Carl, if you really want to make a difference, you have to form a relationship with the people in power,’ ” Wilkens recalled.

So Wilkens  met with Col. Tharcisse Renzaho, the governor of Kigali. Renzaho gave Wilkens a travel permit that would allow him through roadblocks to provide food and water to children in orphanages. When Wilkens asked for a truck to deliver the materials, the colonel provided one. Later, after the violence ended and the Rwandan people drove out the extremist government, that colonel was arrested and tried for his crimes.

Yet the incident taught Wilkens a lesson. “I want to focus on the power of relationships to make a difference,” said Wilkens.

Peace, he said, depends on it. “How are we going to build world peace? Through friendships.”

Wilkens stayed in Rwanda for another 18 months after the genocide, as the country began to heal. In 2011, Wilkens released his first book, “I’m Not Leaving,” which is based on tapes he made to his wife and children during the genocide. Today, he is the director of World Outside My Shoes, a nonprofit based in Spokane, Wash. Wilkens now spends much of his time traveling around the country,  telling how his experiences puts a human “face” on genocide,  showing students that  perpetrators, victims, and resistors will not soon be forgotten, and teaching participants how one person really can make a difference.

Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute brought Carl Wilkens to campus through a $2,000 grant from the United States Institute of Peace, which was matched by a $2,000 donation from Orlando-based ShuffieldLowman Attorneys & Advisors.

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