Carl Wilkens speaks at the Dallas Holocaust Museum on May 16, 2013
For 100 days in 1994, between early April and mid-July, more than 500,000 people were murdered in the East African state of Rwanda.
The Rwandan Genocide was a genocidal mass slaughter of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Some estimates of the death toll ranged up to 1,000,000, or as much as 20% of the country’s total population at the time.
The genocide was the culmination of longstanding ethnic competition and tensions between the minority Tutsi, who had controlled power for centuries, and the majority Hutu peoples, who had come to power in the rebellion of 1959–62.
Throughout the tragic ordeal, Carl Wilkens, a humanitarian aid worker from Chicago, was the only American to remain in the country. Wilkens moved his young family to Rwanda in the spring of 1990 to work for the humanitarian agency of the Adventist Church. During the genocide, he remained there with his wife, two children and two young Tutsis who would have been slaughtered had he not kept them safe in his home.
Three weeks into the genocide, Carl—at great personal risk—traveled to an orphanage near the Rwandan capital of Kigali, to bring water to the thirsty and starving children living there. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the children were also targeted for mass slaughter. However, his presence at the orphanage, along with negotiations with the would-be killers, resulted in hundreds of lives being saved.
On May 16 at the Museum, Carl Wilkens shared his incredible story in a special presentation, “Rwanda through the eyes of the only American to witness the 1994 Genocide.” More than 120 guests packed the Museum’s theater to hear the presentation, among them several survivors of the Rwandan genocide who lost loved ones to the unspeakable violence.
“The young woman and young man we kept in our home never asked me to stay,” said Wilkens, who been urged by close friends, his employer and the U.S. government to leave Rwanda immediately. “We could not leave.”
He downplayed his role in saving lives during the genocide. “I didn’t do anything by myself. I did it with others as part of a group,” he said. “None of us are God-like heroes on our own. But all of us can be an Upstander for 15 minutes.”
Wilkens said tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the U.S. government or the U.N. would have permitted non-Rwandans to drive Rwandan citizens out of the small country to the safety of neighboring countries prior to the violence. Rwanda is a small country about the size of Maryland but densely populated with 11.7 million residents (2012 estimate).
Wilkens has written a book about the experience, I’m not leaving (ImNotLeavingRwanda.com), and a new 35-minute documentary by the same name will be released later this year.
For the past nine years, Wilkens and his wife, Teresa, have been travelling the U.S. and abroad to share their experiences with the aim of building bridges to peace.
Slowly, Rwandans are rebuilding their country and healing through the power of forgiveness, he said. He last visited Rwanda in January.
“We are not defined by what we don’t have or lost,” Wilkens concluded. “We are defined by what we do with what we have.”
–By Chris Kelley for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance; Photo by Paula Nourse