March 30th, 2011
By Valerie Schmalz
Carl Wilkens stayed behind during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the only American known to have remained during the entire 100 days.
“It’s a great thing to do, to pray for people, but I could do more than pray – I could stay,” said Wilkens, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary.
On the first night of the genocide the Wilkens’ neighbors, a Tutsi banker and his wife, were killed by machete-wielding Hutu paramilitary gangs. “They draped her lifeless body over the fence,” Wilkens told Mercy San Francisco students March 24, adding that the slain couple had saved their children by boosting them over a fence.
Wilkens stopped at the high school on his travels across the U.S. to share his experiences in Rwanda. His goal: To teach young people in particular about the importance of trying to understand how other people think and thus to move away from the mindset that sees others as so much trouble that they would be better off eliminated.
The way to break the cycle of dehumanization is “to learn people’s stories, understand how they feel and think and act,” Wilkens said. “You can’t change the feeling without looking at the thinking.”
Wilkens was the head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency and had been living for four years in Rwanda with his wife and three small children when the killing began. The second night of the genocide, the gangs came to get the Wilkens.
“Unbeknownst to us that Thursday night, they came to our house,” Wilkens said during the presentation organized by Mercy religious studies teacher Jim McGarry as part of a year-long module on the World War II Jewish Holocaust and modern-day genocides.
“They came to our gate. Our neighbors who came out to help were not a bunch of men; they were a bunch of ladies. They did not come out with machetes, they came out with stories,” Wilkens said.
The neighbors’ accounts of how the Wilkens children played with their children, about how Wilkens and his wife Teresa brought neighbors to the hospital and performed “small acts of kindness” were what saved the family that night. “These ladies re-humanized us,” Wilkens said. “We didn’t know about it until the next morning.”
The genocide occurred after years of rivalry between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi population and was worsened by favoritism toward the Tutsis during Belgium’s colonial rule. The horror of 800,000 killed in three months was magnified by state-run radio broadcasts that incited neighbor-against-neighbor betrayals and killings.
As United Nations forces stood by, ordered not to intervene, relief and church organizations sent their workers home. Within days of the genocide’s onset, Teresa Wilkens and the three children drove out in a camper, joining a convoy a mile away at the U.S. ambassador’s home in a frightening experience that included chanting Hutus hammering on the outside of the camper, Teresa Wilkens said. Teresa, her mother-in-law and the children stayed hidden in the back of the camper while Carl Wilkens’ father drove. Once in Nairobi, Kenya, Teresa Wilkens communicated daily with her husband via short-wave radio, she said. A separation that they thought would be two weeks lasted three months.
“We had come to Rwanda because we believed that God brought us there to make a difference,” and their agreement that he stay behind was a continuation of their faith, said Wilkens, who gave his wife a handwritten note that said he had been ordered to evacuate by the U.S. embassy and had chosen, as a private citizen, to remain. “In my heart and fortunately in Teresa’s heart, we had peace with the decision to stay,” he said.
For the first three weeks, Wilkens did not venture out of his house. After that he traveled around Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and helped as he could, including working with Hutu paramilitary leaders. Those contacts meant he was able to help hundreds of orphans with food and water and other supplies, as well as receive a guarantee of their safety. In the face of rumors that all were to be massacred, the guarantee was upheld.
Among the 10 visibly foreign people who remained behind in Kigali during the killing spree, eight were Catholics, Wilkens said. Five were Spanish religious sisters, two were priests who tried – eventually unsuccessfully – to shelter Tutsis in their church, and there was another Catholic. “That’s something to be proud of,” Wilkens said. He added that among all the institutional churches there were also failures to stand up against the killing.
Carl Wilkens’ decision to stay behind was made because of one young woman, a house girl, who had worked for the Wilkens for three years, and because of a young man who worked for the family. Tabithe, a Tutsi, would be killed if she were left behind, he told the students at Mercy. Fortunately, he said, his wife felt the same way, that they could not leave Tabithe to her own devices. As it was, everyone in Tabithe’s family was killed except a brother who was out of the country during the genocide, Wilkens said.
Today Tabithe is happily married to a Hutu, Albert, with several children, Wilkens said. When he realized that her husband was Hutu on his last visit to Rwanda, Wilkens said he tried to ask her about that. She couldn’t understand the question at first, and then said, “But we’re all children of God.”
Wilkens was featured on PBS’s Frontline documentary “Ghosts of Rwanda” and “The Few Who Stayed: Defying Genocide,” an American Radio Works documentary. The Simon Wiesenthal Center awarded him the 2005 Medal of Valor. Wilkens’ non-profit, World Outside My Shoes, is “committed to inspiring and equipping people to enter the world of ‘The Other.’ ‘The other’ may be under our own roof or on the other side of the globe,” according to worldoutsidemyshoes.org.
From April 1, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.