TERRE HAUTE —
Amid the horror shone heroics, and a genocide survivor beckons the light.
Carl Wilkens’ speech inside Holmstedt Hall leapt the 45-minute mark, but listeners’ eyes ignored the clock. The only American to remain inside Rwanda for the duration of its 1994 genocide, he offered copies of his book in exchange for a free-will donation, joking students could wait until after graduation to pay.
Kiel Majewski, director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, remarked at the understated personality of a man he named one of his heroes.
“You don’t have to be Superman to do these things,” he said inside the Indiana State University classroom. “He’s an ordinary guy who made an extraordinary decision.”
That decision was made as a United Nations tank escorted his wife, three children, and visiting parents out of the country per advice of the U.S. government, church officials and friends. For the next 100 days, Wilkens ducked mortar fire and bullets while standing in between death squads and the orphans whose parents they’d killed.
In under four months, more than 800,000 people died in an ethnic feud muddied by generations of intermarriage. According to Wilkens’ book, “I’m Not Leaving,” some 16,834 grandmothers and 23,659 infants were among the fatalities.
But as Wilkens explained in his speech, he couldn’t leave his neighbors with only a prayer for their safety.
“Not that we don’t believe in prayer, but if God would be with her, then why wouldn’t He be with me?” he said, referencing a young woman who worked in his household. And the “power of presence” is significant, he added, explaining foreigners carry a degree of respect in Rwanda. Still, his own life was threatened constantly, his car shot with bullets, and at various points he had to bribe death squads to leave his property.
Bigger than the bloodshed
Genocide, he explained before the speech, is more than human slaughter. It’s the out-growth of thinking one’s own world would be better off if someone else wasn’t in it. From neighbors arguing about their dogs, to the ongoing violence in Syria, exclusion-based solutions are the root of the problem, he said after finishing lunch in Stalker Hall,
Wilkens returned to the U.S. in 1996, and has since founded a non-profit foundation World Outside My Shoes. In 2004 he was featured in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” and his own book is based on the cassette recordings he made during the ordeal. About two weeks into the mayhem, Wilkens figured he wouldn’t live to leave. At that point he began recording messages in hopes they’d be sent to his children.
But through it all, Wilkens hopes people realize there’s more to Rwanda, and Africa for that matter, than genocidal terror.
“I’m hoping people will see the humanity in Rwanda, not just the inhumanity,” he said. Atrocities aren’t limited to faraway lands, they’re the result of people’s choices to live and act within a “genocidal machine,” he said. That knowledge, and the decision to oppose such thinking, is key to prevention.
“And I hope it will open up the eyes to an understanding of global community. It’s not us versus them,” he said. “We are the international community. Not just someone in the U.N. or Washington, but it’s us.”
Wilkens first went to Africa as a sophomore while attending Walla Walla University. Raised in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, he and his future wife, Teresa, spent 1978 there in South Africa at the height of apartheid. After returning home to finish their respective degrees in industrial arts education and accounting, the two married and returned overseas, this time to Zimbabwe and Zambia. They would spend another six years there before coming back to America, at which point he earned a masters in business administration. In the spring of 1990, the couple took their three children to Rwanda to work in the field of economic development.
Two of his children were born in Africa, he said, describing Rwanda an idyllic place to raise a family. Surrounded by the villagers’ children and their extended families, the grandmothers, aunts and mothers of his kids’ friends were equally protective of all. There were no safety concerns, and as he would explain later, the bonds of friendship forged between his children and the villagers’ would ultimately save all their lives, and play a role in his own decision to stay and protect others.
“I’m sure it was because I went there as a 19-year-old,” he said of his affinity for Africa. “At that age, you fall in love with anything wild and exotic.”
Raw and “frontierish,” Wilkens embraced the African sense of community, and seems happy to explain the development initiatives which have transformed Rwanda into a growing hub of technology and finance. Still impoverished, the nation has managed to upgrade its national budget from 60-percent foreign aid to 40-percent, while leading an open borders initiative with neighbors such as Kenya and Uganda. Thanks to fiber optic cable and cell towers, Internet is available throughout the nation, he said, pointing out much has changed since the days of its coffee-based economy.
Bonds amid the blood
Speaking to ISU students who were toddlers at the time in question, Wilkens gave fair warning that the experience was quite dark. Laboring to avoid too graphic a depiction, he admitted it’s a tough subject to soften.
But his emotion was palpable as he recalled the night he couldn’t really remember, given he was asleep inside his home when the slaughters began. Two of his household workers were of Tutsi lineage and were also inside asleep when a squad assigned to kill them arrived outside. Still bloody from killings and rapes earlier that night, the men were stood off at the gate by the old women of the village.
“You can’t go in there. Their kids play with our kids,” the collective aunts and grandmothers said to the death squad armed with machetes. Disappointed perhaps, the gang of teens and 20-somethings left the home and family inside, asleep and unknowing that across the city thousands were being hacked to death. “We only found out in the morning what our neighbors had done for us,” he said.
Meanwhile, 2,500 United Nations troops did nothing to engage the violence, he said. For all the talk about never allowing another holocaust occur after World War II, the world’s governments stood by and watched.
Neighbor versus neighbor
The roots of the violence stemmed from a long-standing ethnic rivalry between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsi, Wilkens explained in his speech. While both groups speak the same language and profess Christianity, Tutsi people tend to be a little taller and lighter-skinned, descendants of herdsmen. The Hutus, who constitute about 85 percent of the population, are darker and shorter, descendants of farmers. The area was controlled by Germany for much of the late 19th century, and Belgium after World War I. For various reasons, the Europeans favored the minority Tutsi and gave them more prominent leadership roles, Wilkens said. This went on through 1959 when the Hutus revolted, driving scores of Tutsi out of the country. In the early 1990s, militarized Tutsi forces began fighting their way back into the country, and after three years of war, some 900,000 refugees fled the country of 7 million.
A minority coalition of Hutus extremists seized power of the government and initiated anti-Tutsi propaganda through radio and print media, as well as church pulpits and public schools.
“If we had exterminated them all in 1959 we wouldn’t be dealing with them today,” Wilkens said, recounting statements issued while showing political cartoons demonizing the Tutsi. “Enemies aren’t just born. Enemies are constructed.”
And the vast of majority of Rwandans wanted no part of slaughter, he said. Intermarriage was common and the two groups lived side by side as neighbors. The 100-day genocide split families as squads of one group went looking to kill people with whom they’d played as children.
“The whole genocide is made up of stories and choices that people make,” Wilkens said, pointing out that 18 years later, the orphans are adults, and survivors live down the street from people who killed their families.
Moving past that has been tough, he said, but the country is trying. Genuine forgiveness is understandably rare, but for the most part, people have no choice.
“The poverty in Rwanda is a big part of the reconciliation,” he said, explaining people might not like working alongside men who killed their parents, but jobs are tough to find, and they can’t afford to move. Meanwhile, the new government has zero-tolerance standards for crime, so the nation focuses on growth for future generations.
Freshman Katie Downey, an art major from Valparaiso, said the presentation made quite an impact.
“Even though it was very short, it was very moving,” she said. “It really does change your way of thinking.”
Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
Amid the horror shone heroics, and a genocide survivor beckons the light.
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