Carl Wilkens: ‘Why I Stayed in Rwanda’

In 1994, Carl Wilkens was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide. On the top floor of a hotel in Wadi Musa, the Jordanian desert town only a few kilometres from the Treasury at Petra, Carl Wilkens skyped in to speak with Jordan Hattar and I.



The Rwandan refugee camp in Benako, Tanzania, in 1994. Credit: Sebastiao Salgado

H.D. Wright: I know that you originally travelled to Rwanda in 1990 while serving as the Director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, months before the genocide occured. Could you describe what the country felt like before the atrocity took place? Were there any signs of deterioration?

Carl Wilkens: We had already spent six years in Africa, four years in Zimbabwe, and two years in Zambia — all of which were very different from Rwanda, considering the British legacy of colonialism contrasted with the Belgian method of colonisation. We were so excited about going to Rwanda. And this was before the arrival of the internet, so we had to look everything up in the library. We loved watching ‘Gorillas in the Mist,’ our first glimpses of Rwanda. And then we arrived, and it was bustling.

It was not very developed at the time, in terms of education, clean water, health care, and other basic needs. This is important context, for with every genocide in modern history, there have been challenges. Genocide is a result of the process of polarisation, as opposed to unity and challenges in life that can be used to bring us together, or pull us apart. During a wicked snowstorm, the entire neighborhood can come together, shovelling each other’s driveways and sharing canned food. Or you can have people fighting in the grocery store over the last loaf of bread. Genocide stems from thinking: ‘My world would be better without you in it,’ solving a problem by eliminating the competition.

But then it was a time of opportunity, until six months after we arrived, a war started. Past grievances and unhealthy practices of discrimination began to reach into the present. And I didn’t even know before arriving in the country that you had to identify your ethnicity as either Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. It was so sanitized, so normalised at the time. The quota system was internalised. I didn’t see the harbingers. Things can creep up on you gradually, and somehow we just keep going. Even though we had a war, there was still optimism, especially regarding the transitional government. But a small core of intentional extremists lay in wait, while we were blinded by hope. In hindsight, I see the signs, but while I was living through it, nothing was obvious. We saw Hutus and Tutsis who were married, so the darkness was not so on the surface.

HDW: Was there a singular moment when the veneer of optimism came crashing down, or did it happen slowly?

Carl Wilkens: Immediately following the crash of the President’s plane, we were on a camping trip on Easter weekend, and three days later the entire country collapsed in on itself. Thousands were killed on just the first day, and it continued for a hundred days. But two nights after the plane was shot down, I’m listening to the radio, and I hear the American embassy talking to the State Department in D.C. They’re mentioning locking the doors, shredding documents, and getting out of the country. I didn’t think, as I listened, that it could last more than two weeks. But every morning I would look outside my window, hoping to see soldiers wearing different uniforms — signifying that the Rwandan Patriotic Front had retaken the city — but it was the same for eighty-eight days.

HDW: Why did you decide to stay, while everyone at the embassy left?

Carl Wilkens: When I heard that all of the embassies were closing down, and I looked at everyone in the room I was in, and heard the sounds of soldiers outside, the door being bashed in, I looked at the face of the maid who had taken care of my kids, and the night watchmen — both had Tutsi I.D. cards — and I couldn’t leave them.

Privilege had been lavished on us from the first day we stepped on the African continent. People would give up their seats for us to sit wherever we went. I thought to myself, ‘What if I could use this privilege that had been lavished on me to save the lives of this young lady and this young man?’ Maybe they will think twice before they come in. Optimism kicked in. There was no question that it was the right thing to do. The question was, ‘What is the best way to do the right thing?’ The reason started with those two people, but I would not have stayed without the support of my wife. I was also inspired by the stories of David and Goliath, the French resistance during the revolution, the underground railroad — all of these stories, as I recollected them, told me that it is possible to make a difference. You might not change everything, but you can change something. There was naivete, but also hope. And so many unknowns. My dad took my family to safety, and I stayed.

HDW: Throughout the experience, I know that you began recording cassette tapes. What did you note on those tapes as the days passed?

Carl Wilkens: I wanted my family to know what it was like, but not. I didn’t want them to see the horror, only the hope — that the decision we made wasn’t in vain. So I shared the good things, the successes. We want to protect the people we love. We can’t always save them, but we can make them see the good, see that I didn’t die alone. And if I was killed, they wouldn’t wonder, for what? They would know that my sacrifice made a difference for somebody. And since then, post-genocide, finding the good has become very important to me. Another testament to the power of stories. Thank you so much for such a good question.

HDW: How is it that the same man who committed atrocious acts of genocide also helped you save the children at the orphanage?

Carl Wilkens: It was very easy to think one thing about him. He is a mass killer; but he is also a human, probably a father, a husband, a son. We as humans like simple solutions to complex problems, so we have to guard against that. We as humans are very complex ourselves. It is possible that he stopped the massacre because he thought the French were coming to Rwanda to intervene. He may have been politically motivated, he may have been motivated for other reasons. A secretary asked me to tell the Prime Minister to stop the massacre, but I did, because I believed in him, as well as the importance of listening to the local people. There are times when you are desperate to believe there is good in everybody, and that’s my bias, that’s why I look for evidence of goodness.

HDW: Do you think that change, even in people who have committed such severe acts, is possible?

Carl Wilkens: Over time, people are influenced by messaging. In Rwanda, there would be hatred on the radio directed at Tutsis, and because of that, walls were built in people’s minds, until they could no longer see the people that were being described. Committing genocide is much farther down that road, because you not only cannot see that group’s humanity — you see them as a threat. People will then put forth simple, singular solutions, such as building a wall, for very complex problems. Of course, sometimes polarisation can happen in a heartbeat, but in Rwanda, there was an intentional process of reprogramming. Psychologically, when we start to feel threatened, we group up. Possessing that victim identity is dangerous, because then you feel justified in retaliating, even when you are not in danger. Somebody may attack a member of the other group. If nobody says anything, if the government says nothing, dehumanization becomes acceptable, and violence becomes acceptable. The more you fire a pathway, the quicker it will come the next time. That is how habits are formed. Recovering, relearning, and rebuilding is a journey of years.

HDW: How do you begin?

Carl Wilkens: You have to find commonalities. Live in those commonalities. That will fight the polarisation. Often when we try to change the world, we try to change everyone else. We have to be willing to examine ourselves.

HDW: How do you think this journey has changed you?

Carl Wilkens: Journaling has become an important practice for me — an avenue for examining unconscious beliefs. For example, the guy who was the leader of the killing squad, I ran into him just by chance at a Rwandan prison much later, and I wrote it up. I was so angry, I was nearly sick to my stomach; but I came back a year later after processing and reframing him, and he said to me, ‘When you walked in the room that first time, I was happy to see that you were still alive. I’ve thought about you often over the years.’ I couldn’t believe it, he was so human, and for years I was blinded by hating him. By the time our conversation was over, we not only shook hands — we embraced. By embracing him, I felt that I was betraying all the people that he killed, but through journaling, I realized that if I had died, I would want those who survived me to free themselves from anger and bitterness. By embracing what you hate, it can no longer hold any power over you. At that moment, even though I wasn’t necessarily forgiving him, I was free.

You can read Carl’s book here: I’m Not Leaving, as well as follow his speaking tour and non-profit here: World Outside My Shoes.