May 10, 2012
The 2,500 United Nations soldiers stationed in Rwanda in 1994 were not in the country to stop the genocide, but to evacuate the foreigners.
All but one.
The only American citizen to stay in Rwanda during the three-month genocide, Carl Wilkens in speaking to Indiana State University students emphasized the "power of presence," or the importance of standing alongside the Rwandan people who had become his neighbors and friends during the four previous years.
He said he could not abandon them, leaving them with just a prayer that they would survive the genocide. "Not that we don't believe in prayer," he said, "But if God would be with her, then why wouldn't he be with me?"
Wilkens said it was the second week of the genocide when he realized he might not survive, prompting him to record stories on a cassette as something to leave behind for his family. He later compiled them into his book "I'm Not Leaving." He has since started the non-profit organization World Outside My Shoes.
Wilkens lived in Rwanda from 1990 to 1996 while working with the humanitarian arm of Seventh Day Adventist Church to build schools and provide medicine. Throughout their travels, Wilkens and his family have lived in Zimbabwe, Europe and the United States. His three children are teaching in Shanghai this year.
Wilkens spoke at Indiana State to an audience that filled one of the largest lecture halls on campus. "Carl was directly responsible for saving hundreds of orphans throughout Rwanda. He gave food and aid to children on a daily basis," said Keil Majewski, executive director of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute.
The audience might not have known that, however, based on the limited time Wilkens spent talking about himself.
"I liked how he told stories of the Rwandan people rather than his stories. It shows how he cared about them, that this wasn't to shine a light on him," said Rose Robins, an elementary education major from Terre Haute.
Wilkens began with the story of 9 year-old Emmanuel, an outgoing Rwandan who described himself as a "mama's boy"-until his parents were killed in the genocide, leaving him an orphan. Emmanuel narrowly escaped multiple attacks, once as the only survivor in a schoolyard full of children. He survived by hiding under a mattress.
"How long before he comes out from under the mattress? What does he see? Where does he go?" asked Wilkens.
Emmanuel was one of thousands of orphans created by the genocide, an event which stemmed from a conflict between two people groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis.
The Hutus make up about 85 percent of the population and the Tutsis comprise about 15 percent, estimated Wilkens. He described small differences between the groups, such as slightly different skin color, skill sets, or features, but pointed out that the main things that typically divide groups of people - language, religion, race or food-are the same.
The long-standing ethnic rivalry dates back to European control of Rwanda, when the Tutsis were favored by the government. After the Hutus revolted in 1959, Tutsis were driven out of the country into neighboring African countries. A couple of decades later, the Tutsis tried to enter back in the country, resulting in war.
In 1994, an extremist group of Hutus began to push for the extermination of all Tutsis, using propaganda, and eventually, mass murder to accomplish their goal. Wilkens said more than 800,000 people were killed during the genocide, about one-seventh of the Rwandan population. Sophomore Brandon Sanderock, a business major from Rosedale, said he was surprised to learn about the magnitude of the genocide. "A lot of stuff that went on that I didn't know about. I wouldn't have thought that in our lifetime that had happened."
However, Wilkens noted that the dark stories of the genocide were not going to change the world.
"They need to be told, but even more so, the stories of the courageous people who stood up to the government. The ones who wouldn't go along with the idea of exterminating the other," he said.
Wilkens offered the story of his brave neighbors, who defended the front gate of his home from a squad of rebel militia. The group, comprised mostly of elderly women, stood up for Wilkens, armed only with stories of their children playing together and memories of the kindness Wilkens and his family had shown them.
"They were not his people. The fact that they stood up for him like that...I don't know if that would happen here," said Sanderock.
Wilkens argued that it can happen here. He challenged the audience to examine their ways of thinking.
"It's hard to change our actions without changing our feelings. We have to get back to our thinking and get past the assumptions," said Wilkens.
He challenged listeners to become involved politically, humanitarianly, and most importantly, locally. He noted ways students could make a difference internationally without leaving the area, citing an organization the helps Burmese families in Indianapolis.
"Look at your gifts and look at your passions. Where those intersect, park there and live there," he said.
"You don't have to be superman to do these things," added Majewski. "Carl is an ordinary guy who did an extraordinary thing-which means we are all capable of doing this."
Contact: Christopher Olsen, chair and professor of history, Indiana State University, at 812.237.2710
Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773
Carl Wilkens was the only American citizen to stay in Rwanda during the three-month genocide in 1994.