2014 is the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in three months. American development and humanitarian worker, Carl Wilkens was there. Leslie Dewees reports.
Carl Wilkens remained in Rwanda despite a U.S. embassy mandate to evacuate all Americans citizens.
He recently recounted his experiences at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs at the invitation of two student groups – the Human Rights and International Law League, and Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation. He shared his views on how the power of choice and individual action impacted a situation that the international community still struggles to comprehend.
Wilkens, former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda, began with a film promoting the nascent Rwandan tourism industry. Through scenes depicting lush, natural beauty and vibrant culture, it portrayed today’s Rwanda as being far from the conflict-ravaged country some still envision.
Wilkens then presented pictures of violent street protests in Ukraine. He described his impressions of the men and women shown in the photographs, wondering aloud about their personalities, and what their roles may have been in the scenes depicted.
This exercise was to illustrate an important point for Wilkens. Instead of viewing international conflicts from a high-level, issue-driven perspective, or a black-and-white construction of “good guys and bad guys,” he is more concerned with the “power of individual stories,” and with the ways individuals respond to a given situation. In Rwanda, for example, the genocide was the result of regular people – men and women with individual stories – fighting against their neighbors. Wilkens’s presentation was full of situations in which individuals were faced with a decision to act: to escape, to remain and stand idly by or, worse yet, to participate in the genocide.
For example, he recounted how international journalists witnessed the Tutsis seeking protection at a mental hospital in the midst of foreigners’ presence – a presence that had previously ensured their safety. Yet after foreigners were forcefully removed from the hospital by Hutu forces, making it clear that the stage was being set for murder, the journalists did not intervene. Wilkens asked the audience to consider whether or not the journalists, aside from their desire to keep their jobs, had a choice to make in that situation.
Then there was the story of Laura Lane, a 26-year-old consular official in Kigali’s U.S. Embassy at the time the conflict broke out. In a film clip from the documentary film Ghosts of Rwanda, Lane described a decision made in Washington to pull out of Rwanda, which forced her to determine how to safely evacuate more than 250 Americans. The U.S. has been widely criticized for its failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide – most famously by the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. However, after hearing a personal account of how the conflict unfolded on the ground, one realizes that decisions were far more nuanced than some critics may suggest.
For the Hutus, Wilkens framed their decisions as driven by fear. In order to mobilize support for the attacks, the genocide’s architects convinced their followers that if they did not kill Tutsis, they would be enslaved by them. With that explanation, many Hutus believed they had no choice except to participate in the genocide or, at least, to allow it to occur.
And, for Wilkens personally, the major decision point was whether to comply with a mandatory evacuation of U.S. citizens, or to stay behind to protect the two Tutsis who lived and worked in his home. Wilkens explained that, despite pleas from the American embassy, he believed that he did have a choice. By choosing to stay, hewas testing his faith that individuals have the power to make an impact, even in a seemingly hopeless situation. He also acknowledged the vital support of his wife, Teresa, who agreed to let him remain in Rwanda while she traveled to Nairobi with their three young children.
When asked by the audience for advice on how to act when faced with similar situations, Wilkens suggested asking ourselves what we have the capacity to do as individuals, and who we can enlist as an ally to our cause. When a conflict erupts, solutions should be based on recognizing those who have potential influence. He described meeting during the genocide with the mayor of Kigali – a man who was later convicted of crimes against humanity – in order to obtain documents that would allow him to move safely through the city and reach those in need of aid.
At a higher level, he asserts that when assessing conflict interventions, those with the ability to act should first identify who is closest to the issue – economically, politically and culturally – and, further, what they can do to help. Citing the example of Rwanda, where the military had been trained by the French, and where a deep respect for foreigners was culturally engrained, additional options for a solution existed that were not fully explored. In Wilkens’s words, “when A doesn’t look good and B doesn’t look good, there’s gotta be a C.”
According to Wilkens, the essential questions that an individual must ask himself or herself are, ‘How much do you believe in what you are doing?’ and, more importantly, ‘Are you ready to risk your life for it?’ Once we address those issues, we can unlock the potential that each one of us has for change, he said.
Looking forward, Wilkens is inspired by the Rwandans’ forgiveness towards their neighbors following the genocide, but he notes that reconciliation is a separate concept that still needs to be addressed. It will take time to re-establish trust and complete the process of restorative justice. Still, he is encouraged by changes such as the empowerment of women, who now hold the majority of Parliament seats in Rwanda, and what he sees as “strategic moves in government and the private sector” to rebuild a stronger country.
For more on the story of Carl Wilkens and his family, visit The World Outside my Shoes.