Recently, I had the opportunity to see Carl Wilkens speak at NYU. He was the only America to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, much to the dismay of the United States (U.S.) Department of State.
The story of the Rwandan genocide is something that has bothered me for years, on many different levels. To understand why genocide took place, one must know about Rwanda’s colonial legacy, the path to independence and the political dynamic (ethnic hostilities) that was created within the country by its colonizers. The use of official ID cards labeled Hutu and Tutsi further segregated people who should have united together post-independence, but ended up hating each other based on false identities. A plane with Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryamira and Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down before it could land in Rwanda and is typically described as the catalyst for the genocide. Because the international community did not have enough political interest in the area, intervention did not occur.
The Carl Wilkens event was an interesting mix. I wouldn’t call it a lecture per se. It was a packed crowd and he began his presentation with a current video of Rwanda that has a tourism vibe to it and put the attendees in a relaxed, easy mood. He has been talking about Rwanda for a long time and the format of the lecture has transitioned over the years to more of an introduction to why he was in Rwanda, who he worked for and the other people directly involved in his day-to-day situation. He talked about relationships with Rwandans and other non-citizens and then began a Q & A session fairly early on.
My general thoughts on his presentation was that if one was not familiar with the history of Rwanda, it may have been hard to follow until showed a few clips of a film that he appeared in. It seems as if after living with and telling this story for years, he had to find a way to make it less about facts and figures, and frankly, less depressing. When he spoke about his memories he focused more on stories about people and relationships, after all, that is why he stayed — his relationship with the two members of his household that had the wrong ID Cards/identity.
I picked up his book that night, which details his experiences during the conflict and is worth the (quick) read. It’s still hard for me to comprehend that he was the only American that chose to remain in Rwanda, but it was a different time. Though in his book, he shared a discussion between himself and members of NGOs post-conflict who did not understand that staying was a choice. He described writing and signing a declaration stating that he refused the help of the U.S. government, which he then faxed to the embassy in Rwanda before it was closed.
Wilkens, his wife and three small children moved to Rwanda in 1990 to work for the Seventh-day Adventists and they were very happy there. The family became part of the community and their children played and were growing up with the local Rwandan children. When it became clear that everyone was evacuating Wilkens sent his family to a neighboring African country and stayed to protect the two people who had worked for them for years, and ultimately protected many others who probably would have died without his help.
I’m not going to recount what he experienced on a daily basis – that’s what the book is for…However, I will tell you why he stayed. For Wilkens, staying and being present was more important than the what ifs. He discussed how the personalities of people he knew changed once they had a gun and how his faith and the love for his family and friends helped him survive. As for why he stayed when the U.S. told him that he needed to leave, he said –“relationships are powerful motivators” and “you always have a choice.”