“If what we hate is greater than what we love, then we’re in trouble,” said Carl Wilkens, the sole American to stay in Rwanda at the time of the country’s genocide in 1994, before a crowded Social Studies Resource Center on Tuesday.
As Wilkens began his presentation, a story of fear and hatred, but also one of hope and perseverance, unfolded before a crowd of Palo Alto High School students and staff. The visit, arranged by social studies teacher Hilary McDaniel, gave Wilkens a platform on which to speak both about his specific experience in Rwanda and about the broader conceptions of genocide and distrust.
Wilkens opened up his presentation by spontaneously posting Facebook statuses and skipping between several different YouTube videos he found interesting. He paused on one in particular, a video made by Israelis to Iranians as a part of a movement to promote peace between the two countries. He marveled at the power of technology to create peace and change.
“It’s just that easy to put a link on our Facebook page and be part of change instead of waiting for someone else to,” he said before launching into his life story.
Wilkens, who served as the head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, had raised his children in Rwanda for four years when the genocide started in 1994 as the Hutus, one of the two main ethnic groups in the country, took up arms against the rival Tutsis. When asked why he decided to stay once the violence began, Wilkens was quick to respond.
“It’s harder to leave than to stay,” he said. “And the decision to stay was not my own.”
After considering their ties to the people in their community, Wilkens and his wife collectively agreed that he should stay and help.
“It would have been so easy for her [my wife] to say no,” he said, still a little bit surprised at the way it all unfolded.
So, as Wilkens’ wife, daughters and son drove away, he remained in Rwanda, unsure whether he would ever see them again.
“At first I didn’t think my family would be targeted, but then it became clear when the violence broke out that it would be dangerous no matter what,” he said.
After living and raising his children in Rwanda, Wilkens had created such close bonds with those around him that when given the opportunity to leave, he could not do it. He described the moment in which government vehicles had come to take his family and other Americans to safety. As Wilkens’ family started to walk away from their home, he thought about his children’s teacher, Anita, who lived with them and was unable to leave because her identification was labeled with the word “Tutsi,” which he compared to a death sentence. Leaving, he said, felt wrong.
“She loved my kids,” Wilkens said, “and when people love your kids, you kind of love them too.”
The night watchman of a nearby orphanage, Heri, also played a role in his decision to remain in Rwanda. Like Anita, Heri was a Tutsi, and was therefore targeted by the genocide, but did not flee when the genocide began even though the owners of the orphanage did.
“Heri stepped up and kept those kids safe,” Wilkens said. “He would try to bring home food to the kids and get robbed on the way. … Heri’s such a hero of mine.”
Throughout the presentation, Wilkens shared several anecdotes about his time in Rwanda and life lessons he pulled away from his experience.
“We so underestimate the power of words,” Wilkens said early on in the presentation.
This proved to be a large theme in his life, particularly evident when he described the moment in which two women in his neighborhood deterred an oncoming armed force from Wilkens’ house simply by using their words. The women, driven by nothing but kindness for their neighbor who had helped them out before, may have saved his life.
“These little acts of kindness became huge on that night,” he explained.
Wilkens also shared a story in which he saved the lives of many children at an orphanage. In a desperate attempt to stop a rebel group from attacking the orphanage and those inside, Wilkens met with the prime minister of the extremist government in Rwanda. In his mind, this was a pointless venture because it was unlikely that such an extremist would show mercy to the opposition, yet the man ended up helping him and spared the childrens’ lives.
“Some of our best allies might be horrible killers,” Wilkens wrote on the open document projected onscreen, describing this moment.
Furthermore, Wilkens emphasized the importance of taking action as he did that night.
“Sometimes the most important thing is not what you say, but showing up, being there, presence,” Wilkens said. “Everyone [can make] one kind decision.”
In the end, Wilkens, Anita and the watchman all survived. Anita ended up marrying a Hutu, the very group that had targeted her own race during the genocide.
“Labels don’t always have the last word,” Wilkens said. “It is important to understand that before the genocide these [Hutus and Tutsis] people married and married and married. … Genocides are not spontaneous.”
As the presentation came to a close, Wilkens gave students the opportunity to pick up a copy of his book, written from tape recordings he had taken while in Rwanda. In other outreach efforts after the genocide, Wilkens developed the non-profit organization World Outside My Shoes, which, according to its website, is “committed to inspiring and equipping people to enter the world of ‘The Other.’ ‘The Other’ may be under our own roof or on the other side of the globe.”
Wilkens ended with a broader message about fear and hatred.
“In every society there are people who are suffering from hate,” Wilkens warned on a final note. “We can never underestimate the power of fear.”