As he watched his family drive away down a dirt road in Kilgali, Rwanda, Carl Wilkens thought he’d seen them in a few days, a week tops.
But it was April 10, 1994, and Wilkens – he only American out of 257 who stayed in Rwanda through the genocide that claimed one million lives in three months – would not see his family until after the horror had ended.
It was tempting to get on the convoys to the border of nearby Burundi, he told a packed audience in Nordquist Lecture Hall recently, but Wilkens knew he had to stay. Friends and colleagues would be quickly butchered if he didn’t.
In a two-hour talk organized by PLU, Charles Wright Academy and the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, Wilkens urged the audience to realize that one person can make a difference, even in a dire and insane situation.
“While there are many stories of neighbors turning in neighbors, there were many who did not,” he said.
In fact, is was the neighbors around his Kilgali home that saved the Wilkens family just hours after the death of the country’s moderate leaders, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira. Hutu extremists used the assassinations as an excuse to begin the killings.
The Wilkens were friendly with their neighbors, but it was the couple’s three children who had played with the neighborhood children and forged bonds with the families.
“The neighbors stood in front of our gates and said, ‘Don’t hurt this family, their kids have played with our kids,'” he said.
After seeing his family off, Wilkens didn’t leave his home for three weeks due to curfew laws. Once he could finally move about and received passes from the Hutu extremists now in power, Wilkens drove around to see what he could do.
He found 400 children at the Gisimba Orphanage desperate for water and began scavenging supplies for the group. One day, Wilkins arrived with barrels of water to find 50 militia surrounding the orphanage, intent on killing the children inside. Ordering his staff to stall, Wilkens set out to find help.
He ended up at the army’s headquarters, where he met the new extremist Hutu prime minister. Feeling like he was talking to the wrong man, Wilkens said he held his hand out, introduced himself and asked the prime minister to tell the militia to spare the children.
Inexplicably, the minister complied. Soon, militia men where delivering supplies to the orphanage “like a sick Santa Claus,” Wilkens remembered.
Wilkens left Africa in 1996, and now travels full time, telling his story.
Making a different is all about relationships and doing what you can, when you can, Wilkens stressed – even if that means building a relationship with a person who is a bully or unpleasant.
“You need to realize the potential of taking that first step, by simply being there,” he said.
University Communications staff writer Barbara Clements compiled this report. Comments, questions, ideas? Please contact her at ext. 7427 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.