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Teaching the Lessons of Rwanda's Genocide


In April, Rwandans will mark the 15th anniversary of a genocidal ethnic war that cost the lives of between half a million and one million people. Carl Wilkens, who ran the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Kigali, was the only American out of 257 in the country in 1994 to stay on in Rwanda after the slaughter began. His decision to help saved the lives of hundreds of children at the Gisimba orphanage and other safe havens. He says the challenges he faced on arrival at the orphanage posed moral challenges he and others had never before had to contemplate.

"The first time I came into the parking lot, there were little graves. These little ones were dying of dysentery. They didn't have enough water to drink, much less be sanitized. So I started bringing water, bringing food. One day, as I was bringing a load of water to the orphanage, I was surrounded by about 50 militia. And this thing dragged on for almost three hours. I did not know why. They did not come in while I stayed there. But eventually, we actually through radio contact got some gendarmes to come. I temporarily left, telling them I would come back," he recounted.

Wilkens couldn't find help outside the compound, since resources were hamstrung by the stiff clampdown on Kigali streets by local militia fighters. But as Wilkens relates, an answer for sparing the children came from one of the most unlikely of sources.

"That day at the government headquarters, the 'bogus' prime minister (Jean Kambanda), whom I call Kambanda because at the beginning of the genocide, they killed the legitimate prime minister in cold blood, was there in the city. And strange as it is, one of my new friends there in the office had told me: ask the prime minister for help. And it just seemed crazy. He was one of three men organizing the genocide. But for reasons I still don't know – I kind of think he maybe wanted to use the orphans for bait – but this prime minister protected. This massacre did not happen. These orphans a couple of days later were moved to another part of the city, and their lives were spared. It defies logic," he exclaimed.

Despite the unlikely reprieve from a figure who was later sentenced to a life term for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Wilkens says Jean Kambanda does not deserve a break from history for the one compassionate act toward children, when weighed against his significant genocidal offenses.

Today, after several return visits to Rwanda, Carl Wilkens and his wife Teresa formed the non-profit organization World Outside My Shoes to educate audiences around the United States about the lessons of life-or-death decision-making during a time of crisis. He tells audiences of students, army veterans, anti-genocide activists and others of his gratitude for the favorable outcome of the orphanage episode, but admits that trying to explain the moral ambiguity of the occurrence still leaves a most disturbing place in his memory.

"Students and everyone who look at this are trying to figure out who's the good guy, and who's the bad guy. And we saw so many examples during the genocide of people who were perhaps hiding someone in their home and then going out in the street and killing others. And this guy who we thought was so bad, he goes and helps us in other situations. I can't explain them, except to say that each of us has this potential. And just because we have made some terrible choices doesn't mean we're locked into that. And just because we've made some wonderful choices doesn't protect us from perhaps one day making some terrible choices," he explained.

Sharing Rwanda experiences with audiences helps them to grasp that the large moral choices one is faced with during a genocide do not yield simple answers, says Wilkens. But he adds that a spirit of service and performing deeds that contribute to one's community can shape future behavior in ways that condition people to make the right moral choices when confronted with particularly difficult crises. Carl Wilkens praises the way that growing numbers of Americans are working tirelessly to end international conflict and to raise public consciousness about governments that single out segments of their population for extinction.

"Relative to Rwanda, it's almost like night and day. During Rwanda, there seemed to be hardly any action. Today, there's many, many more. But of course, still there's so much to go, and we seem to be moving so slowly in Darfur. I have to be optimistic because I have to believe we're moving in the right direction. And I'm seeing students. I'm seeing adults. I'm seeing legislators moving that way. But we still have so very far to go," he says.

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