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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.