The power of staying behind
Rwandan genocide witness Carl Wilkens, and Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Foundation, and Auschwtiz survivor. Wilkens spoke Sunday, Jan. 28, the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. | Rwandan genocide witness Carl Wilkens, and Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Foundation, and Auschwtiz survivor. Wilkens spoke Sunday, Jan. 28, the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. | Rwandan genocide witness Carl Wilkens, and Fritzie Fritzshall, president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Foundation, and Auschwtiz survivor. Wilkens spoke Sunday, Jan. 28, the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. |
I’M NOT LEAVING
WHO: Carl Wilkens
WHAT: Rwandan courage in 1994 genocide
Updated: February 12, 2013 4:59PM
SKOKIE — When a government worker told Carl Wilkens to talk to Jean Kambanda about saving the 60 children in a Kigali orphanage from the Hutu militia, Wilkens could scarcely believe his ears.
He knew that Kambanda was actually part of the extremist Hutu machinery that was shooting and hacking to death hundreds of thousands of Rwandans even as Wilkens waited to speak with him.
Yet within minutes of using his basic French to ask Kambanda to help, he ensured not only the orphans’ eventual safety, but that of dozens of adults hiding there. Kambanda may have had several reasons for showing such small mercy, Wilkens said Sunday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.
“But I think one of the key things probably wasn’t so much what I said, but that I was there,” said Wilkens, the only American to stay in Rwanda during the horrific three month genocide of 1994.
Wilkens, who spoke on the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, repeatedly said choosing to stay and be visible can be a force for good in unimaginable situations.
His talk, “The Power of Presence, Our Most Valuable Weapon” was based in part on his book “I’m Not Leaving,” and Wilkens made its stories personal for an audience that included students from Glenbrook North High School.
He talked about loving Rwanda, to which he and his wife Theresa brought their three young children when he became director for an Adventist Church relief agency in 1990, and about their fear after the April 6, 1994 downing of a plane bearing Rwanda’s Hutu president. That officially began the genocide, but Wilkens said the killings of an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu was long planned among extremists.
He and Theresa agreed she and the children would leave with other Americans while he stayed, over the objections of his church and American officials. Part of why he stayed, Wilkens said was, again, the power of presence — in this case, a young Tutsi man and woman who worked for the family and who would die without protection.
“These two people never asked me to stay. But they were standing next to me,” he said. “Their presence was going to impact my life.”
Between April and July, Wilkens was protected, and protected others. He showed pictures of two women who simply talked to militia about how their children played with Wilkens’ children and in doing so turned them away from the house.
Wilkens also talked about making allies and building relationships with killers in order to save people. He talked about the few United Nations troops that stayed in Rwanda and, in doing so, saved thousands of lives.
Such stories, he said, are important: “When we don’t know what to do about a situation … we need to find out the stories. Stories inspire service and service empowers stories.”
Wilkens said he is now an educator, writer and activist on behalf of victims of humanitarian crises. He urged listeners to learn about the Million Bones project that highlights ongoing genocides and humanitarian crises in places like Burma and South Sudan.
He told questioners he had to work through his anger at the United States for not intervening, and at many United Nations officials, with the exception of those like Canadian general Romeo Dallaire.
But he insisted that vast numbers of Rwandans, who have a history of ethnic inter-marriage that continues even now, want to preach against the hatreds that caused their genocide, but do it in a way that moves them and their country forward.
“Anger and horror can only fuel us temporarily … it can get us to move, but it’s ultimately poisonous.”