By Patrice Worthy
At a moment when abandonment and hopelessness prevailed, Carl Wilkens made a decision that saved thousands of lives.
As the only American to stay in Rwanda during the three-month massacre of Tutsis in 1994, the author of “I’m Not Leaving” is an example of what can happen when people stand firm in their convictions.
Melanie Nelkin, vice president of American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta Chapter, works to bring awareness to contemporary genocide. She said Wilkens’ story resonates with people because it’s a first-person account.
“I think Carl’s message gets across to people because he was there. I think I said in my introduction that it’s rare to meet someone who was a rescuer; they’re hard people to find. During the Holocaust, where were they?” Nelkin said. “Listening to someone who says, ‘I’m risking my life’ these days to prevent genocide, we just need to be aware. Sometimes it’s not about creating consensus and changing people’s minds; it’s about laying doubt.”
Wilkens spoke about Rwanda and his book Monday, April 18, at an event sponsored by Am Yisrael Chai, the Georgia Coalition to End Genocide, AJC and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust to honor Genocide Awareness Month in Georgia.
Wilkens recalled the process of deciding to stay in Rwanda when everyone else left, abandoning orphanages, schools and the place they called home. His story is a lesson in genocide prevention and a testament to the power of presence. Wilkens said he learned that standing your ground in the face of violence is a powerful weapon.
“They were told, ‘We’re leaving, but you can’t bring any Rwandans with you, it’s too dangerous,’ ” Wilkens said. “That’s what hurt: We had a plan for ourselves and not for them. The embassies cleared out all the citizens the idea to stay never crossed their minds.”
Wilkens moved his wife and children to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, while he stayed to save the lives of people in the community where he had lived for almost a decade. Wilkens said he understands the logistics of leaving Rwanda, but the mass exodus of 275 Americans in addition to hundreds of other foreigners left the Tutsi people vulnerable. His presence in the small country made a huge difference.
“It’s not what I said. It’s the power of presence. There’s a power in being there,” Wilkens said. “Often it’s not about the responses when there’s a crisis, but we don’t need to stay away.”
Rwandans who survived the genocide listened to Wilkens as they remembered the slaughter.
Martin Ngamije, who lives in Atlanta and has been in the United States for more than 10 years, lost his entire family in the genocide. He said Wilkens is a hero to many Rwandans.
“If we had him in our part of the country, he may have saved a lot of people. It was a possibility to prevent it because the genocide was already prepared, the people knew, especially the international community. The U.N. had a report, but instead they just left,” Ngamije said. “When everybody was packing their stuff, he said, ‘I’m not leaving.’ He stayed to maybe save one person, but he saved hundreds. If you have more people like him, we wouldn’t be able to say over 1 million died. It would be less.”
During the genocidal slaughter, in which 1 million Tutsis were killed, Wilkens negotiated to stop the killings and to get food to orphanages. He stood up to Gregoire Ndahiman, a former mayor charged with killing more than 2,000 people, at an orphanage housing the children of many of the people Ndahiman killed.
“I had a mission, and I guess that’s what helped me,” Wilkens said. “There’s potential in finding an ally in the enemy. It won’t happen all the time, but you have a greater chance if you believe it’s possible.”
His ability to humanize the people who committed atrocious acts against humanity reflects his talent for seeing beyond his immediate circumstances to focus on the greater good.
During his visits back to Rwanda, Wilkens said, he has witnessed true forgiveness in the form of restoration, under which 200 confessed killers of Tutsis are working in a labor camp to rebuild schools and villages.
“It’s about not living with bitterness, anger and resentment,” Wilkens said. “If we don’t forgive, we pass that bitterness and anger on to our children, and the Tutsi children deserve to live in a world that is not fueled with hatred and revenge.”