Carl Wilkens was among the few internationals who stayed in Rwanda during the genocide to help people in need. Today, he speaks about his experiences in Rwanda to audiences across the country in the hopes that he can inspire others to stand against genocide.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: This is Bridget Conley-Zilkic. Welcome to this week’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. With me today is Carl Wilkens. Carl, thank you very much for joining me today.
CARL WILKENS: Oh, thanks for the opportunity.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I don’t know if all of our listeners will know but Carl Wilkens was with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. When everyone else evacuated, well just about everyone else, Carl chose to stay and in staying undertook heroic efforts to help people when they most needed it. We’ve documented the story of how he worked together with a Rwandan rescuer, Damas Gisimba, to save some 400 people at Gisimba Memorial Center and Orphanage. And I encourage everyone to go to our website and learn more about that story. Today, we’re going to talk with Carl though about what he’s been doing since that time.
Carl, for some time from what I understood, you didn’t really talk about what had happened in Rwanda when you came back to the U.S. Is that right?
CARL WILKENS: Yeah, you know, just kind of locally. We came back and we’re working in a small Christian boarding school in southern Oregon, and so I’ve talked to the students there and the community there. But it was really in 2004, when PBS did this front line documentary, Ghosts of Rwanda, that Greg Barker and Julie Powell had worked so long on, that documentary really opened a lot of doors. School teachers started using it around the country. And then these school teachers who just instead of saying, “Wow, that’s something,” they get online, Google, send me an e-mail and say, “Hey would you talk to my kids?” And so for four years I was traveling about once a month, two or three days a month, to different schools around the country speaking on what had happened there and, of course, what is going on currently in Sudan. I’d say that and the NPR piece that Michael Montgomery and Steven Smith did that was called, The Few Who Stayed, Resisting Genocide, I think the combination of those two pieces on the media really opened our story up. And interestingly enough, that started in the Holocaust Museum back when you all were having a program, and I met Julie Powell there and they were working on that documentary.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I remember the day you came and we sat with Damas Gisimba in the Museum café, and I think the two of you helped each other remember the story of the evacuation and it was just breathtaking.
CARL WILKENS: Yeah, it was so incredibly rewarding to be back together with Damas and to journey through that. And then I’ll never forget just seeing part of the Museum there with Damas and him pointing at the calipers there that the Germans were using during the Holocaust, and all this classification of humans, and him saying, “I remember this as a boy in Rwanda” and it was a moving experience.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: When you started going out then and speaking, what kind of responses did your audiences have? What kind of questions did students and teachers pose to you?
CARL WILKENS: Well, you know, I was really fortunate in going to groups that had been prepared in many ways, most of the times. Sometimes they were groups who had no background, but most of the time their groups are prepared and already interested and that’s a real privilege to speak to an audience like that. And then the students, so much of the questions were questions about what’d it feel like to be the only American. And I’d say, “You know, I never really thought about being the only American.” “Well how about, you know, what did it feel like when-- did you feel abandoned?” And they’re asking a lot of questions about your family and how did your children go through this? And so a lot of relational type of questions. I think things that, you know, they weren’t able to read in the history accounts or perhaps even see in some of the documentaries.
One girl, in fact, wrote to me, “I was really kind of, I don’t know, dreading your visit,” she says, “but I was thinking it’s hard enough to read about this.” And she was taking the class. She was glad to be taking the class on Holocaust and genocide but she said, “If it’s hard enough to read about this and see some films, what’s it going to be like to talk to a real live person?” And so you’re often met with some real apprehension that some people say, “I didn’t even want to come. I thought it was too sad of a subject.” But as tragic and sad as it is, we work on focusing on those who really stood up for the others; those inspiring stories that hopefully will never be lost in the tragedy and the horror of the genocide.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I really wanted to talk about what you’ve done since. But what you said with us and with others about the time there, it amazes me how-- in your story and actually I’m thinking now of another person’s I’ve heard, that there are these incredible moments of humanity--even touching people who are involved as perpetrators. It always seemed to me that in that glimmer of a possibility of goodness to someone else in the midst of horror, that that’s the glimmer of how we can change these situations.
CARL WILKENS: Yeah. When we recognize that you know typically it’s a small group of people who are starting these mass atrocities. And as our friend Jerry [Fowler] has talked lately about mass empathy, how a small group of people really can be the trigger and the driving force for that. And I think so much of it depends on what we’re looking for because more likely than not we find-- we see what we believe. We find what we’re looking for. And that’s sometimes hard to look for hope, and beauty, and wonder, and awe in such a horrible time as that. Actually you don’t even look at it in those terms but it just stands out so powerfully.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: After you came back, you were working, you said, at the school. You were the pastor and also you ran the school as well.
CARL WILKENS: No. Just the Chaplin…
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: See my opinion of you is so high I had you in charge of everything.
CARL WILKENS: No. My wife did that. She was secretary for the principal, so she ran the school. But I was the Chaplin there. I spent about 90 percent of my time with the kids and then we had a small parish in the community of maybe 70 families. Yeah, we did that for almost 12 years.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What made you decide after 12 years of doing that to shift--and if you’ll explain what you’re doing now?
CARL WILKENS: Yeah. You know it was a gradual transition as I said. Part time I was traveling out to schools from about 2004 to 2008. But in 2008, I was talking to Adam Sterling who works with Genocide Intervention Network and Adam’s a student and another one of his classmates there at UCLA who spearheaded the divestment campaign there in California which, of course, has spread to so many other states now. Adam was organizing a fast for Darfur and we just got to chatting and he was talking about when I had come and we had first met there when he was a student there at UCLA. As we were just talking about this ongoing genocide in Darfur, and I was thinking there’s got to be more that we can do.
For 88 nights I was in the hallway of my home, you know, there during the ’94 genocide wondering if the rest of the world gave a rip. And now I’m the rest of the world. And got off the phone from talking with Adam and he’s such an inspiring guy, and then talked with my wife, and said, “You know, we’ve been getting more and more of these invitations. I’m sure they’ll find some wonderful people to come and do the work we’ve been doing here at the school but who’s going to be able to go and tell the story of what we lived in Rwanda?”
And so it was very much driven by the ongoing genocide in Sudan and by these teachers, because it’s not just about Sudan, as horrible as it is. But these teachers that are working around the country really trying to challenge the thinking, in fact some of them they say complicate the thinking. I didn’t really like that term when I first heard it, but we sometimes have such simplistic understandings of life and relationships and these teachers who are working so hard in this battle against us and them, that mentality, or this exclusive mentality that says the solution lies in getting rid of somebody. We don’t want to kill them, you know, we just want to get rid of them. And those teachers who are working so passionately for that, to be able to join in with them in this cause, and to be able to bring what we could from our story in Rwanda, just seemed like a real natural progression in our journey.
And again, it was interesting that just like at the time of the genocide, Teresa and I talked and we prayed and we both just made this decision together that I would stay and she and the kids would evacuate. Once again, we talked and prayed and made the decision together that I would quit my job. We said-- kind of started with an idea of maybe a six month leave of absence, but it was with no guarantee of employment at the end or anything. But that has stretched on now for about 15 months and we’re traveling to high schools, universities, sometimes invited by teachers, professors at universities, other times invited by student activists to come to the campuses and to speak on what we have seen and heard, and to help, I hope.
I kind of call it a process of rehumanizing because genocide, Holocaust, is all about dehumanizing. And not just that but dehumanizing process goes on every day here in our towns, communities, and our country anytime we’re making somebody less than us. To join with those who are passionately pursuing this rehumanizing process is something we both feel really passionate about. We’re actually hoping here in a couple of months to have a grant funded and to be able to travel full time on the road. Instead I’ve been traveling full time through the airways. But on the road with an RV and us stopping in towns, communities, and schools sharing our stories and working to not only end the genocide in Sudan but also to end this exclusive “us and them” thinking that terrorizes our planet.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And are you continuing to work with Genocide Intervention Network?
CARL WILKENS: Yes we are. We’re working more and more closely with them all the time and they’ll be partners in this road tour as well as Save Darfur Coalition. And each time I stop by both of those offices, I’m inspired by the people who are working there and the different creative efforts they’re doing all the way from-- I’m sure most of the listeners know about 1-800-GENOCIDE to have your voice heard in Washington, D.C. But also, Save Darfur is working with human rights organizations in African countries to help them work with their governments so that we’re not just saying the American government needs to do something, which it desperately does, but that other African governments and other governments around the world can take a hand in stopping and preventing genocide so a lot of creative, innovative approaches.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And Genocide Intervention Network also created a fellowship named after you.
CARL WILKENS: Yeah, that was quite a surprise when we sat down in a little bagel shop and they said we want to do this and name it after you. I said, “What?” And it was a real honor. And the first 20 fellows-- I think they had like 180 apply for these 20 positions, very sharp professional people all around the country. And again, it’s another innovative approach that Genocide Intervention Network has taken in building not only the student segment of the population but the adult professional segment of the population in this anti-genocide constituency. So these 20 people from attorneys, to professors, to filmmakers, to nurses all across the country are getting training not only in activism, but in just community building efforts to raise awareness and then for people to take action. So they are an exciting bunch and half way through their year. And every year they’re going to build this process with, I think, it’s going to be 30 or 40 fellows next year in this plan to build a critical mass here in the states that when we hear things about genocide it’s not just “what’s genocide?” -- but we know what to do.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: You recently went back to Rwanda.
CARL WILKENS: Yeah.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you just tell me a little bit about why you went this year and what you did while you were there?
CARL WILKENS: It was a 15 year memorial of the genocide and the government invited Teresa and I to come back, sent us plane tickets, in fact. And so we were able to go back there and to speak. Throughout this process of--which is what it is, trying to process what happened in Rwanda I mean even though it’s 15 years so many times it’s like yesterday; and the why question that so many of us are asking and trying to just sort through this horrible maze--I’ve come across this concept of the power of presence again and again. But as I was back there this time standing on what had been a city dump where more than 3,000 people had had lives taken from them-- you know, throughout this whole time, Bridget, I keep trying to find the right words to say killed, lost their lives. Right now I’m thinking the best thing I can say is they had their lives, and not only taken from them, but their lives were taken from us.
To stand at that place where that had happened just down the road from the school where the Belgium U.N. soldiers and been, and the people had fled there for safety and protection, and then the Belgium solders had withdrawn, and to have a man who testified before me speak about it. He was a survivor, probably survived because he lost his right arm. And when they see them laying there in a pool of blood among the literally thousands of other people, they think their work is done. And he survives. As he’s telling the story of telling the young boys lie down in front of the trucks, don’t let the U.N. leave and these boys courageously doing it until shots are fired. These boys have been terrorized for days already now, and to hear those shots fired again, and they flee and the trucks leave. All the sudden the phrase pops into your mind, not just the power of presence, but the power of absence.
So, to go back there-- and yet among hearing those stories of survival and courage to also see these huge banners, and to see it not just in banners, but in the faces of people, hope was their theme. And to be in Amahoro Stadium, it actually means “peace,” the name of the stadium. It was named long before the genocide. And to be in Amahoro Stadium with 15,000 other people lighting candles for hope and hearing a girl, 15-year-old girl who’d been born in that stadium under, I think, door number 12 or something, who during the time of the genocide her mom was pregnant. To hear this girl stand up and give her testimony, hear somebody else singing Amazing Grace though it wasn’t’ a religious ceremony; it was a hugely spiritual time. So my wife and I really, really felt fortunate to be back there for 10 days and to be having some new memories to put alongside some of these other memories. At the end we were surprised. We had a visit with the President, President Kagame, and expected a 10 or 15 minute quick little courtesy call, rushed in and rushed out. He sat and talked with us for two hours.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Oh, that’s amazing.
CARL WILKENS: And so it was just an amazing, amazing trip for us. I had the opportunity to go back in July with some school teachers. Part of our dream is to be able to spend summers in Rwanda with school teachers and not just school teachers, but other business professionals, other people who need to come and experience Rwanda. Not just to visit the sites, as important and as powerful as they are, but also to visit some of the sites of recovery, the stories of hope, and resilience, and forgiveness that Rwanda is full of. I got a glimpse this last time of the possibility of Rwanda not being known for genocide, but soon being known as a model country in Africa for hope, and forgiveness, and reconciliation.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Carl, I was going to ask you specifically about your plans for the future, but I think actually I’m guessing that the two questions will come together in some way. Your website is called “worldoutsidemyshoes.org”. Can you explain to me how you came to that name for your website?
CARL WILKENS: You know it was a process even while I was working at the high school this concept and these two young guys, Craig and Marc Kielburger have put it so well in their book, Me to We, this journey from a “me” mentality to a “we” mentality. As you’re working with people and even facing their own challenges, you realize how important it is. You know, we know the old adage, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But sometimes that just becomes so common that it loses some of its power. And as I looked at this whole concept of who we consider the other, and how we treat and think about the other, and how that changes when all the sudden we step outside of our shoes, and we start to experience life from another perspective. Teresa and I thought and talked about this phrase and said you know, “It’s kind of a mouthful and we’ll probably be repeating it a lot but that’ll be a good thing as people stop and think about the world outside my shoes.”
And this whole concept-- one of the phrases I use when talking about genocide is I say, “genocide stems from thinking that says my world would be better without you in it, you and your kind.” And it’s brutal, and horrible and very present unfortunately even in my own thinking. You know, better without, this exclusive thinking. And then to think my world, my world doesn’t even exist. It’s just a fantasy in my mind, it is our world. And so this whole thing of outside my shoes, outside my world, is where we’re hoping the stories and experiences that we have to share, the conversations, will lead each of us to spend more time and then hopefully be inspired and perhaps in some way equipped to respectfully enter the world of the other because it is a great adventure, a great journey to be had.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Carl, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
CARL WILKENS: Oh, you bet.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: For anyone interested in learning more, Carl’s website is worldoutsidemyshoes.org. You can also learn more about the Carl Wilkens’s fellowship at the Genocide Intervention Network’s website and also learn more about what Carl did during the genocide and his work with Damas Gisimba on our website at ushmm.org/genocide. Carl, thank you again
CARL WILKENS: Thanks for the opportunity, Bridget, and for the work you all are doing there in D.C. We’re grateful.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/conscience. There you’ll also find the Voices on Genocide Prevention weblog.