Start of Main Content

Video: Defying Genocide In Rwanda

Whenever genocide has occurred, individuals have risked their own lives to save others. How can their courage inspire us to defy genocide?

The story of how Simone Weil Lipman was able to save thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust is a starting point for an exploration of what it takes to defy genocide. This film focuses on Damas Gisimba, director of a small orphanage in Rwanda that was besieged by militias during the 1994 genocide. Learn how Gisimba, with the help of American aid worker Carl Wilkens, managed to protect, care for, and save some 400 people.


[Narrator] The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was created as a living memorial... a place where the voices of history can be heard... voices that ask about our responsibility when genocide threatens today. What does it mean to have compassion when witnessing such violence? And what can we learn from those who have acted to defy genocide? Tonight, you will meet two remarkable individuals who acted to save others during humanity's darkest hours. When the army of Nazi Germany invaded France, a young Jewish woman, Simone Weil Lipman, joined forces with others to save hundreds of children from deportation and the gas chambers. We had a staff that worked under false identities. We had to fabricate new identities for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of children. We move them from the children's homes and find places for them and find hiding places. You have to see the other as yourself. You have to really be aware, too, that if you don't speak up when you see evil, then it's going to multiply, it's going to progress, it's going to get out of hand. In 1994, Damas Gisimba was confronted with a similar challenge during the Rwandan genocide. He, too, chose to defy genocide.

[Gisimba speaking French] [Translator] I could not abandon my neighbors. I could not abandon my children, children I had raised and who had grown up before my eyes. I see all people in my own image. They have the same blood that I have, and they can suffer as I can suffer. If we had to die, it was necessary for us to die together.

[Narrator] Between April and July of 1994, up to 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority group, were killed. Individuals like Damas Gisimba were caught up in a mass murder campaign centrally planned by the Rwandan government. Pitting neighbour against neighbor, they demonized and targeted the Tutsi minority and any Hutu who resisted their plans. The outside world turned away while the genocide continued week after week.

[Gisimba speaking French] [Translator] I had always heard the term "the international community." But where is this international community? One gets the feeling that it is very far from every country that exists on Earth. In the beginning, there was UNAMIR, a mission of the United Nations for Rwanda that was patrolling in Kigali. We had a feeling of being under the protection of a foreign force. But when it all began, they abandoned us. They left.

[Narrator] At the time, Damas Gisimba was Director of the Gisimba Memorial Center, an orphanage that housed 65 children in the heart of Kigali, where the massacres started.

[Translator] There were already signs indicating that there would be atrocities. There were Interahamwe groups and other young men saying they would exterminate the Tutsis. They had uniforms and sang slogans. Some threats were even written across the door of my house.

[Narrator] Although he is Hutu, Gisimba was accused of being a Tutsi sympathizer because he did not agree with Hutu power ideology.

[Damas Gisimba speaking French] [Translator] During the first weeks, it was children who came in large numbers. Sometimes they would come just after their parents had been killed, sometimes with one parent only, usually the mother, as a lot of men died during the first days. In the first days, men were targeted, men and boys—even young boys. It was only later that they started attacking girls and women. During the following weeks, it was women and girls, too, raping and then killing them, or (lower case) just leaving them like that, because after being raped by six, seven, eight people, they couldn't even walk.

[Narrator] In spite of increasing violence, Gisimba refused to abandon his beliefs. He turned his orphanage with a capacity of 60 into a sanctuary for some 400 children and adults.

[Translator] As far as hiding people, that also was difficult. The number had already exceeded the capacity of the orphanage, because the orphanage had a capacity of around 60 people, and at its height, we were hiding some 400 people there. The militias arrived each time. They were coming all the time; every day, in fact. And I was there to try to stop them from entering. They asked the kids to split into two groups--the Hutus on one side, and the Tutsis on the other. But the children—as I had always told them—they were one. They should be united. They didn't want to separate. And it was difficult for the militia to distinguish between them, as they didn't know them. They would look at their faces, but kids' faces can sometimes look alike. They tried again many times, but the children kept refusing, acting like real brothers.

[Gisimba speaking French] [Translator] Food wasn't as much the issue as water, because it was very hot and people were sweating and getting dehydrated. They needed to drink. But it was very hard to come by water. There were roadblocks all over the city. They were every hundred meters or so. There were so many bodies from the carnage, from the massacres, that they were even doing roadblocks with the piles of bodies. You understand how difficult it was? But, luckily, one day in April, maybe three weeks into the month, it might have been the 20th, Carl Wilkens introduced himself to me. He had heard of an orphanage with children in danger who had nothing. Then I explained our situation to him.

[Narrator] Carl Wilkens, perhaps the only American relief worker to stay in Rwanda throughout the genocide, saw his mission to help those in need.

[Narrator] I also told him that we had no milk for the newborn babies at the center. He agreed to help me find it. That was something very difficult to find, with all the looting and all. And we really had no idea where to find milk for the babies. And he managed to find milk and water.

[Narrator] One day in late June 1994, Gisimba left the orphanage to look for supplies. That same day, Wilkens arrived with barrels of water and found the orphanage swarming with militia. Their leader was just getting out of his car.

[Wilkins] I walked over, put my hand out. He brushes right past me. He goes to the young brother, "Where's the director?" He starts, you know, "We want the director." And I could pick up occasionally he'd throw in a French word or so. And then he gets back in his car, and he storms off. And the brother tells me, "They really want to kill my older brother today. In fact, they're going to kill all of us."

[Narrator] Fearing the worst, Wilkens stayed as long as he could. A few hours later, while the orphanage was still under siege, a group of seven policemen arrived. They advised Wilkens to speak with senior governmental leaders about the fate of the orphanage. 

[Wilkins] You got some, you know, hard decisions here to make, because, can you trust this man? Some of the police were involved in the killing. Some were saving and protecting people. What do you do? But it seemed like the only route to do was to trust him. The young brother said, "No, don't go. They're going to kill us as soon as you leave." And I said to him, you know, I promised him... I promised him, "I'll come back." And so it was with this sick mixture of relief and dread that I got in my car and drove away.

[Narrator] Wilkens knew he had to seek help from the most senior Rwandan government official possible. By a stroke of luck, the prime minister was in town.

[Wilkins] I stood up, and I stepped into the middle of the hallway, and I put my hand out, and I said, "Mr. Prime Minister, I'm Carl Wilkens, the Director of ADRA." And he stopped and looked at me. "Yes, I know you. I've heard of your work. How's your work going?" And I said, "Well, actually, Mr. Prime Minister, it's not going well at all." I said, "I just left the orphans surrounded by militia, and I feel there's going to be a massacre." What else do you say but the truth and what it is? And he stopped, and he conferred a little bit with someone in his group, and he looked back at me, and he says, "Actually, I'm aware of that situation, and your orphans will be fine. We will see that they're cared for." So, I mean, those kids could be killed that night, and people would say, "Wilkens went and told the prime minister where these kids were and what was going on." Or he could actually do it. He could protect them. I mean, if somebody had the power in the country to do it, he should have.

[Narrator] Gisimba had managed to find sanctuary in a nearby cathedral. As night fell, neither he nor Wilkens knew if they could trust the assurances from the very government committing the genocide.

[Translator] It was a big disappointment. I kept saying to myself, "I did everything that I possibly could, and now it's finished. I will never see my wife, my child again. I will never again see my orphan children. I will never again see any of the others that I tried to save."

[Narrator] In a country where murder  had become commonplace, those at the orphanage survived another night without an attack.

[Translator] Fortunately, the next day I was told that everyone was still alive. It was a bit of a relief, but I feared that even if they had not died that night, something might happen during the day. Fortunately, after three days had passed, they came to where I was at Saint Michel.

[Narrator] As evacuees from the orphanage arrived at the cathedral, the militias were shocked to see so many adults among the orphans.

[Translator] All of the militias that were there came by. "Where did these people come from?” "They're with Gisimba? “Who is this Gisimba? “Are you Gisimba?"

—"Yes, that's me." —"What are all these people?" —"They're with me. What's the problem?"

[Narrator] The hundreds of children and adults that Damas Gisimba had cared for since the beginning of the genocide were rescued on July 1st, 1994.

[Gisimba speaking French] [Translator] It is difficult to forget. Why? Because the genocide has left horrible things in its wake. Everyone here is constantly thinking about what happened to them. They think of loved ones who are now gone. In every case of genocide throughout history, people have risked, even lost their lives to help others. These individuals defy genocide.

[Simone Weil Lipman] Many of my team lost their lives in doing exactly the same things. Some were shot. Some were deported. With children. And you use the word "hero." I just really never felt that this title applied to me. There was a job to be done, and we did it, and that was it.

[Narrator] The choices that ordinary people make, the risks they take, are never simple. What choices do we have in our own lives to respond to genocide when it threatens today?

[Translator] I think that in order not to abandon someone, someone like yourself, someone in trouble, you must above all have love. And we must teach our children only good, give them a good education. And, finally, we must banish hatred. That's all.

[Narrator] To learn more about places at risk of genocide and what you can do to respond to genocide, join us online at