In 2011, I had the privilege of watching Carl Wilkens speak at the event “Rwanda: Strengthening Society Through Genocide Education” in London. It was a privilege not because Carl Wilkens was the only American to remain in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and we got to hear about his experiences, but because his story was one of hope, inspiration and near-miracles in the face of incredible horror.
Carl Wilkens has written a book about his experiences in Kigali during the genocide and the decision he made to stay behind when most foreign nationals left. I’m Not Leaving is based on Wilkens’s recollections and almost 8 hours of cassette recordings that he made during that fateful time but he is keen to stress that this is not another book about genocide:
“While the stories written here happened during the genocide, this book is not really about genocide. It is more about the choices people made, actions people took, courage people showed, and sacrifices people gave in the face of genocide.”
In 1994, Carl Wilkens was director of the Adventist Development Relief Agency. On April 6, 1994, the presidential airplane was shot down as it prepared to land at Kigali airport, killing all on board including Presidents Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Rwanda and Burundi respectively. The assassination was a catalyst that set off the genocide against local Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
It was a catalyst, but not the cause. The genocide had been in preparation for months, if not years before, as lists were compiled and weapons stockpiled. In fact, it was on January 11, 1994 that the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, warned his superiors of plans to exterminate Tutsis.
Carl Wilkens knew this and when his wife and three young children were evacuated on the morning of April 10, 1994, he made the decision to stay behind to ensure the safety of his Tutsi employees Anitha and Janvier. All of the foreign nationals were leaving Rwanda and the American embassy was closing for good. Not surprisingly, his decision to remain behind was not well received by his superiors at ADRA or the United States embassy and he had to stand up to both of them:
“I took one of Mindy’s school notebooks, found a blank page, and wrote with a pencil: ‘I have refused the help of the United States government to leave Rwanda.’”
As an eyewitness account I’m Not Leaving gives a valuable insight into the situation in Kigali before and during the genocide. Wilkens reminds us that at the beginning of 1994, there were over a million refugees in Kigali due to the 1990-1993 Rwandan civil war and the October 1993 assassination of Burundi President Melchior Ndadaye. There was already a widespread humanitarian relief effort in Kigali at that time and Wilkens notes that their food stocks are what kept Kigali going during the genocide.
Wilkens also provides insight into the role of the UN peacekeeping soldiers that had been in Rwanda since August 1993. While acknowledging the work that they did do and the lives that they saved, Wilkens questions whether their presence gave Rwandans a false sense of security. He believes that their presence might have contributed to people not fleeing or protecting themselves in face of RTLM propaganda and hate speech.
It seems incredible that there was so much inaction in the face of the genocide and that, as Wilkens notes in the final pages of the book, it was solely the actions of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that brought an end to the slaughter. This is especially notable as Wilkens transcribes a BBC report from April 24, 1994 (18 days after the start of the genocide) in which the term ‘genocide’ was already being used to describe the events in Rwanda.
It was in the second week of the genocide that Wilkens thought of recording his ideas and thoughts on a cassette recorder. He then dedicates the majority of the book to chronicle his incredible actions over the next three months. Nearly every day, Wilkens and other ADRA associates braved snipers and mortars to drive around the streets of Kigali bringing food and water to various orphanages around the city. He achieved this despite the ADRA headquarters being completely sacked: