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:
“Soon you stop diving for cover each time you hear an explosion, realizing that you will never hear the one that kills you.”
There are times in I’m Not Leaving when my heart felt as though it might stop, and the book is uncomfortable to read at times. This is an intimate account of service, faith and courage, and I almost felt like a worthless bystander watching as people risked their lives to save others. Wilkens talks about real fear, and I got that. I could feel it as I read the book and my chest began to tighten.
In his ADRA vehicles and borrowed UN flak jacket, Wilkens achieved what no one else could achieve during the genocide. This man got into a neighbourhood like Nyamirambo to get food and water to two orphanages when the UN couldn’t even get in. He talks about negotiating and pleading with genocidaires to save the life of Tutsis, how he got one Major Emmanuel to rescue 12 Tutsis. They were rescued as they knelt in prayer, with the killers standing with machetes raised above their heads, poised to strike.
He tells of the events at Gisimba orphanage where his intervention led to the rescue of hundreds of people as they were moved to the safety of Saint Michel church. He was then helped by government soldiers to pack up the orphans’ belongings and take them through to the church (you can read more about Carl Wilkens and Jean-Francois Gisimba talking about their recollections of that day here).
No matter how many lives were spared, Wilkens reminds us of the incredible loss of life:
“Such staggering losses, so enormous that it seems wrong for me to keep on writing without some sort of respectful pause.”
Indeed, there were times when I had to pause myself to respect the gravity of what I was reading.
Since the end of the genocide, Carl Wilkens has dedicated his life to educating people about prejudice, genocide and entering the world of “the other”. I would really recommend that you check out his speaking schedule and take the time to see him speak when he is next in your town or city. I’m Not Leaving was self-published and all proceeds go towards the educational efforts of his organisation WorldOutsideMyShoes.org (click to go straight to the purchase page).
I’m Not Leaving is essential reading for anybody wanting to know more about the genocide in Rwanda. If you are new to this topic, you might find it useful to read Jean Hatzfeld’s Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda or Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda first to gain some insight into what happened during the 100 days of the genocide, how the genocide occurred, and the failure of the international community to stop it.
This is a self-published book without the benefit of professional editors or proof readers, and, as such, there are inevitable grammatical and spelling errors. These are minor, though, and don’t detract from the unique and inspirational perspective provided by Wilkens in the book.