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The One Who Stayed Behind

The courage of Carl Wilkens, the American Adventist Disaster and Relief Agency country director who stayed in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, is an inspiration.

Although foreign diplomats, missionaries, aid workers, and peacekeepers all fled the horrific killing, Carl Wilkens decided to remain at his post and help wherever he could.

Alita Byrd asked him how the experience changed his life.

Byrd: How do you feel now, looking back twelve years after the genocide in Rwanda?

Wilkens: Each time I give a presentation about my experiences there is still a huge overwhelming sadness mixed with glimpses of hope, of courage, of selflessness on the part of those who put others first in their thoughts and actions during that time.

There is still so much to process, and to learn. Each time I speak with college students and go back and examine the genocide experience, I learn something new. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I have not traveled as much this year as in the last two, but I have still taken a few opportunities that I could not turn down, like Stanford University at the end of February. At Stanford, I was part of a panel discussion on Ethical Responses to Genocide, hosted by the Religious Studies Department. It was a unique opportunity—the planner of the event asked me right from the start to speak openly about how my personal faith played a role in my choices and actions during the genocide. I am grateful for incredible opportunities in very unexpected places.

Byrd: How did the invitation to Stanford come about?

Wilkens: The Frontline documentary “Ghost of Rwanda” that I had a part in, along with an American Radio Works documentary called “The Few Who Stayed” that aired on National Public Radio have both opened many doors in universities and high schools around the country.

Byrd: You have traveled all around the country speaking to students about your experiences. You have received letters from many students who felt touched by your presentations. Are you planning to publish the letters you have received?

Wilkens: I have no plans currently to publish the student letters. I would like to work on a book in the near future and I’m sure the letters would figure in some part.

Byrd: African Rights has published a very moving tribute about your contribution to the Rwandan people during the genocide. How did the tribute come about?

Wilkens: African Rights had been researching stories after the genocide and somehow they came upon our experiences.

To read what friends and strangers wrote [in the tribute] was a real encouragement. Nothing was accomplished alone during that dark period—so many people contributed in so many ways. The tribute is definitely to God. He is so eager to work though whoever will open their lives to him and his ways.

Byrd: Did you have any inkling of what your post in Rwanda would be like when you were given the assignment?

Wilkens: Not at all. It was the most peaceful country in central Africa.

Byrd: Did you choose to go to Rwanda?

Wilkens: Teresa and were offered the opportunity and we eagerly took the plunge.

Byrd: Did you feel supported by ADRA when you stayed alone in Rwanda?

Wilkens: David Syme, who was ADRA AID director at the time, actually came into Rwanda during the middle of the genocide and spent several days at my house. The hand-held radios, ADRA plaques to mark my vehicles, a UN flak jacket, and other supplies he provided were greatly appreciated. Yet nothing compared to the encouragement of having David come and spend time with me.

Wayne Ulrich, who was working with Doctors Without Borders Holland, was a great support to Teresa and the kids, providing her with a vehicle and driver at times to the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, so she could talk to me by radio. He eventually got her a radio and installed it at her apartment so then even the kids could talk to me by radio and Teresa did not have to find a way downtown anymore.

Byrd: Do you miss working for ADRA?

Wilkens: I really loved our ADRA work in Rwanda. Building schools or installing a grinding mill at a clinic and seeing moms come with babies on their back to get vaccinated and have their grain ground at the same time, to mention just a few things, was incredibly rewarding. We miss that work, and yet the opportunities now to work with high school and college students both in Christian and secular settings in the United States is something I love and feel very strongly called to.

Byrd: Do you think you will return to Rwanda sometime?

Wilkens: I was privileged to go back to Rwanda in November 2005 with a team that was working on a documentary on the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza. (I highly recommend her book Left To Tell. She is a survivor of the genocide and her story is one of incredible faith, forgiveness and resilience.) Though I was only there for a week I was able to speak on Sabbath to several thousand Christians at Nyamirambo [a township outside the capital of Kigali], and they were so appreciative of the stories I shared of the genocide. It was a unique opportunity to speak from the perspective of one who was there but is neither Hutu nor Tutsi—simply a child of God. It was amazing to have survivors come up and embrace me in full, warm Rwandan style and then be shown pictures of their children born since the genocide—so very sobering, tearful, and joyful!

Whether we ever move back to Africa we leave in our Father’s hands.

Byrd: Do you miss the adventure and excitement ADRA offers? Would your family like to go back?

Wilkens: There is no doubt we miss the excitement and adventure of Africa. In fact, Teresa and I spent three weeks in Kenya last summer with—and due to the kindness of—my brother and his wife. Wow, were we flooded with wonderful memories!

We all miss Africa, but if you are asking in terms of the genocide and the decision that Teresa and I made that I would stay—well, our three kids have always been incredibly selfless and supportive about that. They seemed to have had an understanding that was well beyond their years at the time and they continue to explore and process how it affected us all.

Byrd: Would you describe your Rwanda experience as a defining moment in your life?

Wilkens: Without a doubt. Among so many other things, it is the time I discovered the assurance of my salvation. A free gift! Check out Ephesians 2 in the Message Bible.

Byrd: Has there been anything more significant?

Wilkens: It might sound like a cliché, but every day is a wonderful gift and Christ gives significance to so many events—some I miss sadly, but wowful ones continue to come!

Byrd: What are you working on now?

Wilkens: I’m continuing our work as the chaplain at Milo Adventist Academy in Oregon and am working on being able to arrange our work/life in such a way as to be able to accept as many of the invitations to share that come our way as possible—especially in secular settings.

For more information:

Read about the African Rights tribute to Carl Wilkens here.

Read a report about the death of convicted Rwandan pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, and find links to previous extensive Spectrum coverage of the Rwandan genocide here.

A member of Spectrum’s editorial board, Alita Byrd writes from Dublin, Ireland. This interview has been republished from the March 15, 2007, issue of Spectrum online.

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