Humanizing a Hero

Editor's note: April 6, 2011 was the 17th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.

Carl was inside his home in Rwanda with his family when Hutu militia arrived on the second day of the genocide, carrying machetes, clubs and rifles. They didn't get past the front gates. Mothers and grandmothers from the neighborhood rushed down the dirt road to stand outside the house, refusing to let the killers enter. "They're good people," the women explained, "Their children play with our children. They bring us to the hospital at night when we are sick." The killers turned around and walked to the next house on their list.


"Carl Wilkens--only American to stay during Rwandan genocide"

It was the last day of a three-week human rights program I was attending in Rwanda last January during the winter break of my senior year in college. Though I was frazzled and not packed for my flight that afternoon, these words, scrawled in a notebook by a friend sitting next to me, caught my attention. I had become familiar with the basic timeline of Rwandan history regarding the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis: put very briefly, tension between the two ethnic groups had existed for decades but climaxed during the 100-day long genocide in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed while the international community looked away.* I hadn't met any non-Rwandans who had stayed behind. The man speaking at the front of the room was middle aged, graying, and wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap. He looked like the kind of guy who would spend his Sundays on the couch, nursing a beer and watching football. He looked much too normal to live up to such a title.

Born in 1957, Carl grew up in rural Maryland with aspirations of owning a fix-it store and teaching high school shop. A member of the 7th Day Adventist Church, Carl took a year off from studying auto mechanics and welding in college to volunteer through a church program in South Africa, working on school construction and maintenance. This is when, in Carl's words, he "fell in love with Africa." Carl married shortly after college. Six weeks later, he and his wife, Teresa, moved to a mission compound in Zimbabwe, where Carl started a high school vocational shop program and Teresa worked in the business office of the mission school.

Fast forward 15 years, to April 6, 1994. Carl and Teresa stood with their three kids, ages five, seven, and ten, in the hallway of their home in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Anitha, the housekeeper, and Janvier, the night guard, stood with them. The adults were listening to the radio, trying to process the news that the Hutu president's plane had been shot down and that the government was calling for the murder of all Tutsis, composing about a tenth of the population. Not wanting the kids to digest the information on the radio, Carl introduced a new game: lie on your stomach and try to make your way from one end of the hallway to the other. If you hear gunfire and your stomach isn't on the ground, go back to the start. It took several tries before anyone won.

Carl and Teresa had lived in Africa for a total of ten years and in Rwanda specifically for four. After four years in Zimbabwe, the Wilkenses moved to Zambia for two years and then to Maryland for two, where Carl earned an MBA from the University of Baltimore in 1989. The Wilkenses moved to Rwanda the following year so that Carl could accept a position as the director of the Rwandan chapter of the Adventist Development Relief Agency (ADRA). Civil war between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels broke out just six months after their arrival, but living in the capital, Carl and Teresa were usually distant from the violence. Most days, Carl oversaw ADRA's construction of schools and hospitals while Teresa homeschooled the kids. In the afternoons, the kids played with their neighbors, sometimes swimming in a nearby pool. Indeed, despite the distant violence, Carl describes Rwanda as "a great place for our kids to grow up."

By April 6th of 1994, however, this was no longer the case. In the months leading up to the genocide, acts of terrorism--particularly grenade explosions and shootings--had become more and more frequent in Kigali, and it was clear among Rwandans and foreigners alike that despite the presence of UN peacekeepers on the ground, in Carl's words, "the place was gonna blow."


Even though Carl spoke to us--a group of American and Rwandan students sitting in an open-air classroom in Kigali--for nearly two hours, I still had many questions for him. Something caught my interest about not only his stories, but his way of telling them in such a humble and empathetic way, and I made a point of tucking his business card into my wallet before I left our hostel for the airport that afternoon. I headed back to Yale, and a few days later, Carl departed for the U.S. as well. He now lives with his family in Spokane, Washington and devotes his career to telling his story at schools, churches and other community centers across the country.

It didn't occur to me to write about Carl until I had returned to the stone archways and constant bustle of campus and found myself frequently thinking back to my experiences in Rwanda and to Carl's story in particular. One gray afternoon in February, I dug his business card out of my wallet and decided to email and ask if I could interview him. He replied the next day, saying that he would be happy to help. So began a series of phone calls in which I would ask Carl detailed questions about his experience in Rwanda, often while he was sitting in airports between talks and I was sitting in hallways between classes. I was ultimately trying to begin to understand what his life was like during the genocide, how his experiences in Rwanda have shaped his life since then, and finally, why he decided to stay in Rwanda when he knew that things were on the verge of exploding.


Amidst distracting the kids, listening to pleas for help on the radio, and talking on the phone with concerned officials at the U.S. Embassy, Carl and Teresa needed to make a decision about their future in Rwanda. The Embassy had mandated the evacuation of all Americans, and yet two people who had lived with the Wilkenses for the past three years--Anitha and Janvier--were Tutsi, and would almost certainly be killed if the Wilkenses left. The family had grown particularly close to Anitha; as Carl put it, "Teresa loved this young lady, I loved this young lady, our kids loved this young lady. She was like an aunt to our kids." With the UN troops on the ground, the consensus among foreign aid workers and diplomats was that the extreme violence wouldn't last more than a few days. With these factors in mind, Teresa and Carl decided together that Teresa would take the kids to Burundi and Carl would stay in Rwanda. On the fourth day of the genocide, a UN tank came to escort Carl's family to the evacuation checkpoint. Carl kissed his family goodbye, assuring Teresa, "Two weeks maximum, love."

Due to mandatory curfew, Carl didn't leave his house for the next three weeks. The fighting was not only worse than Carl and others had imagined it would be, but the UN troops pulled out just six days after the genocide began due to the death of ten Belgian soldiers. Though Carl couldn't go outside, he had a pretty good idea of what was going on: he heard frequent gunfire and screaming, and would periodically see trucks driving by filled with furniture that he recognized from his Tutsi neighbors' houses. One morning, he woke up to gunfire and shouting coming from the direction of a wealthy Tutsi family's house a few doors down. Yelling and pounding continued for hours. Carl's worst fears were confirmed that afternoon when he heard that his neighbor had been killed, her limp body draped over the front yard fence. Young men with machetes made their way out of the house carrying tables, couches, and TVs on their backs and heads.

After three weeks, Hutu commanders loosened the curfew, and Carl was able to leave the house for the first time to check on ADRA offices. Just one hundred yards down the dirt road from his front door he encountered a dozen young men, rifles in hand, who looked skeptically at Carl and demanded ID. "Belge?" the soldiers asked.

"No, no--Américain," Carl said. He fumbled through his pockets and pulled out his passport. Anti-Belgian sentiment was strong among Hutu militia since Belgians had made up the vast majority of the UN peacekeeping mission, and Carl didn't want any ambiguity. "I'm American," he said, "I direct a humanitarian relief organization, ADRA. I was going to check on our warehouse." Still looking skeptical, the militia waved him through. Carl repeated this process countless times that day, each time fearing that his passport wouldn't be enough to satisfy the whims of the gunmen.

Carl felt that the Kigali he had called home just three weeks ago had been transformed, in his apt words, into "a ghost town." Foreigners' homes and aid organizations' warehouses had been looted, leaving Rwandan children playing with Western toys, horses let loose from the Belgian Club roaming the streets, and men sitting at roadblocks on upholstered couches with shotguns in their laps, demanding ID and bribes. Dead bodies lay scattered across the road. Unsurprisingly, Carl found that ADRA's supplies had been stolen.

Carl returned home still trying to process the transformation and devastation of the city. He knew that as an American and the ADRA director, he retained a certain degree of neutrality and thus ability to help, but he didn't know where or how to start. In addition to Anitha and Janvier, a Rwandan pastor with whom Carl had worked sought refuge with his wife at Carl's house a few days after the genocide began. Carl consulted his new housemates on what to do. The pastor suggested what would normally be a basic piece of advice to anyone trying to facilitate local change: consult the politician in charge of the area. This situation, however, was anything but normal--the man in charge of the Kigali area was Colonel Renzaho, a military leader who would later be convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Despite this extenuating circumstance, Carl took the pastor's advice and made his way to Renzaho's headquarters the next day. He was surprised by the seeming normalcy of the atmosphere at the office: "If you can believe it, most of the people considered themselves legitimate people going about a legitimate business," he said. Carl introduced himself to Renzaho, and, with all the confidence that he could muster, asked what he could do to help. "Well," said Renzaho, "We're having issues with these orphans outside the city--they're the most vulnerable population." He directed Carl to his Social Affairs assistant and instructed the militia at the roadblocks to ease travel restrictions for Carl. So began Carl's day job, as it were, during the genocide: forming connections and relationships with high ranking Rwandans, many of whom facilitated the genocide, in order to help to provide food, water, medicine and security to hundreds of orphans at three orphanages in the Kigali area.


When Carl told his story to our group in Rwanda, two hands popped up at this point. The first question: Why would a leader of genocide not only decide to keep you alive, but encourage you to aid vulnerable groups? Carl explained that Renzaho had many sides: "There was Renzaho the killer, and there was also Renzaho the human, who simply saw his city as under attack and wanted to direct me to the vulnerable populations." This kind of multidimensionality may help to explain why such a huge percentage of Rwandans took part in the killing: as Carl put it, "People would hide somebody in their home at the risk of their lives and others' and then go out and kill other people." Carl posited that the difference between whom you killed and whom you saved often came down to whom you knew.

The second question was one that had been in the back of my mind as well: How is it that you stayed functional during the genocide and have remained so positive since then, even as you tell your stories over and over? His answer, once again, was quite simple: "You gotta love beauty more than you hate injustice," he said. It's true, he said, that sometimes you just have to give into sadness. He'll never forget the nightmarish moments that he and scores of Rwandans experienced: hearing that friends had been murdered, walking through fields of bodies that had been murdered as family units, watching children cry with no family to comfort them. Mourning these people and situations is healthy and necessary. But ultimately, it was the small glimpses of generosity and courage that, even in the most inhumane of circumstances, enabled him to keep going. And indeed, these were the stories that he told us and continues to share with audiences today.

He tells the story of his neighbors risking their lives to stand between Hutu militia and his front gate, simply because the Wilkenses had been caring neighbors and their children had played together. He tells the story of working with kids at Kigali's main water source to wash and fill barrels of water to be transported to a nearby orphanage. All of a sudden, Carl found himself and the kids caught in crossfire, bullets shooting over them in all directions. Alarmed, Carl looked up to the boy next to him, who was no more than nine or ten. "Don't worry," the boy smiled, "The shooting will calm down in a little while." It did.

He tells the story of speaking every night on the radio with his wife, Teresa Wilkens, who he codenamed "Tango Whiskey." Carl maintains that this was his lifeline--he would sometimes have been stuck in the house all day due to gunfire and mortars outside, yet her voice was always calm and composed, even as she was adjusting to life as a single mother in another country and worrying about her husband's safety. Each night, they read Psalm 34 together, ending with, "The Lord will rescue his servants; No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned."

He tells the story of helping to move over three hundred orphans to a safer space and, upon returning to the old orphanage to retrieve all of their belongings, being stopped by twelve armed men who were looting the orphanage. The men pulled out their guns as Carl walked in, and for a moment, Carl was sure that he was going to die. He then pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper signed by the Colonel Renzaho, giving Carl permission to move the things from the old orphanage. The lead gunman read it and directed the others to put down their weapons. The gunmen spent the next four hours helping Carl to lift furniture, load trucks, and transport items to the new orphanage. By the end of the day, they were cracking jokes as if Carl was an old friend. After the men left, Carl held on to the hope that perhaps the act of transporting the personal belongings would help the men understand the humanness of their supposed enemy: "There were 12 of them there, and these guys would always go killing at night. But maybe...maybe just one of them didn't go that night, and that one guy was the difference."


Now, 17 years after the Rwandan genocide, Carl retells stories of his experiences during the genocide day after day, relating Rwanda in 1994 to the current situations in Sudan, the Congo and elsewhere. It's not easy to talk constantly about genocide and to travel for weeks on end, yet he continues to speak.

Carl's sheer bravery and selflessness is obviously inspiring--it takes guts to stay in a country during genocide, and it takes resourcefulness to figure out how to help people in that setting. But what has been most inspiring to me is Carl's approach to his professional career and his decision-making process. It wasn't an impressive degree or a high-powered job that led Carl to help save hundreds of lives. Carl chose to stay because of an investment in the place he lived and his relationships with the people around him, be it with Anitha, Hutu officials, militiamen, or his own neighbors. Ultimately, it was these relationships that enabled him to survive.

Carl could have closed the door on that period of his life when he moved back to Spokane just after the genocide. Instead, he has chosen to tell his story over, and over, and over again. He does so in hopes that someone listening might be inspired to take a stand for something they care about, either on the other side of the world or in their own neighborhood. And perhaps, that one day, that person will speak in jeans and a t-shirt to a group of young people trying to figure out what they want to do, and will inspire them to do the same.

*There is much more to the relationship between Hutus and Tutsis (and to Rwandan history in general) than the genocide in 1994. Explaining the history and context of the genocide is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, I recommend checking out the resources on Carl's website, If you are a North American youth interested in traveling to Rwanda to learn about human rights, I recommend looking into Global Youth Connect,

A previous version of this post incorrectly noted April 16th as the start date of the Rwandan Genocide. This post has been modified to reflect the correct date.