People on the Ground: Rwanda’s Survival and Perseverance

DSCF4726Carl Wilkens has been quite popular during this Leadership Conference; his experiences have inspired many students. But what about the Rwandans he encountered during his experiences in the genocide? We follow up on Wilkens during his workshop, “Eyewitness stories from the Rwanda Genocide”. He discussed the victims and the perpetrators of the genocide, as well as the action he took to protect the civilians, “Rwandans could not be evacuated, it was a huge risk. The only sensible option for me was to stay and protect them. Perhaps my presence would stop the militia.”

While almost every American was being evacuated by the government as quickly as possible, Wilkens chose to stay and protect a pastor and his family who he grew close to during his stay in Rwanda, “One time, we had to pay off the militia a hundred dollars to stop them from slaughtering the family. We just did what we had to do to survive.” But even in this time of fear and tragedy, Wilkens and the family were keen on providing a better future to those displaced by the genocide, “Having a mission or purpose is huge in a time of crisis.”

Wilkens also discussed the living conditions of many of the genocide victims, “There were many child deaths not just from the genocide, but also from diarrhea and dysentry. There was a lack of clean drinking water and that was a priority, getting water to the children.”  Wilkens even had to create relations with some high authority figures responsible of the genocide, in order to have access to facilities and aid victims, “I remember when I was living with the pastor, he told me ‘if you wanna make a difference, you gotta form a relationship with the guys in power.'”

With help from some Hutu authority figures and colonels, Wilkens managed to obtain signed documents to help him travel easier as an American in war ridden Rwanda. Road blocks no longer hassled him as long as he presented the authority’s paper work, “It’s amazing how obedience played such a huge role in Rwanda at the time. Obedience to authority was a huge part of both the killing and of me being able to move through the roadblocks.”

Wilkens recalled his own horror stories during the genocide, such as his encounters with militia men, “We would offer the killers chickens as a bribe in order to make them leave. Imagine that, a chicken for a human life.”

However, he also discussed the importance of raising awareness and creating a difference by involving people that actually experienced struggle during times of challenge, “Always listen to the people on the ground, the innocent civilians that have to go through it all. Consider their opinion and listen to the people on the ground.”

And even after a recollection of harrowing events from the genocide, Wilkens ended on a positive note with some words of wisdom, “When wanting to make a difference, we often forget the power of asking. So many times we won’t ask because we don’t believe there is any potential within this person. There is always potential within people for one good choice, for one kind decision, one act of generosity. The real question is whether you believe it’s there.”

After Wilkens’ experience it’s safe to say that potential has been recognized within the people on the ground.

For more information on Carl Wilkens and his wife Teresa Wilkens’ experiences in Rwanda, please visit their website


By: Sarra Hamid