Author tells of 1994 genocide

Published 11:06 am Friday, August 19, 2011

Carl Wilkens talks Thursday night to an audience at the Austin Public LIbrary about his experiences in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. -- Eric Johnson/ photodesk

Carl Wilkens believes in stories.

It’s through stories that people can understand what it means to go through a genocide. Like the story of Sula, a traditional healer who sheltered 17 people during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Or perhaps Odette, a young girl who sought shelter at a home after she was chased by killing squads.

Carl Wilkens knows these stories, has told these stories before. As the only American in Kigale, Rwanda during the Rwandan Genocide, he said he witnessed the desperate trials Rwandans went through as an incoming regime worked a mass killing of Tutsis, a tribe of people that made up about 20 percent of Rwanda’s 7 million-plus population.

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“Most people didn’t know about Rwanda before 1994,” Wilkens told an audience of about 45 people at the Austin Public Library Thursday.

Wilkens has a history of service in Africa. He’s the former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International and spent 13 years working in Africa in some form.

He spent four years in Rwanda prior to the genocide, and while Rwanda was in a state of civil war for three years before 1994, he said no one could have predicted what happened.

The audience gasped as he told stories about the killing squads, which he said killed more than 800,000 people in just three months. Experts estimate government-sponsored killing squads murdered between 500,000 and 1 million people.

Wilkens told stories of how a killing squad nearly ransacked his house one night while he, his wife and children slept. His neighbors stood up to the squad, telling them all the good the Wilkens did for people.

Yet there were stories of hope as well. Wilkens told stories of how people grew from the genocide, how they forgave the people who murdered their relatives, how youngsters he helped protect at orphanages and churches have gone on to become peace keepers and white collar professionals.

“The Rwandan Genocide has so much more to teach us,” Wilkens said.

He even spoke of the people in power he met, of the thieves he’d buy supplies from, of the government officials he would speak to who eventually were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Though they did wrong, Wilkens pointed out that there were plenty of people in power who had conflicting feelings about their role in the genocide.

“It doesn’t in any way minimize or excuse the horror of what happened,” he said.

Wilkens’ message was simple: by thinking about your actions, and treating others with respect, you eliminate the thought that the world would be a better place without certain people in it.

“It was very informative and eye-opening,” said Anna Phanchan.

Though Wilkens now speaks to schools and groups, he said he still visits Rwanda about twice a year. His next big plans are to speak in China in 2012 and to take a group of students from Buffalo State College to Rwanda in January. That doesn’t mean Wilkens won’t stop to speak about his experiences, however. As long as there’s interest, he’ll continue telling his stories.

“Size isn’t (an) issue for me,” Wilkens said. “Anywhere that you find an interest is good.”