American missionary Carl Wilkens recounts saving over 400 in 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi

By Wycliffe Nyamasege
On 11 May 2024 at 05:31

30 years ago, American Christian missionary Carl Wilkens was among thousands of foreigners who were going about their business in Rwanda when the state-led Genocide against the Tutsi began in April 1994.

Wilkens was then the Head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda and was living in the country with his wife and three children when President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, igniting ethnic tension in Rwanda, leading to the killing of more than one million people.

When it became apparent that things were out of hand and the killings by the Interahamwe group in Kigali’s neighbourhoods intensified, the American embassy decided to temporarily close and evacuate its citizens to safety.

Many Americans who had witnessed the killings firsthand could not hesitate but utilize the 72-hour window given to flee the country. But as everyone else was struggling to be among the first groups to be evacuated, Wilkens chose to remain behind with two domestic Tutsi workers after the American Embassy made it clear to them not to bring any Rwandans with them.

He sent his wife and children with an American convoy to Burundi and stayed at his home in Kigali with the two workers.

Speaking at the Kigali Public Library on Friday, May 10, as the country continues to commemorate 30 years since the Genocide against the Tutsi, Wilkins explained that he chose to remain behind because of the fears that Juan and Anita would be harmed.

“They [American Embassy] left us very little space for choice. We had this young lady who lived and worked at our home, so when the embassy gave us that order, I was like, no. I felt like that was an immoral thing for us to turn our backs and just abandon people,” he recounted.

“My heart was saying, how can you walk away from these two - the young man who was the watchman and the young lady? I often compared her to immediate family because we were so tight,” he added.

The audience keenly follows Barbara Umuhoza's discussion with Carl Wilkins on his book ‘I’m Not Leaving,’ written in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

The 66-year-old noted that the US embassy’s orders still give him stomach pains to date.

“I understand the government’s responsibility towards its citizens and stuff, but then we need a plan B. And now here America is saying no, if you are from Burundi, Tanzania you can get in the convoy. It still gives me pain in my stomach,” Wilkins explained.

Over the next 100 horrific days of the genocide, Wilkins managed to save the lives of 400 Tutsis, including orphans from Gisimba Orphanage, whom he moved to safety through deadly roadblocks, thanks to his influence and networks.

He recounted that on the day he rescued the orphans more than 50 killers had surrounded the orphanage waiting to kill everyone. But the kids’ lives were spared after he reached out to the Governor of Kigali Tharcisse Renzaho and Prime Minister Jean Kambanda.

The discussion, moderated by Barbara Umuhoza, centered on Wilkins’ book ‘I’m Not Leaving,’ written in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Carl Wilkens' book 'I’m Not Leaving’ was written in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

On why some missionaries turned their backs on Rwanda, Wilkins said, “We never know what is going on in the hearts and minds of other people. When my wife got to the American ambassador’s home with the children and my mother and father, another missionary came to her and asked where Carl was. And she said he is not leaving, and this man said, you mean we could stay? It’s just that it never occurred that that was even a possibility to him. He was a dedicated man, and I believed he probably would have except by that point he didn’t see a turn point. So that could be one possible explanation."

He noted that some missionaries have never forgiven themselves for turning their backs on Rwanda.

Answering a question from the audience about where God was during the genocide, Wilkins said: "I see God’s hand, but through people, not through supernatural miracles like an invisible shield around somebody. I believe big miracles probably happen. But for me, what’s most empowering is not to believe that God is going to send a supernatural shield. What’s most empowering is believing that we have the power to love, to step forward for somebody else."

This is Wilkins’ second visit to the country since leaving in 1996. Prior to the genocide, the then 36-year-old had lived in Rwanda for nearly 10 years.