Carl Wilkens, an American missionary in Rwanda, watched from his house as his wife and three children were evacuated from their home in Kigali. He had made the difficult decision with his wife the night previous that he needed to stay with his Tutsi friends in their most desperate hour, and that is exactly what he did.
On April 6, 1994, Hutu President Juvénal Habyariman had boarded a plane bound for Kigali, Rwanda following a one-day summit for regional leaders and delegates. The plane never reached its destination. Shortly before landing in Kigali, President Habyariman’s plane was shot down by members of either the Tutsi rebel group the Rwandan Patriotic Front or the Hutu extremist group Hutu Power. Though we may never know which group fired the rockets, what we do know is that within hours of the crash the orders were given for the Hutu extremist group called the Interahamwe to begin the massacre of every Tutsi man, woman, and child. Within 100 days of those orders being given, over 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered.
Despite their cries for aid to the UN, the Red Cross, and anyone else who could help them in the midst of the merciless slaughter, the Tutsis of Rwanda watched helplessly as almost all of the American and European people living in Rwanda boarded planes and buses bound for neighboring African nations. Carl Wilkens was one of the few that stayed, and in doing so, played a lead role in saving over 500 Tutsi lives.
After watching Hutu militants slash Tutsis to pieces in front of his house, Carl made the courageous decision to use what influence he had to save as many lives as possible. He began bringing food and water to places Tutsis were known to be hiding, offering whatever support he could. He often provided aid to those in the worst hit areas, including the Gisimba Orphanage. According to Wilkens:
“The Gisimba orphanage was a really desperate case, because they were in the heart of the nastiest part of the city….the most belligerent killers were there in that part of the Nyamirambo district, and the UN couldn’t get there. It was just a terrible section of the city.”
Little did Carl know that the role he would play at the Gisimba Orphanage would be much more than just providing food and water. After dropping off a load of water the co-directors of the orphanage, Jean-Francois and his brother Damas Gisimba, begged Carl to stay with them, telling him that the Hutu militia was on their way at that very moment to kill every man, woman, and child staying there. Jean-Francois pleaded, asking him to be a witness to the imminent massacre and to tell their stories once they were dead. Understandably shocked, Carl offered to go get help, but Jean-Francois responded “By the time you come with help you will not find anyone living here.”
While they were still talking, between sixty and one hundred Hutu militia arrived with the intent of destroying the orphanage. Yet upon seeing the American, the Hutus were commanded to halt, as their leaders did not want Carl to see the coming slaughter. Carl stayed at the orphanage that night, and in the coming days he used his influence as an American in meetings with Rwandan President Jean Kembenda, one of the primary orchestrators of the genocide, with whom he successfully negotiated safe passage for the four hundred staying there. Weeks later, he successfully negotiated the safe passage for one hundred more children hiding at the Vatier Orphanage.
Carl remained in Rwanda for all one hundred days of the genocide, and though he saw much injustice, he played an essential role in saving no less than five hundred people from certain death at the hands of the Hutu militants.
May men and women of courage rise not only when they want to, but whenever they are needed to.