As far as he knows, Carl Wilkens was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
When his wife and three kids fled the country, he assured them it would only be two weeks or so before the killing stopped.
Instead, it lasted for about 100 days.
Wilkens spent those days living in his home, collecting food, water and medicine for orphaned children during the conflict. He lost friends to the slaughter. And many of the stories he heard from Rwandans still haunt him to this day.
Sometimes I don’t want to go back because of the memories, he said. But when I get back and meet people, I create new memories. And the power of the new memories begins to come through.
Wilkens, former head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda, shared his stories with Homestead High School students Monday. Dozens of students had just wrapped up a unit on the genocide in their world history class, and they peppered Wilkens with questions about the massacre and its aftermath.
It’s been really interesting, sophomore Kyle Mohsenzadeh said of studying the Rwandan genocide. Now that I’ve started to learn about all of this stuff, I want to learn more and more.
Wilkens, who saved hundreds of lives during his time in Rwanda, travels the world talking about his experience in the small east African country and educating people on the origins of genocide.
I hope students get the message that this us-and-them thing is destroying our communities, he said.
Wilkens encourages audiences to get involved in the world around them and take action, be it donating malaria nets to Sudan or calling local members of Congress to draw attention to human rights abuses.
Wilkens recorded his reflections during the genocide on a series of audiotapes he hoped his family would have if he didn’t make it out alive. The tapes were the basis of his book I’m Not Leaving. He and his wife, Teresa, run a non-profit group called The World Outside My Shoes that raises money for their advocacy and awareness work.
Homestead history teacher Jon Baker was first introduced to Wilkens during a fellowship at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and decided to ask him to visit Fort Wayne. His class is selling Wilkens’ books to raise money for his efforts and is exploring the possibility of starting a sister school in Rwanda. He has such a passion for this, Baker said. I thought this would be great for the kids.
Wilkens will also visit South Side High School and the University of Saint Francis today.
Homestead sophomore Ryan Davis said he and his classmates were moved by Wilken’s presentation.
It really opened my eyes to the world around me, he said. I think there’s going to be a lot of talk around here about genocide and what we can do to prevent it.