Human rights activist Carl Wilkens honored in Sarasota for his efforts during Rwandan genocide

01/24/11 Andrea Lypka
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Human rights activist Carl Wilkens was honored in Sarasota on January 23 at the Incarnation Catholic Church for his effort to end the genocide and help rebuild Rwanda.

When the American Embassy was evacuating people in Rwanda during the genocide, Carl Wilkens chose to stay in Kigali. His choice to stay and try to help resulted in preventing a massacre of refugees and children at the Gisimba Orphanage. It was towards the end of the 1994 genocide.

“One day I showed up with water… and the (need for) water was desperate. First time I drove in there were graves for the little ones who were dying from diarrhea. They didn’t have water to drink much less trying to keep things sanitized. I brought water there throughout and now it coming to an end. Of course, we don’t not know when it is going to end. We never knew. We are surrounded by 50 militia,” he said during his speaking tour in Sarasota.

Wilkens risked his life to provide medicine, water and food for the children. He even asked for help from the Hutu Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, one of the people who allegedly planned the genocide. As a result, the children’s lives were spared, they were moved out to a safe place and Wilkens returned to the orphanage to pick up some blankets and cooking pots.

“And I come face to face with the militia leader and 12 of his guys who had been there 2 days earlier. I was terrified when I saw him. He was shocked to see me. I pulled the letter from my pocket, my hands were shaking, he sees the signature of the colonel on the bottom of the letter and says of course, the orphans need their things. And he orders to the guys behind him to help me load my truck."

Around 1 million people were killed in 100 days. For some people, staying home was like a suicide.

“But my wife and I we have a relationship with God and if you find something good you do it. If we are only going to protect our interest it is just no way to live. We didn’t think I would die, the back window of my car was shot at … by all measures, I should have been killed several times,” he said.

Wilkens was head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International, an organization that built schools and hospitals. Not only did Wilkins stay in Rwanda during the genocide but he also stayed there to rebuild the country.

“As Rwanda has been rebuilding, I think they have been an intentional about several things, one being restoring a sense of credibility in the government, about bringing accountability and transparency. It is by no means transparent but they are making strides against towards that direction,” he said.

Wilkens says several changes have occurred since the genocide. Education and health care systems also have improved in the country and Rwandans have become more self-reliant.

“I visited with the ombudsman in the country …. He says that our main emphasis is teaching people to take ownership in their community. When things like this happen, people need to take ownership in their community and not just look out for somebody to come and solve their problem.”

Carl Wilkens’ human rights activism continues. He has returned from his trip to Rwanda last week and he now shares his experiences across America as the director of World Outside My Shoes, a nonprofit organization.

“Its goal is to educate and to inspire people to build bridges, kind of step out, speak out against us and them thinking. For us it always starts with stories from Rwanda, and then we move towards more us and them thinking in our society,” he said

Last week, Wilkens saw children playing soccer.

“Rwandans…. This gives me chills. Rwandans qualified for the Under 17 World Cup. And do your math, these were kids born at the time of the genocide. I get so excited when I think that the world sees Rwanda through a different window than those three months of genocide,” he said.

The event in Sarasota was organized by the Humanity Working to End Genocide, a group of over 55 organizations in Manatee County with the mission to create awareness of the genocide throughout the world. Wilkens next speech will be in the second week of April at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

Carl Wilkens' website

The World Outside My Shoes

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