Notre Dame recently welcomed author Carl Wilkens to campus. He shared his very personal story of choosing to stay in Rwanda during the genocide and help the people who had become like family even as his own wife and children returned to the United States for safety. Students at Notre Dame study the Rwandan genocide but the key cornerstone to that learning is hearing the personal testimony of someone who lived it. Carl’s book, I’m Not Leaving, was our ND Reads selection in 2012. Below is Ava’s reflection on the experience.
By Ava Hutchins ‘21
Notre Dame recently had a special guest speaker on campus, Carl Wilkens. Carl was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the genocide in 1990s. He came to our school to tell us his story and why he chose to stay in Rwanda and risk his life. Carl and his wife moved to Rwanda for work. They raised their children there and created lasting connections with the Rwandans. Life was good for Carl, until the fighting started. Soon, all foreigners were being evacuated from Rwanda. Carl sent his family home to safety in the United States and chose to stay. Living with Carl and his family at the time were two Tutsi caretakers who had become like family. Carl knew that they couldn’t escape with him and his family and that they’d most likely die if Carl and his family fled the country. Without many options, Carl made the bold decision to stay and risk his life to help others in Rwanda. His choice to stay was admirable and inspiring. Carl helped the people of Rwanda by bringing clean water to children even though death was possible every day. The way Carl talked about the people of Rwanda was with genuine love. He has such a special place for them in his heart. It was as though these people were family. What surprised me the most about Carl was that he exuded joy while he talked about trying to help others during the genocide in Rwanda. By this, I mean that Carl was like a shining ball of sunshine. He talked in a happy, upbeat tone and seemed to see the positive side of things. One thing I especially liked about his presentation was the fact that he shifted the conversation to present-day Rwanda. He showed us pictures and told us stories about what Rwanda is like today and how the country is rebuilding itself from a bloody past. I liked that Carl talked about his hope for the future of Rwanda and didn’t make the genocide his main focus.
Carl Wilkens is indeed a special man. Even though he witnessed his neighbors murder his friends in cold blood, Carl seems to have forgiven them. Forgiveness for such sins is not something most can do. I was amazed at his compassion and understanding. He shared one example of what I consider extraordinary compassion after the genocide. He was present at one of the trials of Interahamwe men that were accused of murder. The Interahamwe were a group of Hutu extremists that killed Tutsis, as well as any Hutus who helped the Tutsis. Carl said that the men acted like regular people that you’d meet at a store. Carl said that he asked one of the accused killers what prompted him to join the Interahamwe. The man said that Interahamwe threatened to kill his family, so he didn’t have a choice. Carl told us that these people were manipulated and committed regrettable acts of murder because of fear. He explained that these accused men made the jump from loving neighbors to cold blooded murderers. They did not kill out of hatred, but out of love to protect their families. Carl showed a deep compassion for these men despite their crimes and I couldn’t understand how his heart could be so generous. How was he able to give his love to people who murdered the innocent people he loved? I might never understand it but it’s why I admire Carl Wilkens. Even after everything that happened, Carl is one of the warmest and brightest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and I am thankful for the experience.