When Carl Wilkens' work with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) took him and his family to Rwanda in 1990, it was a peaceful, beautiful place. Just four years later, genocide changed all that.
Wilkens faced a difficult decision: whether he and his family would leave the country with all the other Americans and Europeans, or stay to try to help in what appeared a futile situation. Wilkens and his wife decided that the family would leave, and he would stay. The embassy told Wilkens that staying was not an option. He sent his refusal of U.S. government assistance, handwritten on a sheet of paper from his child's school notebook, with his wife to the American ambassador's home, where the evacuation was coordinated. "It was a very empty feeling as my family pulled away. As I watched vehicles filled with foreigners leaving the city, sadness came over me. If people in Rwanda ever needed help from the outside, it was now, and everybody was leaving."
For three weeks a government curfew kept Wilkens from leaving his home. When he finally did see Kigali, it was like a ghost town. Most of the bodies had been cleared from the street; the smell of human flesh remained. Realizing that the war would not end quickly, Wilkens worked with the Red Cross to do what they could to help those in need.
Much of Wilkens’ work during the 100 days of genocide focused on Kigali orphanages. One day as he delivered water to an orphanage, Wilkens was told that the militia had come the night before and killed several people, saying they would be back to finish off the rest. As he stood talking with the orphanage worker, 50 militia men with machine guns materialized around the orphanage. After hours of trying to raise help on the two-way radio, police told Wilkens to go get more help. "I left wondering if I was doing the right thing or simply saving my own skin, expecting to hear gunfire as I drove away."
At the extremist government headquarters, Wilkens learned that the prime minister, one of the orchestrators of the genocide, was in the building. Someone suggested he ask the prime minister for help. Wilkens thought it sounded like the craziest idea in the world, but when the prime minister came out in the hall, Wilkens did just that. The prime minister conferred with his aides, then said to Wilkens, "We are aware of the situation. The orphans will be safe. I'll see to it." Wilkens was hesitant to trust this man, but he had no choice. "There are times when you just have to say, 'I've done everything I could.' I chose to go home, to trust. You recognize you're not in control, it's not about you. There are much larger forces at work." Two days later the children were moved to a safer part of town.
Wilkens speaks powerfully of the complex situations that arise in episodes of genocide, where helping the powerless may appear to involve collaborating with the oppressors, and of the frustration that arises when those with the power to help in significant ways abandon the struggle.