The Rwandan Genocide and the Lessons I’ve Learned

and the Lessons I’ve Learned

Editor's note: Ten years ago about 800,000 people lost their lives in Rwanda when Hutu extremists methodically murdered Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus in a terrible time of genocide. Carl Wilkens, a 1981 graduate of Walla Walla College, and his wife Teresa, also a WWC graduate, were in Rwanda at the time. Because of his firsthand knowledge and thoughtful responses to questions, he has been interviewed for Public Television's Frontline program as well as National Public Radio programs. We took our three children to Rwanda with us in 1990 so I could serve as the ADRA director for Rwanda. We had served in Africa for six years already—four at Lower Gwelo Secondary School in Zimbabwe and two at Yuka Hospital in Zambia, one of the most isolated hospitals we still operate. For the first six months, we were building primary schools and operating health clinics in Rwanda. When a civil war began there in October 1990, we added refugee camp work to our assignment. Before the three-year war ended, Rwanda had more than 900,000 people displaced from their homes. Thirty years earlier there had been great unrest in the country resulting in many Tutsis being killed or fleeing the country. They had been trying unsuccessfully to come back by peaceable means but, in October 1990, they invaded the country by force. When a cease-fire was agreed upon after three miserable years of war, we were all optimistic for peace with a stable government that would represent all groups. But the negotiations kept stalling. When Rwanda's president was returning from negotiations in Tanzania on April 6, 1994, a missile shot down his plane before it reached the airport eight miles from our house. Within 45 minutes, we heard gunfire around our house. Gangs of militia were checking identity cards and systematically killing anyone who was Tutsi or was suspected of aiding or harboring Tutsis. We had two Tutsis in our home. Initially we were stuck in our home trying to keep our family safe, including my parents who were with us at the time. On the ham radio we heard of the slaughter at the other mission stations. Neighbors were being killed all around us by organized teams working with lists. It was like wildfire, unbelievable in scope. We could have died the second night, but our Hutu neighbors stood outside our fence and told the machete-armed gang, "These people have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with what's going on. They're not Belgian," they explained (initial rumors had the Belgians involved in the assassination). "When we're sick and need to go to the hospital, they take us. Their kids play with our kids." Simple acts of past kindness took on great significance as our neighbors risked their own safety to convince the killers to pass over our home. After two days, a cease-fire was brokered between the extremist Hutu government who had set themselves up when the president was killed and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). All foreigners had 72 hours to leave the country. I entrusted my family to my dad's care and sent them south to Burundi with a long convoy of Americans, Canadians and Germans. Initially U.S. intelligence figured the violence would be over in a few days, but the killing lasted for 100 days. During that time I was attempting to keep food and supplies moving to several groups of orphans around Kigali. An anger that I did not even recognize was growing inside as I was surrounded by incredible violence and senseless butchering. I can best explain how God lead me through that anger through one of our volunteers, Angelique, who had a shrapnel wound from an earlier bombing. Each evening I changed bandages and gave penicillin shots in my neighborhood. I always went to Angelique's home last and, although I didn’t pray at every stop I made, I always prayed at Angelique's home. She often had visitors, both civilian and military, a typical African custom. After two weeks of treatment, she was making great progress the last time I saw her, just before RPF soldiers swept though our neighborhood on July 3 and ended the genocide for us. I was shocked several days later when Angelique's elderly mother met me at my gate with the news that Angelique was dead. No explanation. I asked a Tutsi co-worker who had survived the genocide to try and find out how Angelique died. In just a few minutes my friend figured out that this Angelique was the "infamous Angelique" (who I had never heard anything about) that was responsible for making the death list in our area. She no doubt had the blood of hundreds of people on her hands. Then, like a switch flipped on in my mind, a flashback came to me of a woman in army fatigues who had really hassled me at a barrier near my home many weeks earlier. I thought of all the military visitors she had, and it all came together. My anger toward the killers began to melt as I saw them as God’s children too, hopeless slaves to Satan, lost “lambs” (though they surely did not look like lambs) that the Shepherd was tirelessly seeking. Meeting Angelique reinforced what an incredible Messiah we have. There were many times when I was sure I was going to be killed. I tried bargaining with God, saying, "Lord, I stayed here because I felt you wanted me to. Teresa and I prayed, and we both felt comfortable with that decision. So now Your job is to keep me alive." God never gave me peace with that kind of deal making. The truth is that, at the bottom of it all, I was scared to death that if I were killed I would be lost. Eventually, after failing to get assurance from God regarding my physical life, I dug deeper in the Bible and really discovered His gift, His Grace. I can’t tell you how that set me free! It was so good to be able to talk with Teresa every day by ham radio. She taught and showed me so much. It wasn’t just her uncomplaining way of caring for our three small children in cramped quarters and finding her way alone to the embassy to reach me by radio, hoping I was still alive. As amazing as all that was, her greatest gift to me (and our kids) was her willingness to let go. When so much of our culture says you have to hang on to what you love most, she was willing to trust Jesus and let go. You know, there is no doubt in my mind that what we went through was a preview of the time of trouble—horrible beyond imagining and happening so suddenly. It came so clear to me amidst the destroyed buildings and burned homes that it is relationships that will last—not construction projects and programs. It also became so clear that nobody but God really knows what is in someone's heart. There were Hutus who had not seemed very strong in the church before the genocide, and yet they risked their lives to protect Tutsi church members. There were others who appeared to be faithful church members, but they joined right in with the killers, turned on friends and even family, and callously butchered them. The genocide made it very clear that the devil is completely capable of controlling apparently “good people” like puppets. When he needs them to only slash tires, he's not going to have them slash throats. But when he wants them to slash throats, those who have not submitted their lives 100 percent to Jesus will find themselves powerless to resist. The enemy will use them however he wishes. Each time we ignore the right, each time we choose to do nothing, a conditioning process is taking place, and we are being numbed, dulled and prepared for Satanic slavery. Genocide is not some freak of nature that happens without warning. It begins with a well calculated, step-by-step conditioning process. I will never be the same, and I never want to be the same. By God’s power, I want to live a life that says nobody is less important than anyone else. Every choice I make is significant. Just as someone once said, "We make our choices, then our choices make us." Note: Hear Carl Wilkins on Issues and Interviews at 4 p.m. Pacific Time, Sabbath, May 1, 2004.

Editor's note: Ten years ago about 800,000 people lost their lives in Rwanda when Hutu extremists methodically murdered Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus in a terrible time of genocide. Carl Wilkens, a 1981 graduate of Walla Walla College, and his wife Teresa, also a WWC graduate, were in Rwanda at the time. Because of his firsthand knowledge and thoughtful responses to questions, he has been interviewed for Public Television's Frontline program as well as National Public Radio programs.

We took our three children to Rwanda with us in 1990 so I could serve as the ADRA director for Rwanda. We had served in Africa for six years already—four at Lower Gwelo Secondary School in Zimbabwe and two at Yuka Hospital in Zambia, one of the most isolated hospitals we still operate.

For the first six months, we were building primary schools and operating health clinics in Rwanda. When a civil war began there in October 1990, we added refugee camp work to our assignment. Before the three-year war ended, Rwanda had more than 900,000 people displaced from their homes.

Thirty years earlier there had been great unrest in the country resulting in many Tutsis being killed or fleeing the country. They had been trying unsuccessfully to come back by peaceable means but, in October 1990, they invaded the country by force. When a cease-fire was agreed upon after three miserable years of war, we were all optimistic for peace with a stable government that would represent all groups. But the negotiations kept stalling.

When Rwanda's president was returning from negotiations in Tanzania on April 6, 1994, a missile shot down his plane before it reached the airport eight miles from our house. Within 45 minutes, we heard gunfire around our house. Gangs of militia were checking identity cards and systematically killing anyone who was Tutsi or was suspected of aiding or harboring Tutsis. We had two Tutsis in our home.

Initially we were stuck in our home trying to keep our family safe, including my parents who were with us at the time. On the ham radio we heard of the slaughter at the other mission stations. Neighbors were being killed all around us by organized teams working with lists. It was like wildfire, unbelievable in scope.

We could have died the second night, but our Hutu neighbors stood outside our fence and told the machete-armed gang, "These people have nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with what's going on. They're not Belgian," they explained (initial rumors had the Belgians involved in the assassination). "When we're sick and need to go to the hospital, they take us. Their kids play with our kids." Simple acts of past kindness took on great significance as our neighbors risked their own safety to convince the killers to pass over our home.

After two days, a cease-fire was brokered between the extremist Hutu government who had set themselves up when the president was killed and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). All foreigners had 72 hours to leave the country. I entrusted my family to my dad's care and sent them south to Burundi with a long convoy of Americans, Canadians and Germans.

Initially U.S. intelligence figured the violence would be over in a few days, but the killing lasted for 100 days. During that time I was attempting to keep food and supplies moving to several groups of orphans around Kigali.

An anger that I did not even recognize was growing inside as I was surrounded by incredible violence and senseless butchering. I can best explain how God lead me through that anger through one of our volunteers, Angelique, who had a shrapnel wound from an earlier bombing.

Each evening I changed bandages and gave penicillin shots in my neighborhood. I always went to Angelique's home last and, although I didn’t pray at every stop I made, I always prayed at Angelique's home. She often had visitors, both civilian and military, a typical African custom. After two weeks of treatment, she was making great progress the last time I saw her, just before RPF soldiers swept though our neighborhood on July 3 and ended the genocide for us.

I was shocked several days later when Angelique's elderly mother met me at my gate with the news that Angelique was dead. No explanation.

I asked a Tutsi co-worker who had survived the genocide to try and find out how Angelique died. In just a few minutes my friend figured out that this Angelique was the "infamous Angelique" (who I had never heard anything about) that was responsible for making the death list in our area. She no doubt had the blood of hundreds of people on her hands.

Then, like a switch flipped on in my mind, a flashback came to me of a woman in army fatigues who had really hassled me at a barrier near my home many weeks earlier. I thought of all the military visitors she had, and it all came together. My anger toward the killers began to melt as I saw them as God’s children too, hopeless slaves to Satan, lost “lambs” (though they surely did not look like lambs) that the Shepherd was tirelessly seeking. Meeting Angelique reinforced what an incredible Messiah we have.

There were many times when I was sure I was going to be killed. I tried bargaining with God, saying, "Lord, I stayed here because I felt you wanted me to. Teresa and I prayed, and we both felt comfortable with that decision. So now Your job is to keep me alive." God never gave me peace with that kind of deal making.

The truth is that, at the bottom of it all, I was scared to death that if I were killed I would be lost. Eventually, after failing to get assurance from God regarding my physical life, I dug deeper in the Bible and really discovered His gift, His Grace. I can’t tell you how that set me free!

It was so good to be able to talk with Teresa every day by ham radio. She taught and showed me so much. It wasn’t just her uncomplaining way of caring for our three small children in cramped quarters and finding her way alone to the embassy to reach me by radio, hoping I was still alive. As amazing as all that was, her greatest gift to me (and our kids) was her willingness to let go. When so much of our culture says you have to hang on to what you love most, she was willing to trust Jesus and let go.

You know, there is no doubt in my mind that what we went through was a preview of the time of trouble—horrible beyond imagining and happening so suddenly. It came so clear to me amidst the destroyed buildings and burned homes that it is relationships that will last—not construction projects and programs.

It also became so clear that nobody but God really knows what is in someone's heart. There were Hutus who had not seemed very strong in the church before the genocide, and yet they risked their lives to protect Tutsi church members. There were others who appeared to be faithful church members, but they joined right in with the killers, turned on friends and even family, and callously butchered them.

The genocide made it very clear that the devil is completely capable of controlling apparently “good people” like puppets. When he needs them to only slash tires, he's not going to have them slash throats. But when he wants them to slash throats, those who have not submitted their lives 100 percent to Jesus will find themselves powerless to resist. The enemy will use them however he wishes.

Each time we ignore the right, each time we choose to do nothing, a conditioning process is taking place, and we are being numbed, dulled and prepared for Satanic slavery. Genocide is not some freak of nature that happens without warning. It begins with a well calculated, step-by-step conditioning process.

I will never be the same, and I never want to be the same. By God’s power, I want to live a life that says nobody is less important than anyone else. Every choice I make is significant. Just as someone once said, "We make our choices, then our choices make us."

Note: Hear Carl Wilkins on Issues and Interviews at 4 p.m. Pacific Time, Sabbath, May 1, 2004.

May 01, 2004 / Perspective
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