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Only American in Rwanda During the Genocide Speaks at Williamsville East

By Daniel Krieger

On April 6th of 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana, the then president of Rwanda, was assassinated. This was the spark those in the Hutu Power movement needed to begin a 100 day genocide of the Tutsi minority that ended with 800,000 dead.

When this systematic murder began, most foreigners immediately fled from the country, and the United States removed all American citizens. Except one. Carl Wilkens refused to leave.

He loved Rwanda, and Africa as a whole. He had lived in a variety of different countries across the continent and eventually settled in the tiny but beautiful nation of Rwanda with his wife and three children.

He lived there for a few years and his family had two locals who worked for them. Both were Tutsi. Rwanda has a history of respect for foreigners, and Wilkens knew this. He believed that if he stayed behind and remained in Rwanda he could protect the lives of the local people who had become like family to him.

His wife and children left, leaving him the only American remaining in the country during the genocide.

Wilkens faced danger every day and became a hero. Using his status as a foreigner, he was able to save the lives of his two Tutsi friends and the lives of a lot of kids living in an orphanage.

Almost every day he would pass through roadblocks guarded by génocidaires with machetes and bring water to the kids at the orphanage. He had many near death experiences but was able to make it through and save many other lives as well.

On March 18th, Wilkens came and spoke at East. Students who were taking Human Rights and Genocide Studies and some English classes were able to hear him talk about his experiences and ask him questions.

What Wilkens seemed to be most impassioned about was the creation of new neural pathways in our brains. He talked a lot about neurology during his visit, saying that it’s one of the only ways he is able to understand and cope with how people can commit things like genocide.

He explained how whenever we take in information, we reinforce certain connections in our brains. When things like the RTLM radio in Rwanda constantly spew Hutu Power propaganda, those ideas and connections in our brains get stronger.

However, he explained, this can also be used for good. While we can create negative brain pathways, we can also create positive ones.

When he returned to Rwanda for the first time, he was horrified by what he saw. The people who had committed these acts of genocide against the Tutsi people were now doing community service, such as building roads. They were not chained or guarded, and could run away at any point.

What he discovered was that in Rwanda, crimes were not punished in the same way as they are in Western civilization. When someone commits a crime they must tell their community what they did and ask for forgiveness. If the apology is seen as insincere, they are incarcerated. However, if the apology is believed to be sincere, the person is sent to do community service.

This rehabilitation-style approach is something that we are unused to; that we do not have the brain pathways for. The Rwandans were okay with this, however, and demonstrated how one can rebuild their brain pathways.

Wilkens talked of the hope that neurology promises. People’s brain connections are not set in stone; they can be changed and set in different directions. These people in Rwanda that did these awful things can still replace those connections in their brains that tell them Tutsis are “inyenzi” (the Kinyarwanda word for cockroach).

It takes time and effort, but this is something that can be done and needs to be done around the world.

Wilkens, since returning to the United States, has travelled the country with his wife, talking to schools, teachers, and parents about his experiences. After his presentation in front of the students, Wilkens then had the opportunity to meet and talk with most of East’s Social Studies teachers.

He was invited to speak by Dr. Redmond, the teacher of the Human Rights and Genocide Studies (HRAGS) class. Redmond and Wilkens had actually travelled to Rwanda together and visited many different areas around the country. Redmond also invited Wilkens to speak at East back in 2015.

Redmond and his HRAGS class have been raising money to donate to MindLeaps. MindLeaps is a not-for-profit organization that brings youth in from the streets and provides them with dance lessons. Those that then perform well and show the necessary cognitive skills are then sponsored to receive an education, as there are no public schools in Rwanda.

Redmond hopes to raise enough money to sponsor a child in Rwanda to receive a full year of education, room, board, and health care. Him and his students have organized events such as a teacher vs. student ping pong tournament and fundraisers with Chipotle and Panera. They plan on partnering with Hands Around the World to do a hot chocolate sale in the Commons as well as other things.

If students or teachers wish to donate money, they can see Dr. Redmond in the Social Studies department to do so.

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