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Author discusses atrocities of Rwanda genocide with Kelowna students

Ed Wilkens talks to KSS students about his journey of post-trauma recovery

How does a country with a divided ethnic population reunify after one group carries out genocide against the other?

Author Carl Wilkens has been exploring that question through his personal connection to the African country of Rwanda and its citizens.

For a three-month period from April to July 1994, Hutu militias turned on the Tutsi minority ethnic group in Rwanda.

The result was the slaughter of anywhere from 700,000 to one million Tutsi, initiated when the 2,500-member UN peacekeeping force was pulled out of the country after a civil war broke out, creating a recipe for chaos and violent bloodshed.

When the genocide started, Wilkens hustled his wife and three young children to safety outside the country on April 10, 1994.

But he stayed behind to ensure the safety of his Tutsi family staff Anitha and Janvier, becoming the lone American left to witness the atrocities that occurred and avoiding death on more than one occasion by Tutsi hunting militia gangs.

“People often ask me why would you move to a country like Rwanda with such a young family, and the answer is we wanted our children to learn from those experiences of travel, to feel like no matter where they were in the world it would not feel to them like they did not belong,” he said.

He also continued to risk his life in order to provide food and water aid to orphanages around the city of Kigali which had become safe havens for Tutsi during the genocide, learning later that the militia gang followed his activities and openly discussed whether or not to kill him.

He has written about his life-endangering experience titled I’m Not Leaving and has revisited the country several times in the years since, most recently last month.

Wilkens talked about his Rwanda experience, and how it has continued to affect his own life since 1994 and challenged his ability to forgive, something he has contemplated and learned from Rwandans in the years since, when speaking to three École Kelowna Secondary classes in the school library on Tuesday, May 28.

Wilkens is not the only person to document the Rwanda genocide experience.

Lieut. General Romeo Dallaire was head of the 250 Canadian army unit, part of the UN peacekeeping force, who remained in Rwanda during the genocide, seeing his repeated claims for support from UN officials for reinforcements to help stop the killing be rebuffed.

He wrote a book about his experience, Shake Hands With The Devil, which was made into a movie, and since returning to Canada as talked openly about attempting to commit suicide due to post-traumatic mental stress disorder (PTSD) and how he sought help to retreat from his mental health darkness.

Another movie released in 2004, Hotel Rwanda, told the story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina and his wife Tatiana saving the lives of his family and more than 1,000 other refugees by providing them shelter in his hotel, exploring the themes of genocide, political corruption and repercussions of violence.

Wilkens said he was in that hotel many times during the genocide, captured by a French TV news cameraman at one point, where he carried a child from the hotel, but did not come across Rusesabagina.

As for the Canadian soldier contingent, Wilkens was in radio contact with the unit constantly during his ordeal and was grateful for ultimately being reunited with his family after the genocide ended, transported to Kenya on a Canadian military C-130 Hercules aircraft.

Wilkens’ two-hour presentation to the students discussed how the American had been living in Rwanda doing aid agency work along with his wife and three young children when things began to spin out of control in the country.

His family evacuated the morning of April 10, 1994, but Wilkens opted to stay behind.

Today, when Wilkens travels to Rwanda, he says of the 12 million population, about three million were alive during the genocide, leaving nine million largely unaware of the history.

“It blew my mind to hear those stats,” Wilkens recalled, as he found himself telling stories of his experiences to Rwandans he met at schools and marketplaces.

“When I would tell my stories about their history, they would start to ask me a lot of questions.”

A focal point of Wilkens’s presentation to the KSS students was a photo of two people he met, a woman named Maria who survived the genocide with her daughter while her husband and two sons were murdered, and Filbert, a member of the militia gang that killed those members of her family.

While Wilkens was loath to trust Filbert or his repeatedly stated forgiveness for his actions, Maria found it within herself to embrace Filbert with empathy and respect rather than anger, confusion and bitterness.

Filbert became a close friend of Maria as she rebuilt her life with her daughter, and when she remarried Filbert was asked to be the wedding MC.

“When I asked her how other family members felt about that, she said not everyone was agreeable, but she explained it simply as it’s our house, our wedding, our choice,” he recalled.

“Despite what he was a part of in murdering her husband, and her sons, she still found it within herself to give him a whole new life.

“It is wonderful to be able to make someone beautiful again. And because of her, Filbert is beautiful again.”

Asked how neighbours can turn genocidal against one another, Wilkens cited several factors which were present in Rwanda – the influence of fear overcoming logical thinking, discrimination acts of the past which fuel anger and resentment, greed, and the mob mentality of peer pressure that forces you to do things you would not normally do.

He went one step further to suggest that human beings are not wired to kill people, but the influences he listed overcome those guard rails and can unleash senseless acts of violence.

“In the army, training soldiers how to kill is based around protecting your family unit, the fellow soldiers in your unit. You come together to defend the family so to speak,” Wilkens said.

“That is why soldiers have such trouble when they come home. They are removed from that family unit and left to themselves to deal with what they experienced. The vets become lost outside the security and purpose of that family unit. That is one reason why 23 vets commit suicide every day in America.”

But after the Rwanda civil war ended in August 1994 with the overthrow of the revolutionary government by the Rwandan Patriotic Front army, the question of how a country can recover from such trauma has become a life lesson for Wilkens that he continues to grapple with to this day.

He credits the new government for seeking a path of restorative justice rather than punitive justice, avoiding the pitfalls of anger and retribution which started the genocide in the first place, of the need to rebuild relationships based on truth, understanding, gratitude, empathy and respect in the aftermath of a violent and tragic insurgency that pitted neighbour against neighbour.

For Wilkens, the story of Maria and Filbert reflects following the path of restorative justice, which relied on confronting the detainment of more than 300,000 people accused of participating in the genocide.

“I have come to see that punitive justice has never in my life experience been a solution to end a cycle of violence,” he said.

Rwanda’s government set up community courts to hear confessions of those imprisoned for their actions, the end goal being to repair the harm done to their country.

“It is the difference between transactional versus transformational,” he explained.

Wilkens told the students for him, counselling has been a huge source of dealing with his personal genocide trauma as has journalling to help better understand thoughts in his head and to not be afraid to be vulnerable when talking about his experiences.

“There is a difference between reliving that trauma and remembering it, something that counselling has and continues to help me work through,” he said.

Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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