By Michael Montgomery and Stephen Smith
Much of what the world remembers about the Rwandan genocide are grim tales of betrayal, of neighbors killing neighbors and the slaughter of innocents. But there are other stories of people who resisted the urge to kill and who risked their lives to save the lives of others.

American Carl Wilkens refused to leave Rwanda when the genocide began, even when urged to do so by his family, his church and the United States government. Wilkens was a missionary with the Seventh Day Adventist Church. He was in Rwanda with his wife and three children.

“Before the genocide, we had heard rumors of pickup trucks loaded with machetes coming into Nyamirambo and some of the other townships,” recalls Wilkens. “So you knew something was brewing.”

When the genocide broke out, Wilkens remembers, “In our house, we moved away from the windows and we had wide hallway and we all spent the night in the hallway trying to sleep.”

In a recent interview, Wilkens describes the situation in his Kigali neighborhood, as the killing began.

“We were on the radio in our house and they were telling us over the radio there were people in the front yard being killed right now, please try and get help to us. I tried to get in contact with local authorities. There was no way. I tried the U.N. soldiers. There was no way. And all of a sudden, I looked up and there, in the doorway, are our kids. Just frozen. Listening to this, this horror play out over the radio.”

“Two lots over was a large house owned by Tutsi businessman. I think he was a banker. And as the killing began on this first day, as the sun came up, they had chucked their two little kids over the fence to a little house next door and their teenage son had burrowed under a pile of refuse in the backyard by the chicken coop, and mom and dad had barricaded themselves into the house, and for three hours at least, there was this banging on the metal doors – hammering and banging and gunfire, and eventually, after so many hours, they found and murdered our neighbors. Draped her body over the fence.”

Soon after, Wilkens’ wife and children were airlifted out with other Westerners, but Carl refused to go. He is believed to be the only American to stay in Rwanda throughout the genocide.

Most Rwandans were unable to get out. For Tutsis and moderate Hutus, their lives became an hourly struggle of survival.

“There were many signs of trouble ahead,” explains Gisimba. “Militia groups aligned with the Hutu hardliners and the government was bragging how they would kill anyone who supported the rebel Tutsi army. These militias had been training themselves how to kill ordinary citizens. Although I am a Hutu, they said I was a Tutsi sympathizer because I didn’t agree with their Hutu Power ideology.”

“The evening of April 6, I was at home. As soon as the news broke out that the presidential plane had been shot down, I immediately left for the orphanage to calm the children.

One of the orphans, Alphonse Kalisa, now 23 remembered what happened, “That night we heard a lot of gunfire. There had been rumors going around that if anything bad happened, the Hutus would start slaughtering us Tutsis.”
The international wire services were reporting that Belgian peacekeepers and minority Tutsis appeared to be the object of a killing spree in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

Damas Gisimba says that it was clear what was happening. He watched as government soldiers and the militias went door to door in his neighborhood, calling for the Hutus to ‘Come out and start your work. The job has begun.’

“And all of a sudden our neighbors who had lived with us for many years started killing people all around us.”
The director of the human rights organization, African Rights, Rakiya Omaar, was following the events from northern Rwanda.

“In Rwanda they referred to Tutsis as cockroaches,” explains Omaar. “They were not human beings. This is very important to understand, [there are] very close parallels to what happened in Hitler’s Germany. [They said,] ‘Don’t worry, you’re not killing humans like you. You are killing some vermin that belongs under your shoe. You’re killing cockroaches.'”
As the genocide unfolded, Tutsis and moderate Hutus looked for sanctuary in semi-public places like schools and churches. Many, came to the Gisimba Orphanage.
“There [were] so many people coming to the orphanage to hide, looking for safety,” recalls Alphonse Kalisa. “Three or four hundred people. Damas had heard that the militia was going to attack the orphanage because of all the people coming in.”

One of those who hid in the orphanage was Pie Mugabo.

“My family and I lived next door to Gisimba, so we came here. Gisimba told me that because I was such a well-known opponent of the government, I would be especially wanted,” says Mugabo. “He said it would be best for me and my family to hide in orphanage infirmary. There were six of us. During the day, the four women hid in this closet and we two men in this toilet room. I had to crouch a bit not to be seen through the window. Imagine – we stayed in this place for three months.

“I knew I was taking a huge risk hiding them, explains Gisimba. “If Mugabo and his family were caught here, the militia would have killed us all, but I had been talking to my children for so long about the need for unity between Hutus and Tutsis. I couldn’t change my mission now.”

On April 9 and 10, the remaining American citizens, with the exception of Carl Wilkens, drove out of Rwanda to neighboring Burundi. U.S. Diplomat Laura Lane describes the struggle to get every American citizen out alive.

“I was the political security officer at the American Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, and I remember calling all the Americans and saying here’s your evacuation point – here’s where you need to go, and I remember making the call to Carl and he said, ‘Laura, there’s people here, they’re depending on me. I can’t go.'”

Carl says, “You know, right there in front of me was our house girl who’s a Tutsi. Worked for us for several years. I knew as soon as we left she would be slaughtered. There was a young man who was our night watchman. A Tutsi. He’d be slaughtered. And there was no way convoys were letting anyone take Rwandans with them. And at the time my family was evacuating, we lived on a dirt road, and I watched my family drive away down the road. I walked back up to the gate. Closed it and locked it, but as I went back up there and knelt down on the floor with our house-girl and night watchman, and we prayed for the safety of my family, it was a pretty empty feeling.”
The propaganda of the genocidaire [perpetrators] was that ‘God and the world had abandoned the Tutsis,'” says Rakiya Omaar. “This was a very recurrent theme: ‘Hey, you can kill the Tutsis. Look the world has turned their back on them. God doesn’t want them. Nobody wants them.'”

Although the killing was systematic, some managed to survive. Claudine Mukabadege, a Tutsi, was left for dead.

“They took us to the pit near Gisimba’s place. They made us stand on a plank over the pit and hit us with clubs or machetes so we would fall into the hole. When it was my turn they told me to pull off my rosary. They said, ‘You have no God now. God is in Kibuye, because that’s where the Hutu government had fled to.’ I had a baby on my back but they said to leave it. ‘It’s better you die with the baby.’ They started clubbing my legs and I found myself in the pit. Somehow, a dead body rolled over on top and hid me. … The pit was full of maggots because they had been dumping bodies there for some time. There were snakes too.”

Damas Gisimba was told that there were people calling out from the pit. He sent instructions to them to stay quiet and he would come get them out at night.

“Around midnight, we pulled two women out of the pit. One had a baby on her back but it was dead. It suffocated. We brought the women to stay with us at the orphanage.”

After his family was evacuated, Carl Wilkens began making audio-tape letters for his wife.

“When I finally came to point of accepting that I might die there I wanted to leave something behind. So I would make tapes to Theresa. I wrote her name and my parents’ address in Spokane, Washington on each tape, thinking if house gets looted, maybe somehow the tape will find its way to her.”

One tape includes, “Whew, I guess I didn’t talk much about Sunday’s mean gun battle. Man, I just laid on the mattress in the hallway, holding my bible on my chest… [sound of gunfire] Brought the animals all inside. The monkey is tied up to the sink in our bathroom. He doesn’t like this very well…We lost electricity yesterday and Tabit is so dedicated –even with our charcoal – she’s producing magnificent pancakes this morning… Thank you very much.”

Carl explains, “People in the neighborhood knew we had Tutsis in house. They’d seen them and threatened us. ‘Next time your white man comes out we’re going to kill him. We know he’s keeping people there.’ For three weeks we didn’t leave our house.”

Almost three weeks after the genocide began, Carl Wilkens was able to leave his house.

“Finally the government said, ‘Heads of organizations can leave their houses, come to government headquarters and get a permit to travel around the city.’ From that point on, we moved about the city finding food, water and meds for the orphans.”

“This American showed up at the orphanage,” says Gisimba. “He said he was just stopping by to see if anyone here needed help. I told him what we needed most was water. Carl Wilkens promised to come back the next day with water and anything else he could get his hands on. I kept wondering, ‘How will this stranger get past so many checkpoints?’ And besides the checkpoints, there were bullets flying everywhere.”

Rakiya Omaar says it would have been a daily trip through hell.

“There were so many roadblocks manned by drunken men armed with machetes. Their hands were so stained with blood.”

But Carl surprised Damas.

“Carl came back the next day with water and lots of goodies. And the next day, and the next day. There were some days he could not reach us because the militia blocked him or let the air out of his tires, but Carl kept his promise. He was fearless.”

The militia came to get Damas Gisimba one morning. He says they wanted to get him away and then kill everyone else in the orphanage.

“They tried to trick me, saying ‘The governor of Kigali wants to see you.’ I was suspicious, so I lied to them. I said, ‘Has the governor forgotten that I have an appointment with him at 9 this morning?’ So the militia pulled back but waited for me to leave. I snuck away to the office of the International Red Cross.”

Rakiya Omaar says the militia had killed all the prominent people and that they were getting impatient. In addition, they realized that their time, in terms of cleaning up the genocide and making sure there were no witnesses, was drawing to a close.

Just as the militiaman were closing in on Gisimba, Carl showed up delivering water.

“And then, all of a sudden, these militia guys began to appear, circling the whole compound. All of them with assault rifles and grenades and stuff. Then all of a sudden, a car comes sliding in the dirt parking lot there. A cloud of dust, and out gets a guy we called Little Hitler.”

Carl says ‘Little Hitler’ went up to an orphanage worker and demanded to know where Damas was hiding. When the worker did not answer, they shot him to death. Carl began calling for help on his car radio.

“I called Phillip at the Red Cross and said ‘I don’t know where Damas is. We’re surrounded. Looks like we’re about to have a massacre. How can you help me?'”

Carl eventually got Kigali police to show up and stop the attack.

“I drove out of there, past all the barriers. Militia didn’t hassle me. I said I’m going to the prefecture office. I went there and the secretary who had befriended me said, ‘Listen Wilkens, the prime minister is here today. Why don’t you ask him for help ? [This was] after I had explained my situation and I said, ‘What?! The prime minister? That’s like asking the devil for help!'”

“When you’d get into situations where you’d look for an ally, you’d look around for some sign of sympathy, whether it was just a look or a glance, and you’d appeal to that part in them. And so, when the prime minister comes out with his entourage, I stand up and say, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I’m Carl Wilkens, Director of ADRA.’ And he looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard about you and your work. How’s your work going?’ I say, ‘Not well sir, all the orphans are going to be killed.’ He stops and confers with assistants. Turns back to me and says, ‘I’m aware of situation and we’ll see to security of your orphans.’ And he was gone.”
Alphonse remembers the militiamen coming into the orphanage. “They came kicking doors open, telling us to get onto the buses. We didn’t know where we were going, but Carl Wilkens had made some sort of a deal for the militia to let us go.”

With defeat to the advancing Tutsi rebel army increasingly certain, the extremist Hutu regime was collapsing. Some genocide leaders now sought to curry favor with the international community. They wanted to deny that all Tutsis had been targeted for killing. So, in a strange twist, the Gisimba orphans were escorted through the bloody streets of Kigali by a top militia leader to sanctuary at the Church of Saint Michael.

Gisimba waited for his orphans at the church, uncertain whether Carl’s plan would work. When the buses finally arrived, the orphans were euphoric at the site of their “Papa Damas.”

“They didn’t know where they were going,” says Gisimba, “They didn’t even know I was still alive. So when they saw me, everyone shouted with joy; the children, my parents, the old people, everybody cried. It was like a miracle for them to see me still alive.”

“Later,” says Gisimba, “A soldier came up and said, ‘Who is this man Gisimba? We were told all these people are for Gisimba.’ They expected some sort of big, important man. I said, ‘I am Gisimba.’ They asked how I managed to keep so many people alive for so long. I answered with a Rwandan proverb: ‘Even if an animal comes to you for protection, you give it sanctuary.'”

On July 4th, 1994, Tutsi rebels seized Kigali. That’s when United States troops finally arrived. Carl Wilkens still wonders why other nations didn’t act to prevent the genocide from happening.

“When I got out, the genocide’s over and the airport’s crawling with American soldiers and stuff. For a long time I couldn’t salute the flag. Why is it that good, decent people didn’t do anything?”

The remains of several hundred Tutsi civilians who were massacred during the genocide were exhumed and reburied in Kaduha as a memorial to the victims.
photo by Corinne Dufka

But though governments didn’t act, some individuals did. What Pie Mugabo remembers most vividly of both Damas Gisimba and Carl Wilkens is their sense of humanity.

“Where the international community and the U.N. practically abandoned us, [they] came to our aid and took risks. I still owe [them] many thanks. In fact, we should give [them] cows. That is what we do in Rwanda for someone who has done something extremely kind, we give them cows.”

About 150 children live in Damas Gisimba’s orphanage today. Carl Wilkens is now pastor of an Adventist high-school in rural Oregon. Both men saved hundreds of lives during the genocide. They were few, but they were not alone

Workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross are credited for saving tens of thousands of people. Many others found protection from the small U.N. peacekeeping force. Near the end of the genocide, French troops moved into southern Rwanda to create a safe zone, but in a country the size of Maryland, 800,000 people were killed over the course of three months – an average of ten-thousand per day.

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