6 Things I Learned About Humanity Living Through a Genocide
Rwanda is a lovely country in East Africa. At one time, it was ruled by kings who were members of the Tutsi ethnic group. The Hutu majority got tired of that, which led to a series of civil wars that culminated in the early '90s. Things calmed down briefly in 1993 with a peace accord, until an act of terrorism derailed everything and kick-started a genocide against the Tutsis that left around 1 million human beings dead in just three months.
Carl Wilkens was right in the middle of it. He rescued hundreds of civilians, many of them orphaned children, from unspeakable violence. Cracked sat down to talk with him about just what it takes to stand up and stick your thumb in the eye of Pure Human Evil. Here's what he told us:
A Single Action Can Start a Genocide
One night in April 1994, some assholes with a rocket launcher shot down the plane transporting the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi.
This seems like a pretty good reason why world leaders shouldn't carpool.
Carl Wilkens, a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary, was living with his wife and kids in Rwanda at the time, doing church stuff as well as providing medical aid to people injured during the civil war that had just ended. He, along with his mother, father, and family, spent the days fixing hospitals and schools damaged in the civil war. It wasn't exactly Mayberry, but things were on the mend when this shit went down.
"We had a cease-fire, and we were all really optimistic, hoping that the new government they'd all agreed on would be put in place. ... I'd say we knew we were on the edge of a precipice. ... Probably three to four weeks before the plane was shot down I sent a fax to our church HQ saying we were sitting on a keg of dynamite. We did have plans in place. If things blew up we had evacuation points. Right up until the plane was shot down we were looking for signs that things wouldn't get worse."
Unfortunately, smoldering plane wreckage usually qualifies as getting worse.
It started with demonstrations in the city, tire fires in response to a massacre out in the nearby countryside. Twenty people killed. Then another massacre, 50 people killed. Then gangs of people with machetes turned stories like that from front-page shockers to an hourly toll of horror. Before this went down? Hutus and Tutsis in Kigali had intermarried and lived together in ... well, not exactly harmony. But not often outright murder.
"They'd been marrying for generations. So, while we'd like to draw a clean line, there are no clean lines to be drawn. You'd have gone to school, been in business partnerships together. It was very complex, interrelated."
But the wrong guy in a suit gets blown up with a rocket launcher, and three months later the whole country is reeling from a genocidal hangover.
You Have to Choose Between Safety and Protecting Your Friends
The rest of the world couldn't get out of Rwanda fast enough. The U.N.'s primary response to the growing hurricane of violence was to pull all but 250 of their 2,500 peace-keeping troops out of the country. That didn't exactly serve to convince the worst people in Rwanda that they should maybe hit the emergency stop on the ol' murder train. The American embassy pulled out right around the same time.
"The embassy said, 'We're leaving; you need to leave.' So was my church. The plane was shot down Wednesday night. Thursday, they said, 'The RPF is taking over; it'll be safer to stay.' Then Friday, nope, 'We're all leaving.' The last groups left Sunday. It happened that fast."
When living through a rolling nationwide riot, it behooves you to keep your toothbrush packed.
The rest of Carl's family left the city with a convoy of Belgian U.N. troops. Carl stayed behind.
" Teresa and I ... had been through a war when people had evacuated before. It wasn't a new idea to us, that I might stay. But we had no idea that ALL the Americans would leave. It became really clear, though, when I eavesdropped on an embassy radio conversation and heard them talking about shredding documents, and then they announce, 'Everyone has to leave, and you can't bring Rwandans with you in your vehicles.'"
Just in case you were unclear, the State Department doesn't fuck around.
Rather than take his totally justified pass to peace the fuck out for the relative safety and increased Slurpee density of the United States, Carl thought about his Tutsi friends -- two of whom were living at his house.
"How are we going to leave these people in our home, just to be slaughtered? We couldn't lock the door, leave them some money, and say good luck. We'd worked with this one lady for years; she loved our kids, and we loved her."
Carl wound up being the only American left in Rwanda after the pull-out. And he quickly learned ...
There Was Power in Being a Foreigner
Carl protected more than just his friends. By the time the genocide ended he'd helped save hundreds of lives and somehow managed not to get shot once by any of the armed men he set about thwarting. No, Carl cannot access bullet-time. We checked. But it turns out that sometimes being white and foreign is almost as useful.
All he needs is "powered by Earth's yellow sun" to complete the hat trick.
"It's hard to understand if you haven't been in a country where foreigners are loved and respected. If there were riots in America and we were like, 'Find a Venezuelan,' it'd be crazy. ... But here, foreigners are respected."
On one of the worst days of the genocide, Carl put himself between the militia with their guns and machetes and an orphanage with 400 people inside. He stayed that way for hours.
"And then a police officer came. I begged him to spend the night with the kids. He begged for me to find reinforcements. I don't know if the police spent the night, but he said he'd hold these guys at bay."
Reminder: These guys.
Carl left the orphanage in the police officer's care and rolled his pasty butt down to the mayor's office. He knew these militiamen had promised to kill everyone in that orphanage the day before, and he didn't know if that cop was the sort of dude who'd place himself between vulnerable people and bullets. When Carl reached city hall, the mayor wasn't home ...
"But his secretary was there. I'd built a relationship with this lady; I told her about the massacre about to happen, and she said, 'Well, look, the PM is here on a surprise visit: why not ask him?'"
On top of the foreigners thing, it helps to also imagine a country where
you can just bump into the prime minister in the course of a day.
For a wee bit of historical perspective, that prime minister was Jean Kambanda, the only head of a government to ever plead guilty to genocide. He wasn't the best person to ever find his way into office, is what we're saying.
Carl wondered, "Why would you ask one of the two to three people responsible for the genocide to stop the killing?"
But he talked to Kambanda about the orphans and their plight. The PM spoke with his entourage and told Carl that he was now aware of the situation, and he'd make sure the kids weren't harmed. Then he and Carl shook hands, posed for a picture, and the prime minister was off. Surprisingly, the next day all 400 of the orphans and their entourage were moved to a safer location. They survived the butchery, and we're honestly not sure what the lesson is here beyond: some monsters are polite, and you'll be surprised how many murders you can stop if you just ask nicely.
The Littlest Things Could Save Your Life
Carl almost didn't get the chance to save all those kids. It turns out there were good reasons everyone else had fled the country: when the violence started, the city streets quickly filled with gangs of young men, looting and murdering like a palette-swapped Clockwork Orange.
"The second night of killing, before my family had left, an armed gang came and were ready to bust into our house, through our gate, but the neighbor ladies came and stood up for us. For four years we've been living together, our kids hanging out with the neighbors. I think these relationships were huge in motivating those moms to stand between the killers and our family."
Food for thought next time you feel like writing a passive-aggressive note about a neighbor's lawn.
These moms were Hutus -- the same ethnic group as the people waging genocidal war on the Tutsi minority.
"There were thousands of Hutus who weren't killing, and these ladies stood up for us and told stories about us taking them to the hospital, acts of kindness. But what really stuck with me was when they said, 'Their kids play with our kids. You can't go in that house.'"
See, young parents? Booking playdates saves lives.
Sometimes You Have to Fight Crime With Crime
Because humping is the great equalizer, Hutus and Tutsis had interbred enough that they couldn't tell each other apart without ID cards. Unfortunately, their government had issued ID cards.
"Put me down as Organ Donor: Yes and Oppressed Minority: No."
"Rwanda is an organized, structured country -- the most densely populated in Africa. It's a place of authority and structure, and if you didn't have an ID card at a roadblock you were assumed to be a Tutsi. ... Sometimes an ID card might help you out. If you were from a certain region of the country, even though you were a Tutsi, it'd be like, 'I'm so and so, my dad is so and so,' and sometimes you make a connection that saves your life. Trashing the ID card just makes you a target for elimination."
Carl feels that a massive-scale forgery campaign could have saved many Tutsi lives.
"Why not false ID cards? That would have been a great way for the international community to help. If we'd flooded the country with fake ID cards, we could have stopped a lot of this. But for the most part the Tutsis had no resources; they were fighting guns with sticks and stones."
So 4chan, Reddit, listen up: finally, there's a real way to save lives just by being good at Photoshop and willing to commit felonies.
Just go easy on the inside jokes. Guards get suspicious when half the people they meet in a day are named Mike Hunt.
Even the Worst People Can Still Do Good, if Only Accidentally
We mentioned earlier that Carl knew the mayor of his city. We did not mention that this man is currently in prison for war crimes.
"He was charged with crimes against humanity, inciting mass rape, horrible things. He and I developed a relationship that was bizarre. He presented himself as the mayor of the city who cares for people who need help. And he's the one who led me to a couple orphanages that needed helping. There was never any open conversation about genocide."
You'd think something like this would come up.
Carl dealt with more mass murderers and war criminals in three months than most people ever read about. The rogue's gallery he met could have filled whole seasons of Law & Order: Genocidal Intent.
"The leader of one killing squad and I knew each other. He'd stolen one of the vehicles from my office. So we had somewhat of a tense acquaintanceship. But others were more friendly -- relationships with the people at roadblocks, or a couple of brothers who ran killing squads and changed my U.S. dollars to local money for me. It was all in the name of trying to supply water and food and medicine to the orphans. Everything was done in a hurry, often with gunfire or mortars nearby. There was no time for chat. It's kind of strange how you'd just talk about what was at hand."
Which meant a lot of conversations about how we should talk literally anywhere else, because mortars.
For the politicians, at least, Carl figures it all came down to control:
"I think some people were just demonstrating they had the power. ... Motives matter, but unless you can really talk to people and get inside their heads, that's a tough one. People who we've labeled the enemy, people we're sure are wretched and horrible ... those same people can make a decision and be your ally, too. Once you really believe that allies can come from anywhere in society, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities.
In a movie we ask who is the good guy, who is the bad guy? It's more complex than that, and your most important ally can be a bad guy. He can be the difference between life and death."
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Ways My Modern Country Turned Into a Dystopia Overnight. And then check out 25 Real Facts That Make Common Fears Way Less Scary.