Much of what the world remembers about the Rwandan genocide are grim tales of betrayal among neighbors and of the slaughter of innocent civilians. There are other stories of people who resisted the urge to kill and who risked their lives to save the lives of others.

When genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994, Carl Wilkens refused to leave Rwanda, even when urged to do so by his family, his church and the United States government. At the time, Carl was a missionary with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, living in Rwanda with his wife and three children. As Carl and Teresa listened to pleas for help from mission stations around the tiny country over the radio, they decided that Carl would stay and Teresa and the children would evacuate.

In his family’s absence, Carl witnessed events that have changed his life irrevocably. As a result of Carl’s decision to stand up to genocide, hundreds of lives were saved. His story demonstrates each individual’s ability to have a hand in stopping genocide.

Carl urged for the protection of one of the orphanages in grave danger, enlisting Rwanda’s Hutu prime minister to stop the massacre of children in the orphanage. His actions saved the lives of hundreds of children and many of his Rwandan friends. Elsewhere, Carl Wilkens fearlessness and generosity made it possible for him to preserve the lives of hundreds of Tutsis. Many were strangers, some were close friends and members of his own staff. He worked indiscriminately to safeguard their lives within the capital of Kigali where he was based.

Carl and Teresa spent a year and a half in Rwanda after the genocide ended to assist with the rebuilding process. In 1996, they returned to the United States where Carl became a chaplain at a boarding school in Oregon. In early 2008, Carl left his job in Oregon and began traveling full-time to communities across the US, sharing what he witnessed in Rwanda in hopes of empowering others to take action and to hold their communities and elected officials accountable to doing all that they can to stop and prevent genocide and mass atrocities throughout the world.

Since his return, Carl has been recognized with several humanitarian awards, including a 2005 Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Dignitas Humana Award from Saint John’s School of Theology Seminary. He was featured in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” as well as in “The Few Who Stayed: Defying Genocide,” an American Radio Works documentary which aired on National Public Radio.

Carl Wilkens believes strongly that “one person can make a difference” and that popular groundswells for change are born when individuals “look outside of “themselves” and reach out” to one another. “We need to live for each other,” he has said. In respect of Carl Wilkens’ message, legacy, and ongoing work, the Genocide Intervention Network named its first fellowship program “The Carl Wilkens Fellowship” in 2008.

Visit Carl’s website:

  • Rehema Alasoo Nzilani

    One word…selflessness