American in Rwanda draws comfort from his faith

June 21, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The only American to stay in Rwanda's capital throughout its civil war draws comfort from glimpses of human decency amid the "utter hatred" around him.

"Through it all, God has called us . . . to look for some of the good in all the ugly stuff," says Carl Wilkens, 36.

By day, Mr. Wilkens runs what remains of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency's Kigali operation -- its offices and warehouse have been burned and looted, and some of its employees have been killed in the genocide that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. He delivers trucked-in supplies of food to orphans and refugees and is planning distribution of an expected shipment of medicine.

By night, he huddles in a hallway in his home, using a sandbag for a pillow and pulling a mattress over himself when shelling and automatic weapons fire become especially intense. When the war broke out, the front line was three miles from his house. Now, it's a half-mile or less.

During the orgy of massacres that followed the air-crash death of Rwanda's president on April 6, the U.S. Embassy in Kigali urged Americans to leave the country and organized an overland convoy to neighboring Burundi. Mr. Wilkens' wife and three children left.

But Mr. Wilkens, whose home is in Spokane, Wash., and who began working in Africa after graduating from college 13 years ago, chose to stay to maintain ADRA's presence in Kigali. He says he believes that his staying has encouraged Rwandans trying to provide relief to their compatriots. "People know they're not forgotten," he says.

State Department officials say that they believe he is the only American to remain in Kigali since the beginning of the civil war and perhaps the only Westerner to remain there without a break. George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, wrote to ADRA praising Mr. Wilkens' help during the evacuation.

Worried about his safety, ADRA kept quiet about his whereabouts for weeks, although agency officials kept in radio contact. But by now, he has become so well-known both to government and rebel forces that the agency's Silver Spring office released a videotape made of him during a recent visit by ADRA's Kenya-based division director.

"Everyone knows Carl's more scared of being hit by a stray bullet than targeted and killed," says Tamara Boehmke, an ADRA spokeswoman.

Standing in front of a lush tropical tree, the youthful-looking Mr. Wilkens faced the camera as mortar and automatic weapons fire boomed and crackled nearby. Alternately smiling and fighting back tears, he talked about the separation from his family and deaths of ADRA employees, and tried to reconcile Rwanda's horror with his deep religious faith.

The result was a strained-sounding inspirational message that omitted any graphic descriptions of horrors he must have witnessed.

He spoke of the "utter hatred and chaos in a city where there is no law and no order." Rwandans, he said, believe that "Rwanda is the place where God comes to sleep at night." But he acknowledged, "We haven't seen evidence of it, of course, in these last few days."

But he insisted, as gunfire nearly drowned out his words, "There are people here in Rwanda who are striving daily" to help others. While many members of the armed forces are reported to have joined in massacres, Mr. Wilkens cited one who, despite losing many family members in the war, continues to help others regardless of ethnic background.

He withheld judgment of those who have committed atrocities.

"Even people who've been involved in massacres themselves, I'm convinced, have had so much manipulation, both emotional and physical, to their own family members that they've been forced into situations that we think are horrendous and we think we could never do. But you could never know until you're in their shoes."

He spoke of how Rwandans' health had deteriorated sharply and of the need to rebuild water supplies. The job will be "so vast it's hard to know where to begin."

But a bigger challenge, he said, will be "the healing of the hearts."

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