American witness to 1994 massacres spreads good news of healing that followed
MIAMI | When Gabriela Latimer was in eighth grade, her teacher advised her not to pursue a history project on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, deeming it too graphic. Over 800,000 people were killed in about 100 days, so the teacher had a reasonable argument.
But Gabriela didn’t listen. As far as she was concerned, “the topics that aren’t spoken about are the important ones.”
Four years later, as a senior at Immaculata-La Salle High School in Miami, Gabriela had the opportunity to meet Carl Wilkens, the only American to voluntarily remain in Kigali, Rwanda, during the genocide. Wilkens and his wife, Teresa, later founded the educational nonprofit World Outside My Shoes. Now he travels the globe sharing his experiences. On March 6, he led an evening presentation at Immaculata-La Salle.
An aid worker with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Wilkens was living in Rwanda with his family when the violence began. He sent his family away to safety, but remained during the mass killings. He sheltered and aided persecuted friends and neighbors, and provided water, food and medicine to local orphanages. He said his presence as a foreigner sometimes prevented conflicts from escalating.
Today, 24 years later, he is amazed at how his audiences connect with the story of genocide, in ways they don’t with other topics. His hope is that listeners will learn to stand up against genocide, prejudice and hatred across borders, and affirm the values of respect, empathy and inclusion.
NEED FOR HEALING
But his story doesn’t end with the genocide. In a way, that’s where it begins.
“We came to hear about Rwanda, but the part that we needed to hear was the part about healing,” said Carmen Latimer, Gabriela’s mother. “What they’re living is healing and we need a lot of that here. We need compassion and acceptance.”
“To change a bad reputation is hard,” said Wilkens. “At the time of the genocide it seemed like the world didn’t care, and we turned our back as nearly a million of our family members were killed. But I don’t buy it that people don’t care. I believe they do, they just don’t know how and that’s what tools and inspirations are all about.”
Wilkens showed images of Rwanda, describing it as a country with amazing people, delicious pineapples, mystical volcanoes, and rainforests like those Dian Fossey described in “Gorillas in the Mist.” In the cities, streets are clean and men work, as do women, who were empowered to do so after the genocide. Rwanda’s women now account for 64 percent of the representatives in the parliament, the highest rate of women in power in the world. A 2015 UNICEF report showed Rwanda to have a 97.7 percent enrollment rate in primary education, the highest in Africa.
“I was stuck in studying the genocide itself, and all the political motivations and all the sociological stuff about it, and when I got there it was like, ‘That was 20 years ago. Look at this country now,’” said JC Moya, an English and political science teacher at Immaculata-La Salle who travelled to Rwanda with Wilkens.
“It’s not about how many people were killed or who did the killing,” Moya added. “It becomes about how a society can come together and rebuild a country destroyed by violence and hatred.”
After the genocide, the people of Rwanda knew that one of their greatest challenges would not be the physical rebuilding, but the ability to re-establish trust.
“People thought they could trust their government, and their government was ordering them to kill their neighbors. People thought they could trust their church and people were slaughtered by the thousands in churches. They thought they could trust their neighbors, and many were betrayed,” said Wilkens.
He is a witness not just to the horrors, but to Rwandans’ reconciliation with each other. He told the story of Adele Sefuku, a pastor’s wife. Her husband and several others were killed at their Seventh-day Adventist church in Rwamagana, where they were hiding. Though she took several blows to the head and was left for dead, she survived.
After her health improved, Sefuku decided to continue her husband’s work by taking their ministry to the prisons. While many appreciated her presence, one young man kept avoiding her. Eventually, she found out that he had killed her son. She prayed and asked God to show her the way to forgiveness.
She began bringing small tokens to the young man: bars of soap, fruit and other goodies. At first he refused them, but she gently persisted. When the young man decided he wanted to be baptized as a Seventh-day Adventist, she was the one who wiped his face after his full baptismal submersion. In a way, she said, her prayers were answered because she felt peace.
Sefuku’s work with the young man was not over, however. She asked the authorities to reduce his sentence. They agreed to release him with the condition that she take him into her custody. He was not exactly welcomed into her neighborhood, and although she described him as respectful, she and he barely spoke or bonded at home.
One day, feeling faint, she lay down on her couch and closed her eyes to rest. Sefuku told Wilkens that she tested the young man that day because he could have easily killed her and run away. Instead, he quietly entered the room, touched her brow, left, and returned with a cool cloth that he placed on her forehead. He took care of her and lived with her for nine months before moving out.
Like Sefuku, Wilkens is a strong believer that God works through people.
“We expect God to draw the line somewhere,” said Wilkens. “God calls on us to draw the line and he says, ‘I will empower you, I will inspire you. But if I work through you, that will be a much louder, sustainable, believable, replicable example of my love.’”
Wilkens added that the stories of hope coming out of Rwanda prove “we don’t have to be defined by our past, we don’t have to be defined by our worst activities. We can be defined by what we do next and that is something all of us need to work on.”