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Saying "No" to Killers

July 21, 2004

Saying No to Killers



So what would you do if, like Carl Wilkens, you were caught in the middle of a genocide?

Mr. Wilkens, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary, was living with his wife and three small children in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994. Then a Hutu militia began to slaughter the Tutsi, beginning with prominent figures like his banker neighbors, who threw their two youngest children to safety over a back fence before they were executed. Mr. Wilkens and his wife, Teresa, tried to distract their children from the carnage by playing a variation of musical chairs in which you could move only when there was no gunfire nearby.

U.S. officials and church leaders ordered Mr. Wilkens to join an emergency evacuation of foreigners from Rwanda, and relatives and friends implored him to go.

He refused.

Ms. Wilkens and the children left, but Mr. Wilkens insisted on staying in Kigali to try to protect Tutsi friends. His father warned him that even if he survived, his insubordination might end his career in the church. In the end, every other American left Kigali, but Mr. Wilkens remained through the entire genocide.

"It just seemed the right thing to do," he recalled in an interview here in Oregon, where he is now an Adventist pastor in the small town of Days Creek. "I could take my blue passport and go, and moments later my housegirl and night watchman, both identifiable Tutsis, were going to be butchered."

One evening the militia came to kill Mr. Wilkens and his Tutsi servants, but Hutu neighbors praised his humanitarian work and the militia went away. Death threats piled up, but Mr. Wilkens spent his days talking his way through roadblocks of snarling, drunken soldiers so he could take water and food to orphanages around town. The Raoul Wallenberg of Rwanda, he negotiated, pleaded and bullied his way through the bloodshed, saving lives everywhere he went.

This continued for three months as 800,000 people were slaughtered. During all this time, President Bill Clinton and other Americans dithered, and there was an utter moral failure around the world.

But Mr. Wilkens plodded on each day, saving lives on a retail scale. Survivors describe him as extraordinarily courageous, not only for staying in Rwanda but also for venturing out each day into streets crackling with mortars and gunfire and pushing his way through roadblocks of angry, bloodstained soldiers armed with machetes and assault rifles.

Of course, Mr. Wilkens managed to save only a tiny number of Tutsi in Kigali, and Americans sometimes ask if his work wasn't like spitting into the ocean. That's true, he acknowledged, adding, "But for the people you help, it's pretty significant."

Ten years later, it's a useful exercise to wonder how many of us would have the courage Mr. Wilkens showed. Yet we don't have to wonder idly how we would respond to such an African genocide - one is unfolding, right now, in the Darfur region of Sudan, and once again we're doing next to nothing. The World Health Organization estimates that 10,000 people are dying there each month, and again the response around the world has been abject moral failure.

Colin Powell's visit to Sudan was an excellent first step, but President Bush has remained passive. As for John Kerry, he averted his eyes from Darfur for months, but last week he finally demanded action against what he termed genocide.

The U.S. needs to send massive aid shipments and take much tougher steps, like issuing an ultimatum that will lead to a no-flight zone over most of Darfur until the Sudanese government disarms the genocidal Janjaweed militia. That would get Khartoum's attention.

To respond to this genocide, we don't need to stand up to drunken killers with machetes and AK-47's, as Mr. Wilkens did. Yet we, as individuals or as a nation, still can't muster the will to take minimal steps to save lives, like providing adequate food, water and medicine, and browbeating Sudan into halting the killing.

If readers want to help, I've listed some actions they can take on (but please don't send money to me). Moral choices lie not only with those who, like Carl Wilkens, risk death to help others, but also with the millions of ordinary people who are spared the risks but still face a basic decision: Do we try to save lives, or do we simply turn away?


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