What sparked the senseless slaughter of more than 1 million Rwandans in 1994? And what has been done to learn from that event and prevent future genocides?
Author and noted lecturer Carl Wilkens will visit NIU later this month to shed light on the answers to those questions and explore the responsibility that we have for each other.
As the founder of World Outside My Shoes and the author of “I’m Not Leaving,” Wilkens is best known for his decision to remain in Rwanda while the genocide raged, making him the only U.S. citizen and one of the few non-nationals to do so. As a result, he witnessed one of the 20th century’s most horrifying campaigns of extermination.
His talk, titled “The Complexities of Genocide: During and After Rwanda,” will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, in the Sky Room of the Holmes Student Center.
Sponsored by the student group STAND, the University Honors Program, Phi Beta Delta International Honor Society, the Division of International Affairs and the Genocide and Human Rights Institute, the event is free and open to the public.
As a humanitarian aid worker, Wilkens had moved his young family to Rwanda in the spring of 1990.
When the genocide was launched in April 1994, he refused to leave, even when urged to do so by close friends, his church and the United States government. Thousands of expatriates evacuated, and the United Nations pulled out most of its troops.
Venturing out each day into streets crackling with mortars and gunfire, he worked his way through roadblocks of angry, bloodstained soldiers and civilians armed with machetes and assault rifles in order to bring food, water and medicine to groups of orphans trapped around the city. His actions saved the lives of hundreds.
His talk will not focus on the horrors of the genocide, although those cannot be avoided, but rather how we can mitigate current genocides and prevent, hopefully, future ones from even breaking out. It is, Wilkens has said, “about the dangers of dehumanization and creating a sense of ‘the other’ ” that leads a people down the path to horrific violence.
Heather Klain, a senior and president of STAND for the past two years, invited Wilkens to campus.
“Along with Romeo Dallaire, Carl Wilkens is one of the most important figures to have experienced life during a genocide and take the consequent lessons and message of hope to the international community,” Klain said.
“Wilkens is, perhaps, one of the most important speakers to come to NIU,” said J.D. Bowers, associate vice provost for University Honors and a genocide studies scholar. “His message is at the core of the efforts of the UN, NGOs, and many national governments, who all desire to end the impunity of genocide perpetration, which will, in turn, lead to prevention.”
Wilkens will be on campus for several days, also spending time with students in a three-hour workshop on how to engage a multitude of different audiences, especially when the topic is one that is filled with tales of violence, inhumanity and horror. Co-sponsored by the Department of Communications, he will work with students on how to hone their message through activism, appeals to conscience and work with the public as well as government officials.
“His presence on our campus will help us to grow and to spread the message about getting involved, standing up to perpetrators of violence, and ending the culture of destruction,” Klain said. “We hope that so many students and community members will find this to be valuable, so much so that we run out of seats in the Sky Room.”
For more information, call (815) 753-0694 or email [email protected].