Carl Wilkens highlights what we can learn about restorative justice from Rwandans  

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The Dodd Center hosted Carl Wilkens, a former humanitarian aid worker during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, who discussed the concept of restorative justice and how Rwandans restored trust in their former oppressors while living amongst them. Photo from UConn Human Rights webiste.

The Dodd Center hosted Carl Wilkens, a former humanitarian aid worker during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, who discussed the concept of restorative justice and how Rwandans restored trust in their former oppressors while living amongst them. This discussion, “Rwanda’s Restorative Journey: Living Alongside the Enemy,” took place at Konover Auditorium on Jan. 24. 

“Can people who killed their neighbors really live peacefully with those they failed to kill?” Wilkens examined. 

He told the story of Maria, a survivor of the genocide, and Philbert, the man who killed her husband and sons. Maria introduced Philbert to Wilkens as her valued family friend, Wilkens said. 

“All I could see in Philbert was a killer, a rapist,” Wilkens said as he described his internal conflict. “I could not see him as anything but that.” 

However, Wilkens said that Maria reframed Philbert and showed empathy for Philbert’s experiences as a prisoner. 

“She steps out of the spotlight. She puts Philbert in the spotlight,” Wilkens said. “That must be one of Maria’s superpowers. She could step out of the spotlight and put the guy I could only see as a killer in the spotlight and start to practice empathy with him.” 

Wilkens emphasized how the Rwandan genocide was not a story of “tribal hatred and conflict that eventually reached the level of genocide.” Instead, it was a coup, he said. 

“The architects of the genocide had to work hard to break the bonds between the Hutus and Tutsis,” Wilkens said. “When you speak the same language, you go to school together, you go to church together, you drink beer together, you do business together, of course, you’re going to fall in love. You’re going to build relationships.” 

“The architects of the genocide had to work hard to break the bonds between the Hutus and Tutsis. When you speak the same language, you go to school together, you go to church together, you drink beer together, you do business together, of course, you’re going to fall in love. You’re going to build relationships.” 

Carl Wilkens, former Humanitarian Aid worker who worked during the Rwandan Genocide.

In some cases, these existing relationships saved some Rwandans from the genocide. Even being a part of a soccer team was the difference between life and death, according to Wilkens. 

“So many people survived because of their soccer mates, those bonds of that teamship of that team and that sport together,” Wilkens said. 

However, the extremist government and orchestrators of genocide laid waste to many of those relationships. According to Wilkens, many were not strong enough to survive the country’s violent divide. 

“They are creating and constructing the enemy. It doesn’t happen overnight in Rwanda,” Wilkens said of the extremist group trying to figure out a way to orchestrate the country’s divide. “If they married each other by the thousands, it’s hard to build a case that this is built on hate between tribal groups.” 

“This was a coup,” Wilkens said. “This was an illegal seizure of power. One of the first actions of that extremist government was to eliminate anyone that would stand in their way.” 

What was the difference between relationships that survived and those that the genocide destroyed? People who commit violence during genocide may be using their “downstairs brain,” Wilkens said. 

According to Wilkens, the concept of the upstairs and downstairs brain is another way of framing the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is responsible for our fight-or-flight response, and the prefrontal cortex is responsible for creativity, empathy and critical thinking. Wilkens proposed that this model may explain why many people in Rwanda resorted to senseless violence, especially since the country was on edge after being driven through countless wars. 

“Different things happen that can cause us to just go for survival,” Wilkens said. “We fire those pathways about scarcity not enough; it’s no wonder that people seem to be on edge.” 

“Different things happen that can cause us to just go for survival. We fire those pathways about scarcity not enough; it’s no wonder that people seem to be on edge.” 

Carl Wilkens, former Humanitarian Aid worker who worked during the Rwandan Genocide.

Wilkens said mindfulness was the best way to make it to the “upstairs brain,” like Maria was able to do when she empathized with Philbert. 

Mindfulness is how the Rwandans restored relationships with one another after the genocide, even going as far as being lifelong friends with people who killed their families, Wilkens said. They even implemented it in their justice system, he added. 

Gacaca courts, or community courts, are a form of restorative justice implemented after the genocide where prisoners stood in front of the community, confessing and answering questions to the family and friends of the victims, according to Wilkens. It is an alternative to punitive justice. 

“It was a restoring of humanity,” Wilkens said. “The incentive for the perpetrator was that you could get your sentence reduced and it was a pathway home. The incentive for the survivor was that you could learn the truth, which was really important.” 

A student who attended the event was able to learn about how he could implement restorative practices into our justice system. 

William Evans, a senior from E.O. Smith High School, is a “restorative diversion team” member. According to Evans, his team focuses on implementing restorative justice practices in our justice system in Storrs. He hopes to collaborate with Wilkens. 

“He obviously has extensive experience with the implications of restorative justice,” Evans said. 

In 1994, Wilkens was one of the only two humanitarian workers who refused to leave Rwanda as thousands of UN soldiers fled during the Rwandan genocide, according to the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute

The event was sponsored by UConn Global Affairs, the Dodd Human Rights Impact and the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. 

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