I am deeply saddened by the news that Aloisea Inyumba has passed away. Only 48 years old, she was a visionary leader who held a series of important posts in Rwandan public life after 1994, serving nearly seven years as a senator.
Inyumba played an instrumental role in persuading the Aegis Trust to become established in Rwanda over ten years ago. She was then the first Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Unity and Reconciliation, a body charged with what appeared to be an impossible mission after her country’s identity and heart was torn apart by those who committed the Genocide against the Tutsi.
It was in that capacity that she attended the Stockholm International Forum early in 2002 where she met Stephen Smith, an advisor to the Forum and co-founder of Aegis. She changed her return travel plans from Europe to Rwanda to visit Aegis in the UK, then based at The Holocaust Centre near Newark. I had already visited Rwanda twice on the invitation of the Government of Rwanda and was becoming aware of the overwhelming challenges faced by that small nation and its young people. “Eight years on and we have not yet finished burying our dead.” Such a short sentence, but when Inyumba spoke it resonated with depth, meaning, sorrow and determination.
That was only one challenge. Gacaca, the traditional courts system had not yet started. How do you quantify the burden of justice after a million people have been murdered, often by their neighbours? How can you describe the fear and mistrust of a new generation when they grow up with brutal, horrific memories; when they have knowledge of what human beings may do if the rule of law and moral codes are made to collapse?
I asked whether she was not daunted by such responsibility, heading up Unity and Reconciliation in Rwanda. She sat quietly yet confidently, clearly having considered the significance of her task. Her voice was as authoritative as it was gentle. “We have no choice but to try. We must do our best.” When she said “we”, I probed who she meant, whether the Government of Rwanda, or the Rwandan Patriotic Front, whom she served loyally during its days fighting in the bush. To her, “we” meant Rwandans – any Rwandan who was willing and able to play a role in re-building their nation. “But we cannot do this alone,” she added in her effort to convince me of the merit of the Aegis Trust working in Rwanda. I told her that not everyone agreed that the approach she was taking was the best. “So challenge us then. Convince me how we can do it better and I will try a different way.” I never found a better way, but she was always open to hearing one.
I had been responsible for establishing The Holocaust Centre in 1995 in the UK. That was fifty years after the Holocaust and the survivors mostly did not need to live among the perpetrators. Genocide memory in Rwanda was very different; it was all so raw. Aegis was a small organisation, and there had to be others more qualified and with greater capacity to work alongside Rwandans on these immense issues of memory, education and prevention. I told Inyumba that I was cautious about Aegis becoming involved. While we were beginning to understand something about the implications of the Genocide, it was all too much to comprehend, and frankly, we had been fed all kinds of reports about the dangers of working in Rwanda.
“This is your mission. You must do this.” She took time to describe how working with survivors and preserving memory for future generations is of itself profoundly important, yet neglected. Beyond that, she saw that it would lay a foundation for preventing genocide. “Please,” she said in her small yet reassuring voice. “If you fear the scale, then do something small. Work with me, and then you can assess for yourself the value. If it does not become apparent to you, others will convince you how valuable this is, how essential it is for us.”
She soon became the Prefet, or Governor, of Rural Kigali and took Stephen and I to visit the Nyamata and Ntarama churches that had become memorials where Tutsi victims had been slain in 1994. She found land for Aegis to be based in Bugesera, in the province then known as Kigali Ngali or Rural Kigali. The funding did not work out and the project did not progress. Then, by chance, the Mayor of Kigali found us and Aegis became involved in working with the Kigali City Council. I was still uncertain. Inyumba was supportive. “You must do this James. Aegis must do this. For this country; for others, too, elsewhere, please, for the future, work with us.”
Some of our conversation was recorded in the UK, and later in Ntarama Genocide memorial. She can be seen speaking about the enormous post-Genocide challenges for Rwandan society in the second half of ‘100 Nights,’ (www.vimeo.com/28355907 ), a video made in 2003 to explain the Aegis Trust’s role in the development of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, then simply known as ‘Gisozi’.
For Inyumba politics was a vocation. Her politician’s cloak was transparent, revealing her humanity beneath. The concern she showed to widows and orphans was as if she had been through the experience herself. She saw their loss as her loss, and it was not only words of sympathy she expressed. As minister of gender, family and social affairs after the genocide, Inyumba oversaw the burial of victims, the resettlement of returnees, and led a national adoption campaign to place Genocide orphans in homes. She was also central in establishing the national women’s network, which helped settle family and property issues resulting from the genocide.
Speaking in 2004 following the opening of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, she said, “Some people think ten years after it’s a long time, but when they visit this site, it brings the Genocide into memory again; it makes it real. It’s the message it gives, you know; that this bad act of genocide was committed in Rwanda, and what’s important today is to ensure that such a thing doesn’t happen in Rwanda or other places in Africa.”
Inyumba dreamed there could be a better future. But for dreams to become a reality, she knew they needed turning into a vision, and that vision needs to be turned into action. Now she rests in peace, but her legacy is left with the many she inspired and encouraged along her own journey. The Aegis Trust in Rwanda is just one of those she touched. I know we would not have had the foresight or courage if it were not for her. We may feel poorer now she’s gone, but many were made richer, beyond measure, by her life.
Dr James Smith is the Chief Executive of the Aegis Trust.