Monique Mujawamariya delivered an abridged version of this tribute, in French, at the memorial service in honor of Alison Des Forges in New York on May 21, 2009.
Since Alison passed away, after my initial outrage about how it happened, I was surprised at my own urgency to revisit all the memories I shared with this wonderful woman. It was as if I was racing against time before my precious memories were stolen from me. I was haunted by the fear of forgetting something.
So I started digging into my mind and was glad to find that my memory, in fact, was intact and very strong. Remembering Alison’s laughter, I saw so many things we shared. She had a distinctive laugh, a girlish laugh, which was my best therapy for a long time. She would laugh and everything would become lighter. I loved spending time with her, because I laugh easily too!
We have heard today about Alison the activist, a passionate seeker of truth and justice. I won’t expand on this aspect of her character, which others have eloquently described.
Rather, I wish to tell you about Alison Des Forges the African, the woman who is mourned in Ouagadougou, by among others our friend Halidou Ouédraogo, who was on a team of investigators led by Alison on human rights violations in Rwanda in January 1993.
Alison is also mourned by many in Dakar, including my friend Bara Diokhané who was part of the team that Alison led to investigate the death of President Ndadaye in Burundi in November 1993. I would like to acknowledge my friend Bara Diokhane from Senegal, who knew Alison and did everything he could to be here today to honor her.
There has been an outpouring of grief from those who knew Alison, about whom HRW doesn’t even know. Together we cry for her, we talk of her, and we remember her.
I will tell you about Alison the friend, Alison the neighbor, and Alison the American, whose civic conscience was so strong that I’m sure she would quickly have been close to Obama, the community organizer.
Back in May 1994, Alison knew I was desperate as I did not know where my children were. We’d been running every which way between the State Department in Washington and the United Nations in New York. So one day she decided that we would rest in Buffalo.
When we arrived at her home, her husband Roger welcomed us warmly. The next morning, after a good breakfast, Alison sat me down in a rocking chair and handed me some family photo albums and magazines. She said, "Let me take care of you, it will make me happy and we will be fit for next week."
It was new to me that someone would tell me, "Take it easy, I'll take care of you!"
Of course it didn’t work – I was fidgety and she noticed it. So she said, "Come and join me on a little outing, I’m sure this will do you good. We'll visit some friends of mine. I always enjoy getting together with girlfriends. It’s good therapy."
So she brought me along on a visit to a woman who seemed to suffer from a terrible ailment. She was so overweight that she couldn’t get out of bed. When I saw her, I flinched. It was the first time I had seen a person in this condition.
As if there were no problem at all, Alison greeted her with a kiss, introduced me, and asked about her family. She told the lady that she found her to be in better shape than on her last visit. We did the dishes, changed the bed, and prepared lunch for the child in the house. We chatted a little, laughed a lot, and finally left. At the door, Alison turned around to wave goodbye, and the woman leaned forward. She could not move her body, but said, "Alison, you are an angel!"
At that moment it wouldn’t have surprised me had Alison grown wings on her back. Her face was radiant. Once we were outside, she told me she was happy to have found her friend in good spirits. She added that at our next stop, we would be rewarded with some good tea!
After that we went to visit an African-American lady, who was another of Alison’s friends. And indeed, she made us a good tea. Alison knew her entire family and started recounting anecdotes about various family members. Her friend was surprised and said to Alison, "You still remember that? It's been more than five years since I’ve seen that relative!” But Alison remembered everything and her friend was overjoyed. Alison mastered the art of making people feel they were important to her. We laughed a lot, it was a wonderfully refreshing visit. At the door, the lady told Alison, "You are truly an angel! I needed that freshness, I could hardly take it anymore."
We did not talk about problems at all, and within a few hours two women had told Alison, sincerely, that she was an angel! As we headed home, Alison told me that her friend had been going through a rough patch in her marriage. She knew that it was hard for her and that our visit would do her good.
Four hours after we had left, we arrived back home. As we walked in, Alison called out to Roger, "Hi sweetie, we’re back." She started fixing dinner. Lots of faxes were waiting for her, but she said lightheartedly that she would deal with them later. And that night, while everyone else was fast asleep, Alison worked busily on human rights, on behalf of my people!
This Alison whom I’ve described – I think she’s not known by the general public, which knows the internationalist, the eminent historian with a passion for human rights. I feel privileged to have known almost all of Alison’s facets. I lived through a very important period of my life with Alison. I shared unforgettable moments with her. I learned from her and appreciated both her deep humaneness and professional qualities. I can say with confidence, now that she has passed over to the other side, "Alison, you were and you are my angel."
All of these thoughts stir about in my head, and they do me good. It's so nice to relive what I shared with you, Alison. For fear of losing fragments of memories of my times with you, I began to write down the story of our friendship. I have so much to say, Lord, that it would fill a big book!
When I was asked to speak at this memorial service, I had so much to choose from. I wanted to talk about everything, as if we were all sitting around a cozy fire on a cool autumn night, our hearts overflowing with nostalgia. You are for me a beautiful story, you are part of my story, and I often tell myself that you are my story.
Yes, I have written to the point that my fingers hurt, and still it was you who taught me that writing can be the beginning of the healing process. Writing the story of our friendship has left me remembering your unjust passing a little less bitterly. It was a pleasure for me to immerse myself in these memories, because I know we will dream and laugh together, again and again!
It seems strange to have felt such joy while working with Alison, when one considers that our job was to shout to the world about the injustice in my country, the horrific deaths we had witnessed and the wrenching testimony we had heard. But that was Alison. She could help one survive battles, with injuries that would heal and with scars that wouldn’t stop one from living. Together, we found the moss that hid the sadness.
To truly pay respect to Alison will mean to now finish what she started. We must all work together to make sure that members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who committed crimes against humanity are held accountable, in order to eradicate impunity in my country once and for all. This will be a victory for justice, and the crowning achievement of Alison’s battle.
* Dr. Monique Mujawamariya was a prominent human rights activist in Rwanda at the time of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. With the help of Alison Des Forges, she managed to escape death. Dr. Mujawamariya currently lives in Montreal, where she is founder and president of the organization Mobilisation Enfants du Monde (MEM).