(Goma) – Human Rights Watch deeply mourns the passing of Jean-Baptiste Bengehya Mwezi, our operations manager in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, who died of a sudden illness on May 6, 2014.
Jean-Baptiste had been the pillar of our Goma office since Human Rights Watch first established a presence there in 2003. In addition to managing the office, he was a skilled research assistant and interpreter who spoke six languages. When interpreting for victims and witnesses of massacres, rape, torture, or other abuses, he not only translated their words and emotions, but was compassionate and supportive, put them at ease, and gave them strength.
He worked tirelessly to make sure that our Goma office complied with all administrative procedures, that visitors felt welcome, and that the office ran smoothly, despite a tumultuous political and security environment. He was cheerful and calm, yet persistent. He was attuned to the challenging and often dangerous security situation in eastern Congo where we traveled on research missions, but never allowed the horrors of Congo’s brutal wars to discourage him or those around him. The safety of all Human Rights Watch staff, our families, visitors, and the people Human Rights Watch worked with was his top priority.
Jean-Baptiste was the “papa” of the Human Rights Watch Congo team, always looking out for us and ready to help in his patient, understanding way. He was deeply committed to the cause of human rights, to his family, and to the countless people who looked to him as a mentor and teacher.
Before joining Human Rights Watch, he worked with several international organizations on community reintegration, including for refugees after the genocide in Rwanda, family reconciliation, and training for sexual violence counselors. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s he taught French, linguistics, and other subjects at primary, secondary, and university levels in Burundi, Rwanda, and Congo. He was the founder and former director of two secondary schools in Kitembo and Sake villages in eastern Congo.
Forever a teacher, he never missed an opportunity to give an inspirational speech at Human Rights Watch gatherings with staff and their families. We rarely went on a research mission without running into one of his former students in the remote villages and Catholic parishes across eastern Congo. They all shared a deep admiration and respect for Jean-Baptiste, and it was clear he made an important difference in their lives.
Jean-Baptiste was born on November 11, 1955, in the village of Kitembo, near the town of Minova, about 50 kilometers west of Goma. He was devoted to his wife, Georgette, his eight children ages 7 to 26 – Hortense, Sylvie, Fidélie, Afia, Priscille, David, Hervé, and Georges – and a large extended family. He took great pride in them and cherished each member of his family.
His sudden death is a shock to all of us at Human Rights Watch. We express our deepest condolences to his family and all those who were close to him. Eastern Congo has lost an advocate, teacher, father, friend – and a kind, generous soul. He will be dearly missed and always remembered.