Aloisea Inyumba is reserved but warm, with a smile that flickers softly during the telling of a favorite story. She lives on the edge between horror and hope. As the new head of Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, Inyumba bears witness each day to the worst case of genocide committed in the second half of the twentieth century.
In 1994, members of Rwanda's majority Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis—and any sympathetic Hutus—in just over three months. Even today, the burying continues, and the accounting for who died and who killed will never be complete.
The commission was established in 1999, and President Paul Kagame brought in the 34-year-old Inyumba as its head last March. Her task? To find a way for 8 million surviving Rwandans—both victims and perpetrators—to live in peace. "Before the genocide, it was a Hutu and a Tutsi hating each other," she says. "It was perception. Now it has become real. I can say that you have killed my child. The thinking in Rwanda today is that unless we have reconciliation, we have no future."
Today, 116,000 people accused of genocide are imprisoned. Since the number of criminals is so high and the capacity of the judicial system so limited, most prisoners will probably serve little jail time. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the carnage, but it is unlikely that the overburdened courts will be able to punish their assailants.
Inyumba, who is Tutsi, likes to remind those who inquire about her background that they should concentrate on what she is saying, not on her ethnicity.
Inyumba is a high-profile member of Kagame's Rwandese Patriotic Front, which rose to power following the genocide. While serving as Minister of Gender in 1994, she appointed as her deputy a lawyer whose husband had been imprisoned for acts of genocide. When public outrage erupted, she defended her decision on the grounds that her appointee should be judged based on merit and not the crimes of her husband.
Later, as Minister of Social Affairs, Inyumba was charged with finding homes for 500,000 orphans. Recognizing that there were no other alternatives, she placed Tutsi children with Hutu families. "Sometimes a woman would come to collect a child, and I would wonder, what if this person was involved in killing the parents of this child?" she recalls. In one televised transfer of newly adopted children, the sight of a girl with her new mother—and the significance of such a potentially risky decision—proved too much for Inyumba. She turned away from the cameras to hide her tears.
Although Inyumba's travels across Rwanda to consult with community leaders, church associations, the elderly, and women's groups result in less time spent with her young daughter, she believes that listening to everyday people will provide the solutions to Rwanda's problems. She plans to use these interviews to guide the commission's work.
Inyumba has organized debates, educational campaigns, and "solidarity" training sessions that bring Hutus and Tutsis together for three weeks to discuss reconciliation. She has also started programs to teach women to rebuild their houses and to produce and sell traditional crafts.
Inyumba believes that one of the primary ingredients for lasting peace is improving the lives of poor Rwandans—two thirds of the population. "We are using poverty as a concept of reconciliation," she says. "We are saying to a Hutu woman or a Tutsi family, 'Your needs are the same.' Together, we can put up a house, build a new country, and ensure that nothing like the genocide happens ever again."