Across the Amnesty International family, throughout West Africa and everywhere in the global human rights community our hearts are broken and we weep at the sorrowful news that our dear colleague and very special friend, Gaëtan Mootoo has left us so suddenly and tragically, after more than three decades of being at the heart of Amnesty’s work throughout Francophone West Africa.
Over the span of twelve years, I had the honour and deep good fortune to carry out eight research missions to four different countries with Gaëtan, often in the midst or immediate aftermath of terrible armed conflict and atrocities. We went through much together, including being trapped behind a rebel offensive, evacuated by the French military, and going head to head with several Presidents. Over that time we became exceptionally close, and I certainly learned a great deal from a man who embodied the very essence of what it is to bring humanity and respect to our human rights research and advocacy.
I truly feel as if a small piece of my heart has been emptied out today; but I know that Gaëtan’s spirit, humble nature and grit will flourish across our movement and in the individuals, families and communities whose lives he touched and whose power he helped to lift up; they are a multitude far too numerous to even begin to count. Gaëtan never forgot any of their names and stories, or hopes and dreams (I saw that firsthand as he would encounter someone he had met on a mission years earlier and pick up the conversation as if only a few days had passed); nor will they ever forget him.
On one mission he painstakingly tracked down a young woman, displaced in Cote d’Ivoire, who months earlier had shared with him her love for Shakespeare when he interviewed her about a brutal attack on her family’s compound. He brought her a gilded copy of Much Ado About Nothing and we searched for her until he could hand it over. On another mission, he refused to be brought on to a French military base in eastern Chad to prepare for evacuation to the capital until authorities reversed their refusal to provide shelter to the local translators who had been working with us nonstop for two weeks. These stories could go on for pages.
There will be many words of sadness and celebration over the coming days and weeks. I am flooded with memories and give thanks for a man who was an inspiring mentor; a human rights champion extraordinaire who has touched thousands of lives & been at the heart of enormous victories for freedom, safety & justice; a beautiful and gentle soul; a man of & for Africa; a man of equal parts courage & humility; a wonderful cook (even of the edge of a war zone); a man whose heart flowed over with endless love for his beloved wife and son; and a very dear friend.
I look back through the many photos of working with Gaëtan in the field over those 12 years, and there he is: head bowed down as he fills the pages of his notebook; so often clutching his overstuffed briefcase; not always sure where he has left his glasses; his impeccable fashion sense no matter the setting; his phone, long before he had a mobile in Paris; his passion for Shakespeare; his debonair hat & often untamed hair; his ability to work 18 hours a day on one meal and a few cups of tea; his slightly downcast smile; and always the warmth of his look.
His legacy flourishes in places large & small, and in hearts & lives too many to count. We embrace you dearest Gaëtan with the love & comfort that was your embrace for us all.
By Alex Neve, Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English Branch)