rest in peace, alison des forges
The New York Times reports that Alison des Forges was a passenger on Continental flight 3407, which crashed into a home near Buffalo, New York last night. A tribute to her life can be found at Human Rights Watch, where she served as senior adviser to the Africa division. Des Forges lived in Buffalo, where her husband is a professor of Chinese history.
Alison des Forges has been the acknowledged expert on Rwanda on this side of the Atlantic for the last twenty years. She was one of a very few Americans to be fluent in Kinyarwanda. Any major news story requiring a quote from a knowledgable observer cites her expertise. Des Forges' interest in the country was not just scholarly, but also personal. Having worked in the country for what must be close to 35 years now, the genocide for her was a personal tragedy. She lost friends. She had predicted the tragedy.
She authored one of the definitive accounts of the genocide for Human Rights Watch, where she became Senior Advisor for Africa. Leave None to Tell the Story is a masterful, heartbreaking, 800-page work that painsteakingly detailed the events that lead to the deaths of 800,000 people.
I met des Forges in 2000 in my first year of graduate school at Yale. She was invited by my advisor, Bill Foltz, to speak to a small group of students about the situation in Rwanda and about using scholarship for activism in human rights. I sat right across the conference table from her. She answered my question as to whether genocide would be likely to occur in Rwanda again with a definite yes. I remember her saying something to the effect that if the Tutsi government didn't open more political freedom to Hutus, conflict would be inevitable. She infuriated the government of Rwanda with her insistence that the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which took over the country and ended the genocide, also be held to account for the deaths of 30,000 people that occured during its campaign to take the country. Kagame's government banned her from entering the country she knew so well in 2008.
Des Foges spoke and worked with what might best be termed passionate intensity. Her unrelenting stare showed clearly that she refused to accept excuses from those who were responsible for atrocities and war crimes. When she would speak at conferences, there would be a hush in the room from even the angriest participants. Not everyone agreed with her views, but everyone respected her. She knew that of which she spoke.
The news of des Forges' death is absolutely stunning. The human rights community and the scholarly community - particularly those of us who care about Africa - have lost someone who perfectly modeled what good scholarship can do to make the world a better place. I admired her commitment and looked up to her scholarship, and find the thought of her not being at the annual meetings of the African Studies Association almost impossible to comprehend. It is a heartbreaking, unbelievable loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and colleagues.
Photo: Human Rights Watch