Dr. Alison Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began studying Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country as well as exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people with the goal of helping to bring about change in the country. Tragically, she died in the crash of Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on February 12, 2009 and the age of 66. Des Forges was a senior adviser to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division for almost two decades and she dedicated her life to working on Rwanda.
During her first 10 years with Human Rights Watch, she worked as a volunteer and it was only later that Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW, insisted that she receive a salary for her work. She worked full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. She co-chaired an international commission looking at the rise of ethnic violence in the region and published a report on the findings several months before the genocide. Once the violence began, Des Forges managed to convince diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including the leading human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya.
She was the world’s leading expert on the 1994 Rwanda genocide and its aftermath. She wrote the 1999 book “Leave None to Tell the Story”, which The Economist and The New York Times both describe as the definitive account of the Rwandan genocide. In the book, she argued that the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government at the time, rather than being a spontaneous outbreak of tribal conflicts organized the genocide but then later realized the role the Rwanda Patriotic Front played in triggering the genocide and advocated that RPF officers be held accountable for their crimes at the ICTR. An effort that would never come to fruition due to the fight the RPF put up when asked to supply files to the ICTR.
Many disagreed with her work but one has to admit she had the tenacity of a tiger to do the things she did. She may have mischaracterized the genocide in her book but she wrote what she knew at the time. She was expelled from the country when she challenged the “genocide law” before the Rwandan Parliament and later declared persona non grata because of it. Had she survived longer I believe she would have been a strong advocate to bring the RPF to book for their crimes. Some have even said of her that, “Alison Des Forges and HRW provided intelligence to the U.S. government at the time of the 1994 crises, and they have continued in this role to the present. Des Forges also supported the show trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), institutionalizing victor’s justice and shielding the Kagame regime.”
Des Forges was a master linguist and spoke the native language of Kinyarwanda in Rwanda, which allowed her to speak freely with anyone in the country. Many spoke of her as very easy to get along with but also she spoke the truth without blinking no matter whom the audience.
She was best known for her award-winning account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and won a MacArthur Award (the “Genius Grant”) in 1999. Many of her colleagues stated that she did not want to receive this award due to her humble nature. This report is the only Human Rights Report to stand the test of time and I still references and read today. While other reports gather the dust of time on a shelf hers remains downloaded and read by scholars everywhere who study Rwanda.
In 1992, Des Forges published a report predicting that genocide was soon to come in Rwanda. She appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. She also provided documents and other assistance in judicial proceedings involving genocide in four other national jurisdictions, including the United States.
“She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government’s forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain,” said Roth. “She was really a thorn in everyone’s side, and that’s a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth.”
Dr. Des Forges was remembered at a symposium held at the University of Buffalo in New York on April 24, 2014 entitled “The Rwandan Genocide: Twenty Years Later.” They symposium was hosted by The Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee and the speakers in attendance included Francois-Xavier Nsanzuwera, Lars Waldorf, Nicole Fox, Aimable Twagilimana, Noel Twagiramungu and Jean-Paul Kimonyo who cancelled his talk the night before the event. Each of the presenters discussed various topics related to Rwanda on the 20thcommemoration of the Rwandan genocide and life in Rwanda since then. The symposium ended with a time of commemoration for those to share what they remember or learned about Dr. Des Forges. Many of the comments made surrounded her unmatched intellectualism, her genuine and empathic nature toward everyone she met, how she honored the stories of the survivors and how much Rwandans trusted her. It was clear from these comments, and many more not mentioned, that Dr. Des Forges showed how to make a difference in the world and was a loving person surrounded by a loving team of family and friends. She went against the cynicism of the world and was reported to have a wicked sense of humor. Her sheer tenacity and persistence in Kigali post 1994 genocide eventually got her expelled from Rwanda and later declared persona non grata in Rwanda.
The last words of the symposium were given by Dr. Roger Des Forges who stated, “Although her work kept of apart they were always together.”
A quote from the New York Times may have summed up her traveling best, “She was just five feet tall. She had soft blue eyes and gray hair that her husband cut for her. She traveled with a tiny bag that held her swimsuit, laptop, a change of shirt and photos of her grandchildren. And that was about it. Des Forges was a mentor to a generation of human rights researchers, activists and scholars. She told them her survival rules: always have gas in your tank; always turn your car around so you have a quick getaway. Protect your sources; interview them in cars so they’re not seen. Pick up hitchhikers; they are fonts of unexpected information.”
Alison Des Forges’ work remains unparalleled in the region of Central Africa and for those of us who attempt to bring forth the truth of the Kagame regime none of us will ever come close to the depth and breadth of her knowledge and body of work. If it was not for Alison Des Forges and her commitment to the people of Rwanda, the focus that Rwanda receives today may have gone undocumented.
The NTSB investigations concluded that flight 3407 crashed due to ice buildup on the wings as well as pilot fatigue. Des Forges left behind a husband, a daughter, and a son, three grandchildren, a brother and a sister-in-law.