R.I.P. Alison Des Forges

Alison Des Forges was a victim of the recent plane crash near Buffalo New York. From the New York Daily Mail:

The fireball ignited by Flight 3407’s nose-first crash into a suburban Buffalo home raged and smoldered for more than 12 hours after the plane dropped from the sky without warning Thursday night.

“This is a tragic day in the history of New York,” said Gov. Paterson after meeting with some of the victims’ family members. “This is a difficult hour for the families.”

Among the 44 passengers aboard the flight from Newark was a 9/11 widow flying to Buffalo for a celebration of her late husband’s 58th birthday, officials said.

So was Alison Des Forges, a senior adviser with the Human Rights Watch and an expert on Rwandan affairs, Paterson said.

It is extremely saddening due to the work she was doing. While Alison Des Forge was a victim of the RPF propaganda in the past, she was increasingly an outspoken critic of the Rwandan government, and against all of their human rights violations both in Rwanda and DRC.

UPDATE: Human Rights Watch has released a commemorative press release for Alison Des Forges. A french version can be found here.

Human Rights Watch Mourns Loss of Alison Des Forges

Leading Rwanda Expert Killed in Plane Crash

(New York) – It is with enormous sadness that Human Rights Watch announces the death of our beloved colleague Dr. Alison Des Forges, who was killed in the crash of Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on February 12, 2009. Des Forges, senior adviser to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division for almost two decades, dedicated her life to working on Rwanda and was the world’s leading expert on the 1994 Rwanda genocide and its aftermath.

“Alison’s loss is a devastating blow not only to Human Rights Watch but also to the people of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people. Then she wrote the definitive account. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began working on Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country, to exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people and helping to bring about change. 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. 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.

Clear-eyed and even-handed, Des Forges made herself unpopular in Rwanda by insisting that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the murder of  30,000 people during and just after the genocide. The Rwandan government banned her from the country in 2008 after Human Rights Watch published an extensive analysis of judicial reform there, drawing attention to problems of inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary that resulted in trials and verdicts that in several cases failed to conform to facts of the cases.

“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.”

Des Forges was not only admired but loved by her colleagues, for her extraordinary commitment to human rights principles and her tremendous generosity as a mentor and friend.

“Alison was the rock within the Africa team, a fount of knowledge, but also a tremendous source of guidance and support to all of us,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “She was almost a mother to us all, unfailingly wise and reasonable, absolutely honest yet diplomatic. She never seemed to get stressed out, in spite of the extreme violence and horror she had to deal with daily. Alison felt the best way to make things better was to be relentlessly professional and scrupulously fair. She didn’t sensationalize; her style was to let the victims speak for themselves.”

Corinne Dufka, another colleague who worked closely with Des Forges, wrote: “She always found the time to listen and helped me see outside the box. Alison inspired me to be a better researcher, a better colleague, a more giving mentor and a more balanced human being. She was also funny – her sardonic sense of humor, usually accompanied with that sparkle in her eye, lightened our burden.”

An historian by training, Des Forges wrote her PhD thesis on Rwanda and spent most of her adult life working on the Great Lakes region, despite an early stint in China with her husband, Roger, a professor of history and China expert at the University of Buffalo.

Des Forges graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received her PhD from Yale in 1972. She began as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch, but was soon working full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. Eventually, Roth had to insist she take a salary. 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.

As senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch since the early 1990s, Des Forges oversaw all research work on the Great Lakes region, but also provided counsel to colleagues across the region and beyond. She also worked very closely with the International Justice Program because of all her involvement with the Rwanda tribunal.

“The office of the prosecutor relied on Alison as an expert witness to bring context and background and detailed knowledge of the genocide,” Roth said. “Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide.”

Most recently, Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo.

Des Forges leaves a husband, a daughter, and a son, three grandchildren, a brother and a sister-in-law. The staff of Human Rights Watch expressed their deepest condolences to her family and friends. If you would like to send a message of condolence, please email tribute@hrw.org

We are working to set up a web page to honor Alison Des Forges and her work. Please check http://www.hrw.org/ for details.

5 Responses

  1. Alison Des Forge was a wonderful woman who fought bravely for justice in Africa. As recently as December 2008 she was refused entry into Rwanda. She was an architect of the ICTR and gave expert evidence numerous trials although most recently at ICTR military II trial that concluded only two weeks ago that there is no evidence of a pre-planned genocide in Rwanda. The majority of charges initially made against the ‘leaders and organisers’ were not contained on the ICTR indictment due to lack of evidence. This has left Kagame in a very poor standing with the international community and it is no coincidence that as the trial judge was concluding the military II trials, Kagame was desperately trying to salvage the little that is left of his reputation by staging an ‘arrest ‘ of his long time ally Nkunda who just happened to make it across the border into Rwanda from the DRC prior to his arrest. Will he be transported to Kinsasha to face trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity? Unlikely.

    Alison Des Forge was undoubtedly the foremost expert of the human rights violations past and present of the current US/UK backed Rwandan dictatorship. Des Forges had evidence to support Kagame’s involvement in the assassination of President Habyarima that triggered the atrocity in the country. The years of aggression displayed by the Rwandan government in the DRC has greatly reduced western public support and moral sympathy for the ‘hero’ who ended the genocide! However the US and UK want to keep their puppet Kagame in power to enable them to over view their economic interests in the Congo.

    Alison Des Forge had the expertise, knowledge and forum to expose the corrupt Rwandan regime, and the support it has received from US and UK throughout the past 15 years in full knowledge of Kagame’s culpability for genocide in 1994 and ongoing crimes against humanity.

    It is only two weeks since the military II trials concluded causing grave concerns to Kagame and his western allies to the potential that they are on the verge of full exposure.

    I have no interest in conspiracy theories. I wonder if we will ever know the truth of the cause of the accident in which Alison died. Alison Des Forge, a woman who had so much kindness and expertise to share. What a huge loss to society.

  2. Exactedly, it seems logical to immediately question wether this was an accident.

  3. Just discovered yr blog the other day – you’ve done a great job of collecting info & source material here – makes for a very useful resource.

    My reaction when hearing this news was: tragic ending, but good riddance! She was an essential figure in shaping & legitimizing the mainstream ‘planned genocide’ narrative. Never questioned being led around by the RPF. Never revised her initial charge, despite having it rejected by a court she testified in (& palyed a major role in establishing!). I guess I’m less willing to give a pass just because she managed to bring up RPF atrocities 10+ years later. Like McNamara’s remorse – too little, too late. & correct me if I’m wrong, but did she ever point to RPF responsibilities in the events of those ‘100 days’?

    If it’s true, as the commentator above says, that ” Des Forges had evidence to support Kagame’s involvement in the assassination of President Habyarima that triggered the atrocity in the country” (which I don’t recall ever seeing mention of anywhere), whre’s the report?

    • Hello Arcturus

      Rather than say too little too late, I am of the mind set that better late than sorry is appropriate for this case. True she was responsible for a lot of death and destruction in the great lakes, but that does not mean that, and I am hopeful that after realizing how she was manipulated, she would have continued to push for punitive measures for genocidaires including kagame.

      I am not sure about any such evidence she may have had either, but that just means I have more work to do, as well all do.

  4. Allison, we miss you and love you
    you’re legacy will be carried on by all who knew you.

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