Short One Hero
Greatheart Alison Des Forges went down on that plane in New York
What is below was written by David Zarembka,
of the Quaker African Great Lakes Initiative.
Fearless Alison Des Forges
Alison Des Forges, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch for Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo, died on Thursday in the airline crash in Buffalo. I met Alison Des Forges in college in 1963 when she had just returned from a summer of teaching Rwandan refugees in West Lake region of (then) Tanganyika with a Harvard/Radcliffe program called Project Tanganyika.
She encouraged me to apply for the program which I did and with her advice I ended up spending a year teaching Rwandan refugees in the same region. I continue to this day with involvement in this region as I am coordinator of a program that promotes healing and reconciliation in Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo, Uganda, and Kenya.
We became good friends when we volunteered together at a Phillips Brooks House project that gave away books in a poor Roxbury school. In my student dorm I would put up her then boyfriend, Roger Des Forges, when he came to visit her. We stayed in close contact through the years--Roger, now her husband, and Alison came to visit me in Kenya when she finished her research in Rwanda in the late 1960's. We would frequently visit each other as our children grew up. Then from 1991 to 1995 my son, Tommy, went to the University of Rochester and I would stay with the Des Forges’ whenever I visited him.
During the time preceding the genocide, Alison and I would discuss the looming catastrophe as neither of us had any doubt that terrible things were being planned. She was fearless. Everyday she would go for a walk--a real power walk because, although quite short, she would walk very fast. I had to almost run to keep up with her. When she crossed a street she would just walk right in front of an oncoming car. When I asked her about this, she replied, "They will always stop". Was this bravery or foolhardiness? They always stopped.
Alison by this time was investigating the many small massacres of Tutsi that were occurring in Rwanda before the genocide, usually in out of the way places. The local authorities would always try to keep her from going, saying the road was too bad, it was too dangerous, she needed permission, etc. She always went. When I asked her about this, she said that when she went to interview the survivors of the massacres, she would always ask if she could use their name. They would respond, "Yes, these people died for no reason and, if I am killed because of what I have told you, then I will have at least died for a reason".
At least once during this time, a Rwandan Government military official spoke to her as she boarded a plane to leave Rwanda saying that her life was in danger if she continued this human rights work. She continued. In Rwanda, before the genocide, people's identity card indicated if they were Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Alison convinced the Rwandan Government to issue new identity cards without the ethnic classification and got a number of foreign embassies to agree to foot the bill. But nothing happened. If this had been done as she planned, how many Tutsi would have escaped death during the genocide?
Human rights work was a new field at that time. Alison was the first to name names. The custom in the field up to that time was to say something like "a senior military official," while Alison realized that you had to state the person's name who was involved. This, of course, upped the consequences for the perpetrator, but also made the human rights worker more vulnerable to retaliation. This, I understand, is common human rights practice now. This is one of the issues we discussed together.
After the genocide I would still stay at the Des Forges’ house but Alison was rarely there as she was possessed with nailing those who had planned such a thing. Almost everyone she had worked with during her research in the 1960's had been killed during the genocide. When we did see each other we talked about her many appearances in the various courts trying the genocedaries. Usually she would be questioned for up to a week's time. The defense lawyers would start by challenging her that she was not an expert witness so was not qualified to speak about the genocide. In every case they lost. They would then ask Alison the same questions over and over and over again hoping that she would lose her "cool" (an impossibility) or make some inconsistency in her answers (not likely). For Alison this was just part of what needed to be endured to bring justice.
When she finally got her book on the genocide out (Leave None to Tell the Story), her period of frenzied activity slowed down and she became again more relaxed, although she continued her involvement not only with Rwanda, but also Burundi and North and South Kivu in eastern Congo. I once asked her how she could see all those dead bodies and bones, clothes scattered about, and the other signs of massacres. She told me that you learn to control your emotions and numb yourself to the human condition of the victims as you have to stay calm and observant. She did tell me that once she did lose her cool. She was going to a massacre site after the genocide and as she stepped out of a vehicle she stepped on the flattened remains of a baby. I wrote a poem for her about this, "The Missed Funeral", hopefully I can find it again.
It is ironic that she died in the first fatal commercial plane crash in two and a half years in the United States. I knew that Alison lived her life dangerously. Plane crashes are much more frequent in Africa and the possibility of an "accident" like being run off the road as she investigated some massacre (i.e., that someone would assassinate her) were always possible. But I knew that Alison would have no regrets. So many of the people she worked with and loved had been brutally killed and from her perspective her life would be no more than those of the many bodies she saw. She had none of this concept that some people's lives (Wazungu, "whites") were more important than others.
Perhaps it is fitting that Alison was no longer able to enter Rwanda at the time of her death. The Rwandan Government was upset with her after Human Rights Watch published her criticism of current judicial processes in Rwanda. I am one of the few people who has read Alison's PhD thesis. Essentially in the late 1960's she interviewed over 100 elderly people who could remember when the Europeans first came to Rwanda at the turn of the century. The thesis is about the coming of the Wazungu (Europeans) from the African point of view. I know of nothing else like it. Over the years I (and others) encouraged her to re-write her thesis for a more general audience. I read a few of the chapters she re-wrote, but she never finished the task and once her involvement with Human Rights Watch began, there were more important things to do. I don't know if her thesis can be published as it is, but its contribution to African history would be significant.
The press reports say that there was ice on the wing, turbulence in the air, right before the plane crashed. Is this not a metaphor of Alison's life--icy fearlessness and involvement in some of the most turbulent conflicts of our time?
UPDATE: Another Good Story about Alison on Slate. It is my hope and prayer that I will be allowed to take my old age and do what she was doing. But when my plane goes down I hope it is over the mountains of Central Africa. Not somewhere cold and icy.
Freedom Friends is very, very close to publishing our complete Faith and Practice.
If I said that this is the first, new, Quaker F and P of the 21st would I be wrong?
I'll take the class privilege special, thank-you
This morning I needed a blood draw. For reasons unspoken, I have done this a lot in the last year, and I have the drill down. I have my doc hand me the orders and I take them to a local lab. I like this lab because they hire skilled people, and because of convenience. They have a lab a couple of blocks from my house, and you can get on line and make yourself an appointment in ten minute blocks and you get to come in and be served at your time no matter how many 'walk-ins' they have that day. This makes it very easy to plan my day. So they get my business.
This morning I walked in for my 10:00 and saw that the joint was jumpin. Old people, Little kids, and I was the only one in the room speaking English. Walked up to the window,
She says "got a few folks ahead of you this morning."
"I've got the 10:00 on-line appointment."
"Ah, fine, it will be just a minute"
I sat down and read the nice big English sign about the appointment policy on the wall. she took in one babushka'd grandma ahead of me and then it was my turn. Six brown faces gave me a dirty look.
Sure looked like the middle class white lady walked in and got served ahead of all the brown people. Yes, that is what it looked like. Phlebotomist and I agreed that they system is really functional but still feels bad.
I knew I wouldn't have felt so bad if the room had been filled with white people slightly less organized than I. My liberal guilt-o-meter is more sensitive to brown.
I knew it wasn't race. I knew it was because I had a computer with a good connection and the savy to use it. So what is that? - that's class privilege. And it sped me on my way. But it had me thinking.
Today, Feb 2 is the birthday of my grandmother Irene Crawley Hubbell
She died when I was very little but I have not forgotten her
So There I was...
In the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, pastor of a small country church that came complete with a bluegrass band. And this city-bred, rock and roll generation woman felt completely at home.
You see I have hillbilly roots, and I am telling you, that is a thing that Miss Clairol cannot touch! What strikes me as unlikely is the way that they managed to keep it from me for all those years.
Tyre and Kezia Crawley lived in the hills of Northern Kentucky. Kezia was Tyre’s fourth wife. Life in those hills was hard on the women. But a man needed a wife and Kezia needed a home. Tyre was in his late sixties when he took Kezia to wife. She bore him four children, the last when he was well into his eighties. That child had white haired half-siblings before he was born. She sang him to sleep with tunes carried by her people from the hills of Scotland, the echo of pipes in her lilting voice. Tyre was a preacher and a farmer and consequently a very poor man. His most dear possession was a fiddle. He preached a fiery Gospel, but played a heavenly tune. My grandmother Irene was his next to last child, born before the turn of the 20th century. She knew the feel of hard work, and the sound of all day singings, and the consequences of sin. Shoes, machines and electricity were largely unknown until she herself was nearly a woman.
The Hell-fire preaching prepared her well her for the terror of the day her mother died. The kerosene lantern exploded just after dark, burning her mother beyond healing or prayer. The nine-year-old girl took her little brother out under the grape arbor and hid. The last song she heard her mother sing was a God-begging scream as the women coated her with hopeless ointments. The screams stopped just before daybreak. As the sun rose the girl swore she would get off that mountain somehow, to a place where a woman could live. Then the girl carried the toddler back into the house and started her new life, cooking and cleaning for her aged father, who was finally beyond the ability to get a new wife. When he died three years later, Irene was sent across the river to relations up in Illinois. Stiff new shoes carried her to school and away from the hills. She sang in church, but stately hymns, not the hillbilly songs and calls of her mother’s kin. She held off marriage until she found a promising young man, home from France who took her into a fine Methodist parsonage. Her dresses and hats were simple and Christian, but she held herself with a certain kind of Sunday perfection every day of the week. Hardly anyone noticed that when they preached about the fires of Hell, her lips clenched and her eyes grew dark. She raised four children to be fine, educated, citizens of the town; three of the four, college-bound. All of them saved, none headed towards fire. She kept them away from the hills and hillbillies. She pointed their eyes north. She lived a good life, but she died of breast cancer because somebody told her that the only cure involved burning.
My mother was Irene’s third child, Bernice. A gifted musician, trained from infancy to be the wife of a minister. Piano lessons and womanly skills. She knew her father’s family, and some of her mother’s siblings, but they never talked about the old folks, or the hills. One of her uncles had an old fiddle, but her mother didn’t like to hear it played, and shushed the hill stories he delighted in feeding the little ones.
Bernice was sent to the Bible College up in Chicago, to pick out an educated preacher for a husband. But one summer the school sent her on a mission trip to a foreign land called Appalachia. My mother was shocked by her own mother’s opposition to the trip. Irene would have rather had her daughter cross the seas to China than to head into those hills. But my mother went in and up and came out again, appalled by the poverty and ignorance that she saw. Broken hearted at the sight of shoeless children and toothless women. Disturbed by the strange music that haunted her dreams.
Mother couldn’t find a preacher to suit her, and wouldn’t come home from the city. She worked, and lived independently. Eventually she gave her heart to a city man, a man who had spent more hours dancing at the roller rink than in a church. She tamed him, of course, and played the organ at the church while he led the singing - three hymns and a ‘special song’. She gave him three children and they educated us better than either of their parents had known. She made sure that her only daughter had piano lessons, and learned Beethoven and Bach, how to dress and how to cook, and how to run the women’s missionary society. She prayed for grandchildren raised in an even better parsonage than the one that had cradled her.
I was too rebellious to be sent to the Christian school in Indiana, and ran off and married a young man just out of the Navy. My mother did not approve, but forgave me when I went back to church and gave her grandbabies. But my house lacked music, and my dreams had songs I couldn’t sing. A woodworking friend offered to build me a dream, and I asked for a hammered dulcimer, and then I borrowed an Autoharp, and I hung out with fiddle players, and mandolin players. And I called my mom and said I had discovered Blue Grass. I asked for her old hymnals. She was mystified. I couldn’t stop - it fed something old in me, and I wrote to my mother’s eldest sister, the one who lived on the farm, the one who hadn’t gone to college. I asked for the oldest stories, and she told me about Kezia. I was the one who told my mother. She died a few years back, from the cancer; she took her chemo, but turned down the radiation. About that time, my elder brother, the professor of computer sciences, walked into a shape note ‘sing’. “All day singing, supper on the grounds.” Now he and his wife will drive across four states to sing the tunes carried by the highlanders to different hills.
You see, we have hillbilly roots. And Miss Clairol cannot touch them.