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.

I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, and for the loss to all of us that her passing represents. (Even if we did not know her or even know OF her, which I did not.) I'm so glad you shared a little bit of who she was. It makes me wonder about the other 49 people who died in that crash. What were their stories?
I did not know this woman personally, but I know the people of the lands she spent her life for.

The flight also contained a couple Jazz musicians, a female Temple Cantor, a girl hockey player, and many more recounted at this link
We really needed them all.
I'm glad I thought to check your blog and saw this post, Peggy. What a testamentary life! (is that a word?)

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
I'm sending this to an 3rd generation missionary from Kenya-Burundi. I think she (and I) would have been pleased to have known this woman.

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