Alison Des Forges, 1942-2009, human rights worker.

Bringing out the dead.
Feb. 16 2009 12:40 PM

"What Are They So Scared Of? I'm Just a Little Old Lady."

Alison Des Forges, 1942-2009.

Alison De Forges.
Alison De Forges

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo—I'm writing from the Congolese border town of Goma, overlooking the expansive waters of Lake Kivu and, in the near distance, the hills of Rwanda. Sunset here always seems to promise a tomorrow in which the region's sad history of violence might pass.

But over the weekend the sadness deepened when we learned that a plane crash robbed the region of one of its fiercest advocates, Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch.

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If the Rwandan genocide was one of the defining political crimes of the 20th century—an event that made the international community rethink the way it did business—Alison was its most important Anglophone chronicler. Even today, as many of the genocide's perpetrators still face prosecution and others are being chased down here in Congo, she was one of the essential voices explaining this unfolding.

For the legion of journalists, diplomats, academics, and lawyers who work on Central Africa, her loss is immeasurable. For the thousands of Rwandese, Congolese, Burundians, and Ugandans (and, I'm sure, many others) for whom Alison fought to protect their good name from false accusations, or to safeguard their freedom or their right to justice or even life, the pain of her loss will be still more acute.

Alison and I first met briefly in the 1990s when I was still a student. Once I began covering Rwanda and Congo as a journalist in 2003, we would talk a few times every year—often long, digressive, sparkling storytelling sessions.

In November 2008, the last time we spoke, I called her at home in Buffalo, N.Y., to see if she could clarify some basic history about Hutus and Tutsis in eastern Congo. She regaled me with stories for more than two and a half hours. As I look through my notes, I realize that it's the stories—the human, humanizing stories about life here in Central Africa—that I will miss most.

That night, she retold one of her favorites about a set of Rwandan identical twins who still can't agree about whether they are Hutu or Tutsi. She laughed about a time in 1994 when she was investigating massacres deep in the Rwandan forest and she had to translate some vernacular Kinyarwanda for erstwhile Tutsi rebel leader and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose language skills were still rusty after a refugee childhood spent in Uganda.

She reflected on the irony that Kagame now barred her from entering Rwanda because her work had become too critical of his authoritarian style.

"They broadcast my name on the radio as an enemy of Rwanda," she told me. "What are they so scared of? I'm just a little old lady." And she laughed her disarming, charming little-old-lady half-giggle, half-laugh.

You have to have met Alison to understand the outrageousness of stories like this. She was no more than 5 feet tall, with silver hair and glassy blue eyes and a slight limp in her gait. But she'd stood up to and stared down some of history's most notorious criminals and had seen enough horrors to, very literally, fill an 800-page book and thousands of pages of reports.

Presidents and rebel leaders in the region feared her because they knew she was fearless.

The most common criticism of Alison's work, particularly on Rwanda, is that it sometimes failed to take into account the unique political and security needs of a country just emerging from conflict. The criticism is not unfounded, but it misses the point. The job of a human rights worker is not the same as that of a politician who needs to make unenviable compromises between security and justice. A human rights worker is in the business of giving voice to the voiceless, uncovering injustice, and advocating for its redress. Alison Des Forges—brilliant, indefatigable, and, above all, passionate—reveled in this.

As our last conversation ended, Alison laughed. "Isn't it so much fun to talk about Rwanda?"

She asked me this almost every time we talked over the years, and it always surprised me. Each time she said it with genuine glee, as if Rwanda was her newest crush and not a country she'd been married to—faithfully—for more than 40 years.

Here in Congo, we journalists and researchers and U.N. workers are already back on the job, puzzling over the Rwandan army's mission to hunt down a rebel group led by wanted génocidaires. But we've lost one of our most important advisers, cheerleaders, sources, and friends. And our work will be done with significantly less joy.

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