Alison Des Forges, 66, Human Rights Advocate, Dies
Feb. 14, 2009, New York Times — Alison L. Des Forges, a human rights activist and historian who tried to call the world’s attention to the looming genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and who later wrote what is considered the definitive account of the eventual slaughter of more than 500,000 Rwandans, was among the passengers killed Thursday when Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo. She was 66 and lived in Buffalo.
Her death was confirmed by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group; Dr. Des Forges was senior adviser for its Africa division for nearly 20 years.
Although she lived in Buffalo, Dr. Des Forges (pronounced deh-FORZH) spent much of her adult life in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region of Africa. She was among a group of activists who investigated killings, kidnappings and other rights abuses of civilians in Rwanda from 1990 to 1993.
In May 1994, several weeks into the mass killing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, Dr. Des Forges called for the killings to be officially declared a genocide. By then about 200,000 people had been killed.
“Governments hesitate to call the horror by its name,” Dr. Des Forges wrote in The New York Times, “for to do so would oblige them to act: signatories to the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide, including the United States, are legally bound to ‘prevent and punish’ it.”
Peacekeepers should be sent into the country and economic sanctions imposed, Dr. Des Forges said, concluding, “Can we do anything less in the face of genocide, no matter what name we give it?”
After a Tutsi-led rebel group took power after ending the killings, Dr. Des Forges spent four years interviewing organizers and victims of the genocide. She testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, and at trials in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada. She also appeared on expert panels convened by the United Nations and what is now the African Union, as well as the French and Belgian legislatures and the United States Congress.
The MacArthur Foundation recognized her work with a $375,000 “genius” grant in 1999. Her authoritative book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” was published that year.
On its Web site, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said Dr. Des Forges’ book provides “a meticulously detailed description of the organization of the campaign that killed some half million Tutsi,” adding that it “analyzes the failure of the international community to intervene in the genocide.”
Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government and anthropology at Columbia University and the author of the book “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda” (2001), called Dr. Des Forges “the leading person who sought to document the events leading up to the Rwandan genocide, so that future generations would have the material on hand to draw the appropriate lessons from it.”
In 2001, after a Belgian court sentenced four Rwandans, two of them Roman Catholic nuns, to long prison terms for their roles in the genocide, Dr. Des Forges said she had been deeply impressed by the proceedings — the first in which a jury of ordinary citizens was asked to sit in judgment of war crimes in another nation.
“People maybe don’t even realize just how revolutionary this jury trial, so far from the events, really is,” she told The Times then. The Belgian trial, she said, “has been done with a great deal more depth than those in Rwanda.”
Dr. Des Forges was also an authority on human rights violations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.
While a central focus of her work was documenting the crimes of the Hutu-led government that organized the three-month-long genocide, Dr. Des Forges later leveled strong criticism of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi-led rebel movement headed by Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president. His government has been in power since the genocide.
Dr. Des Forges was among critics who accused the Kagame government of massacring thousands of Rwandan civilians in 1994, of killing civilians and refugees in the eastern Congo in 1996 and 1997, and of making repeated military interventions in the Congo. The government barred her from entering the country last year.
Alison B. Liebhafsky was born Aug. 20, 1942, in Schenectady, N.Y., the daughter of Herman A. Liebhafsky, a chemist, and Sybil Small. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received a master’s degree in 1966 and a doctorate in 1972, both in history, from Yale.
Her master’s thesis focused on the impact of European colonization on Rwanda’s social system, and her doctoral dissertation was about Yuhi Musinga, the mwami, or ruler, of Rwanda from 1896 to 1931, during which Germany, and later Belgium, colonized Rwanda.
Dr. Des Forges is survived by her husband, Roger V. Des Forges, a historian of China who teaches at the State University of New York at Buffalo; a brother, Douglas Small Liebhafsky; a daughter, Jessie Des Forges; a son, Alexander; and three grandchildren.
Dr. Des Forges’ efforts went beyond historical documentation.
Theodore S. Dagne, an Africa analyst for the Congressional Research Service, worked with Dr. Des Forges in Africa and in Washington. On Friday, he recalled how she fought to save the life of a human-rights associate in Rwanda, Monique Mujawamariya.
“On Day 1” of the genocide, Mr. Dagne said, “Alison was calling Monique hour after hour as they were going door to door killing people; Monique tells Alison they are close.”
Ms. Mujawamariya managed to escape by crossing the border.
“Day after day, for months,” Mr. Dagne said, “Alison lobbied everybody she could think of in Kigali and Washington and finally arranged for Monique to come to this country.”
Ms. Mujawamariya now lives in Canada, he said.