Scholar Presaged Rwanda's Tragedy

Dr. Des Forges warned of rising ethnic tensions in Rwanda and called for international intervention.
Dr. Des Forges warned of rising ethnic tensions in Rwanda and called for international intervention. (Human Rights Watch Via Associated Press)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist who drew the world's attention to the killings of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Rwanda in the 1990s and chronicled the massacre in a powerful account of modern genocide, died Feb. 12 in the crash of a Continental Airlines passenger plane in Clarence Center, N.Y., near Buffalo. She was 66.

Dr. Des Forges (pronounced day-FORZH) had spent years immersing herself in the history and culture of Central Africa as a scholar and, for the past 20 years, as an adviser to Human Rights Watch, an international organization that monitors abuses of human rights.

She had observed rising tensions between the rival Hutu and Tutsi populations of Rwanda, but the groups lived in relative peace until April 6, 1994, when an airplane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down.

Members of the politically dominant Hutu group suddenly began to attack the Tutsi minority in an uncontrolled rampage of violence. Most Western governments initially responded with indifference as the savagery spread throughout Rwanda, resulting in the massacre of between 500,000 and 1 million people in three months. The United Nations officially declared the attacks an act of genocide.

Dr. Des Forges sounded early warnings about the violence before Congress and repeatedly called for international intervention. She pleaded with the Clinton administration's State Department, to no avail, to block the signals of Rwandan radio stations fomenting the massacre by urging Hutus to kill the Tutsi "cockroaches."

"She was indispensable, crucial and dramatically important in bringing the genocide before the American public and in understanding its history" Robert I. Rotberg, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said in an interview. "She was a towering figure."

Soon after the killings stopped, Dr. Des Forges returned to Rwanda and spent almost four years investigating the violence for her 800-page book, "Leave None to Tell the Story," which appeared in 1999.

The genocide "was not an uncontrollable outburst of rage by a people consumed by 'ancient tribal hatred,' " she wrote. "Nor was it the preordained result of the impersonal forces of poverty and overpopulation.

"This genocide resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and fear to keep itself in power."

Dr. Des Forges traced the historic roots of the ethnic rivalry and came to realize that hundreds of thousands of people were implicated in the killings. She said she often woke up at night, overcome by tears.

"She has exhumed bodies from mass graves, gathered skeletons tossed in public parks and learned how to handle adolescent soldiers who detain her at gunpoint," a Cleveland Plain Dealer article noted.

"Her book is a painstaking analysis of what happened and what didn't happen," Harvard's Rotberg said yesterday. "What she did was to demonstrate that the genocide was managed and directed, and, in that respect, was very much like the German Holocaust."

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