Alison Des Forges Documented Genocide in Rwanda

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

THE NEWS stories about Alison Des Forges, who died Thursday in the crash of a Colgan Air plane near Buffalo, naturally focused on her role in trying to prevent, and then to document, the genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. She was fearless and relentless in that heartbreaking role. But, as a friend of Ms. Des Forges's reminded us shortly after her death at age 66, she was also relentless in calling attention to human rights violations by Tutsis when they, in their turn, became the oppressors.

"No one was more entitled than Alison Des Forges" to overlook those violations, her friend wrote us, given Des Forges's experience of the 1994 genocide. "She lost hundreds of Tutsi friends to Hutu machetes during the genocide; indeed, almost every single Tutsi she knew was murdered. Every day Alison would get phone calls from Tutsi friends hiding from the army troops and militia members who were butchering Tutsi and moderate Hutu by the thousands. They begged her to tell the United Nations peacekeeping troops to hurry. One by one, the calls stopped as her friends were found and slaughtered, waiting for the Blue Helmets, who never came.

"But the murder of unarmed children, women and men did not end when the genocide ended, and neither did Alison's meticulous work of collecting the evidence of it. This time, however, the victims were Hutu civilians -- some 30,000 of them -- killed by Tutsi forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that formed a new government in Kigali after defeating the genocidaires and [that] remains the government to this day. It was an unpopular story in 1994. Human rights advocates who lionized Alison for her scholarship on the genocide of Tutsis denounced her for reporting on Tutsi atrocities against Hutus. She was literally shouted down at speaking engagements in Europe. Officials in the Clinton administration, traumatized by the genocide and shamed by their failure to stop it, gave the new Tutsi government a pass on its abuses against Hutu civilians.

"Parity of neglect may have been U.S. policy, but it never entered Alison's mind," her friend wrote. "Her work in the field produced the bitter evidence that victims can and do turn victimizers."

The Tutsi-led government can point to impressive accomplishments in righting its country and improving basic services. But it continues to be intolerant of criticism, which explains why Ms. Des Forges's friend insisted on anonymity; critics can be barred from the country, as Ms. Des Forges herself was.

Perhaps, then, we should give her friend the final word: "On hearing of Alison's death, a journalist said, 'Can you imagine the champagne that's being uncorked in Congo and Burundi and Rwanda by the bad guys?' We thought about that for a minute, then decided against it. Because for every perpetrator of violence and injustice, there are thousands of people all over the world, but especially in Central Africa, who were transformed by Alison Des Forges. There could be no finer purpose or higher honor than taking up the work where she left off."

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