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Alison Des Forges

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Earlier this week I had an invitation to a public meeting in London at which the renowned Human Rights Watch investigator Alison Des Forges would be speaking. Alison had taken a close interest in the December 2000 massacre which claimed 21 lives in Burundi, including that of my sister Charlotte. She had been enormously encouraging of our efforts to secure justice, and gave warm and generous feedback when “Titanic Express” was published in 2006. We’d been in touch a number of times over the years but I’d never met her in person.

In the months after Charlotte’s death, when I was desperately trying to understand the background to the brutal regional conflict which had claimed her life – and in the years that followed-  I also learned a huge amount from the wealth of material that Alison Des Forges has written, such as the extraordinary book (the full text of which is available online at the HRW website) “Leave None to Tell the Story”.

I wanted to go to Wednesday’s meeting but wasn’t able to make it. One always assumes there will be another opportunity. This morning I was devastated to read that, on her return from Europe, Alison Des Forges had been killed in the plane crash in New York State on Thursday evening. The news was announced by Human Rights Watch yesterday:

“Alison’s loss is a devastating blow not only to Human Rights Watch but also to the people of Rwanda and the Great Lakes region,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people. Then she wrote the definitive account. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Des Forges, born in Schenectady, New York, in 1942, began working on Rwanda as a student and dedicated her life and work to understanding the country, to exposing the serial abuses suffered by its people and helping to bring about change. She was best known for her award-winning account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and won a MacArthur Award (the “Genius Grant”) in 1999. She appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. She also provided documents and other assistance in judicial proceedings involving genocide in four other national jurisdictions, including the United States.

Clear-eyed and even-handed, Des Forges made herself unpopular in Rwanda by insisting that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the murder of  30,000 people during and just after the genocide. The Rwandan government banned her from the country in 2008 after Human Rights Watch published an extensive analysis of judicial reform there, drawing attention to problems of inappropriate prosecution and external influence on the judiciary that resulted in trials and verdicts that in several cases failed to conform to facts of the cases.

“She never forgot about the crimes committed by the Rwandan government’s forces, and that was unpopular, especially in the United States and in Britain,” said Roth. “She was really a thorn in everyone’s side, and that’s a testament to her integrity and sense of principle and commitment to the truth.”

Des Forges was not only admired but loved by her colleagues, for her extraordinary commitment to human rights principles and her tremendous generosity as a mentor and friend.

“Alison was the rock within the Africa team, a fount of knowledge, but also a tremendous source of guidance and support to all of us,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “She was almost a mother to us all, unfailingly wise and reasonable, absolutely honest yet diplomatic. She never seemed to get stressed out, in spite of the extreme violence and horror she had to deal with daily. Alison felt the best way to make things better was to be relentlessly professional and scrupulously fair. She didn’t sensationalize; her style was to let the victims speak for themselves.”

Corinne Dufka, another colleague who worked closely with Des Forges, wrote: “She always found the time to listen and helped me see outside the box. Alison inspired me to be a better researcher, a better colleague, a more giving mentor and a more balanced human being. She was also funny – her sardonic sense of humor, usually accompanied with that sparkle in her eye, lightened our burden.”

An historian by training, Des Forges wrote her PhD thesis on Rwanda and spent most of her adult life working on the Great Lakes region, despite an early stint in China with her husband, Roger, a professor of history and China expert at the University of Buffalo.

Des Forges graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 and received her PhD from Yale in 1972. She began as a volunteer at Human Rights Watch, but was soon working full-time on Rwanda, trying to draw attention to the genocide she feared was looming. Eventually, Roth had to insist she take a salary. She co-chaired an international commission looking at the rise of ethnic violence in the region and published a report on the findings several months before the genocide. Once the violence began, Des Forges managed to convince diplomats in Kigali to move several Rwandans to safety, including the leading human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya.

As senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch since the early 1990s, Des Forges oversaw all research work on the Great Lakes region, but also provided counsel to colleagues across the region and beyond. She also worked very closely with the International Justice Program because of all her involvement with the Rwanda tribunal.

“The office of the prosecutor relied on Alison as an expert witness to bring context and background and detailed knowledge of the genocide,” Roth said. “Her expertise was sought again and again and again by national authorities on cases unfolding in their courts of individuals facing deportation, or on trial for alleged involvement in the genocide.”

Most recently, Des Forges was working on a Human Rights Watch report about killings in eastern Congo.

Update – I was looking again just now at the online version of “Leave None To Tell The Story”. Since I first read it, back in 2001, Alison wrote an updated foreword, which gives one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the links between what took place in Rwanda, and the lesser-known conflicts in Burundi and the DRC:

In mid-1994 officials of the former [Rwandan] government, soldiers, and militia fled to the Congo, leading more than a million Rwandans into exile. They carried with them their ideology of Hutu supremacy and many of their weapons. They sought the support of local Congolese people as well as of the government, hoping to broaden their base for continued resistance against the RPF. They insisted that Rwandan Hutu and different Congolese groups were a single “Bantu” people because they spoke similar languages and shared some cultural traits. They said Tutsi were “Nilotic” invaders who, together with the related Hima people of Uganda, intended to subjugate the “Bantu” inhabitants. This “Bantu” ideology – and the RPF determination to counter it – informed the framework for much of the military conflict in the region for the next ten years.

In 1996 Rwanda and Uganda, led by President Yoweri Museveni, invaded the Congo. Rwanda wanted to eliminate any possible threat from the former Rwandan army and militia who were re-organizing and re-arming in refugee camps in eastern Congo. Uganda sought greater political influence and control over resources in the region. Together with their Congolese allies, the Rwandan and Ugandan troops moved rapidly westward, at first hunting down the remnants of the Rwandan Hutu from the refugee camps – combatants and civilians alike – but then setting another objective, that of overturning Mobuto and his government. They succeeded, but in 1998 the new Congolese government, led by Laurent Desire Kabila, turned against its former supporters. Kabila told the Rwandan and Ugandan troops to go home, thus provoking a new war. This second Congo war at one point involved seven African nations and a host of rebel movements and other local armed groups, all fighting to control the territory and vast wealth of the Congo. Casualties among civilians were enormous, from lack of food, medical care, and clean water as well as from direct attack by the various forces.

The real nature of this war, like that of the first, was for a long time disguised by the references to the genocide. In demanding a return to national sovereignty Congolese officials spoke in anti-Tutsi language and crowds in Kinshasa killed Tutsi on the streets. Rwanda sought to justify making war by claiming the need to eliminate perpetrators of the genocide who were operating in eastern Congo with the support of the Congolese government. Rwandan authorities continued to stress this supposed security threat from the other side of the border long after the numbers and resources of the former Rwandan army and militia had diminished and their members were widely scattered.

In 1997 and 1998, in the hiatus between the two Congo wars, soldiers and militia of the genocidal government, supported by thousands of new recruits, crossed from the Congo and led an insurrection in northwestern Rwanda. The RPF forces suppressed the rebellion at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, many of them civilians who happened to live in the area. A substantial number of the rebel combatants had not taken part in the genocide and seemed more focused on overturning the government than on hunting down Tutsi civilians, but others continued to harbor genocidal intentions and singled out Tutsi to be attacked and killed.

Events in Burundi, a virtual twin to Rwanda in demographic terms, first influenced and then were influenced by the Rwandan genocide. Burundi was already immersed in its own crisis with widespread ethnic slaughter in late 1993. These killings, as well as international indifference to them, spurred genocidal planning in Rwanda. After April 1994 Burundians viewed with horror the massacres of others of their own ethnic group in Rwanda, Tutsi identifying with victims of the genocide and Hutu identifying with those killed by RPF forces. Burundian Tutsi and Hutu feared and distrusted each other more because of the slaughter in Rwanda and each group vowed that its members would not be the next victims. Former Rwandan soldiers and militia at times joined Burundian Hutu rebel forces, bringing them military expertise and reinforcing their anti-Tutsi ideas. RPF soldiers on occasion came south to help the Burundian army prevent a victory by Hutu rebels.

Within Rwanda the RPF used the pretext of preventing a recurrence of genocide to suppress the political opposition, refusing to allow dissidents to organize new political parties and eliminating an existing party that could potentially have challenged the RPF in national elections. Authorities jailed dissidents and drove others into exile on charges of “divisionism,” equated to an incipient form of genocidal thinking even when opponents sought to construct parties that included Tutsi as well as Hutu. During 2003, under RPF leadership, Rwandans adopted a new constitution that enshrined a vague prohibition of “divisionism” and made liberties of speech, press, and association subject to regulation – and possible limitation – by ordinary law. In presidential and legislative elections, the RPF came close to asserting that a vote for others was a vote for genocide – past or future. With such a campaign theme and with a combination of intimidation and fraud, the RPF re-affirmed its dominance of political life.

In the years just after the end of the genocide, many international leaders supported the RPF as if hoping thus to compensate for their failure to protect Tutsi during the genocide. Even when confronted with evidence of widespread and systematic killing of civilians by RPF soldiers in Rwanda and in the Congo, most hesitated to criticize these abuses. Not only did they see the RPF as the force that had ended the genocide but they also saw all opponents of the RPF as likely to be perpetrators of genocide, an assessment that was not accurate either in 1994 or later. So long as the parties were defined this way, international leaders acquiesced inÑor even actively supportedÑthe RPF activities in the Congo. Similarly international actors frequently tolerated RPF limits on civil and political freedom inside Rwanda, readily conceding the RPF argument that the post-genocidal context justified restrictions on the usual liberties.

As the ten years after the genocide drew to a close, the international community moderated its support of the current Rwandan government and exerted considerable pressure to obtain withdrawal of its troops from the Congo. Some international leaders began to question the tight RPF control within Rwanda; diplomats and election observers from the European Union and the United States noted abuses of human rights that marred the 2003 elections. Despite these signs of growing international concern, the RPF-led government appeared firmly seated for the near future. Whether it will be able to assure long-term stability and genuine reconciliation may depend on its ability to distinguish between legitimate dissent and the warning signs of another genocide.

Human Rights Watch reissues this book – substantially the same as the original printing – to ensure that a detailed history of the genocide remains available to readers. Since its first publication in English and French, the book has appeared in German and will shortly be published in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. The horrors recorded here must remain alive in our heads and hearts; only in that way can we hope to resist the next wave of evil.

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Written by Richard Wilson

February 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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