Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Sunday, February 15

Reflections on Alison Des Forges

Dr. Alison Des Forges, an expert on the Great Lakes, revered as both an academic and an activist, died Thursday night; she was among the 49 passengers and crew aboard the Continental Airlines flight that crashed outside Buffalo, New York.


Des Forges was regarded as one of the foremost experts on Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo. A number of her colleagues have posted online their memories of her and her tireless work.

On his blog for the New Yorker, George Packer remembers her for her compassion, generosity, but especially her humility:
Apparently, anything Des Forges did that was connected with Rwanda, she did with all her might. And she managed to do it without the self-righteous territoriality that is the occupational vice of human-rights experts. Her attachment to the country and its people seemed neither saintly nor professional, but entirely human.
At African Arguments, Tatiana Carayannis strikes a similar note:
Alison was that rare breed of analyst who moves easily from university lecture halls, to high-level policy meetings, to modest hostels in the field, with the same unpretentiousness that she brought home to Buffalo. She had a kind grandmotherly smile that invited nervous first-year graduate students to approach her, and a devilish twinkle in her eye that always made me think that she had something really good up her sleeve that would win her the argument at just the right moment.
Des Forges's account of the Rwandan Genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story—written for Human Rights Watch, with which she continued to work—is perhaps the most definitive retelling of the event. It is one of the truly essential readings on the topic, along with Prunier's Rwanda Crisis, Mamdani's When Victims Become Killers, and Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You...

As both Tatiana Carayannis and Kenneth Roth (in the HRW statement) point out, as a testament to her principles, Des Forges not only unearthed the detailed story of crimes committed by Hutu extremists during the genocide, but pushed further and shed light on the atrocities of the Tutsi RPF as well, to the point that the Rwandan government (under President Paul Kagame, former leader of the RPF), eventually banned her from the country.

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