Monday, February 16, 2009

Alison Des Forges 1942 – 2009

“But we still needed you”--that was my first, entirely selfish thought on hearing of her death. Like many of her admirers, I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Alison Des Forges on a personal basis, only from her work and from the occasional public presentation or interview she gave. Yet the news hit me hard: I felt, as so many of us do who care about Central Africa, that we had lost our champion.

We had grown so used to her voice we assumed she would always be there. And why wouldn’t we think so? That Friday morning, skipping over front-page stories about a plane crash in the cold dark of Buffalo, I read two articles that quoted her. In the Times, she was defending a Rwandan professor living in the U.S. against possibly spurious accusations of genocide. In the Post, she was raising awkward questions about Rwanda’s officially sanctioned return to eastern Congo. Rereading them later, in light of the news out of Buffalo, was like receiving a postcard from the dead.

As it happens, both stories showed Des Forges in vintage form, standing up against the convenient consensus, the authorized stance. The railroading of an apparently innocent man and a troubling new political development in the Great Lakes; the newspaper accounts made it clear that these events were being acceded to and even applauded by highly placed people, including a college president, a major television network, U.S. government bureaucrats, and high-ranking UN officials. Opposing them was Alison, never disputatious or angry, just patiently pointing out the inconsistencies of their arguments. As her friend Colette Braeckman wrote, she stood up to bureaucrats and politicians the same way she stood up to warlords in the bush: with a flinty stubbornness that came from knowing the facts, gathering the evidence, presenting the case.

“How I can’t stand that woman,” one politically connected Africanist once told me. “You say something and she comes back at you with all these facts and figures.” And another, presuming to lecture her at a presentation she gave at a DC think tank, urged her to be more careful in what she said, because “words have political consequences.”

In truth, no one was more careful with her words, more tempered in her judgments. This latter outburst came from a leading refugee advocate after the new regime had come to power in Rwanda. The official line at the time--emanating as much from the State Department as from our leading periodicals--was that President Paul Kagame was part of a new wave of African leaders piloting the continent out the wilderness. Pointing out, as Des Forges insisted on doing, that the new regime was hardly blameless; this just wasn’t done. It was human rights absolutism, said her critics; it was principle carried to the point of obstinacy. Later, after the 1996-97 rebellion that toppled Mobutu, it slowly emerged that the Rwandan forces leading the rebellion had killed thousands of Hutu refugees, on a scale that invites comparison to the Katyn Forest or Babi Yar massacres. This was what Des Forges had warned us against: Acquiescence to a worldly realism that counsels peace at the price of justice.

In the version of the myth told in the Iliad, Cassandra is given the gift of foresight but cursed so that no one believes her when she warns of the dangers facing Troy. Like Cassandra, Des Forges’ fate was to be ignored over and over again, beginning with her dire warnings before the 1994 genocide. Yet she never lost her cool. She never gave up or dropped out, never lost her faith in the aggregate human effort. Anyone who works in this business quickly learns that most of the real heroes are local, the ones without a plane ticket home. We meet people who humble us by their dedication, their courage, their unconscious decency. Alison belonged among them; she was the best we had. Now she is gone; her publications testify to her prodigious scholarship and advocacy, but to her admirers she has left something even more valuable: a code of conscience and a model of how to act.

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