Copyright The Economist
Feb 19th 2009
TWO plane crashes bookmarked Alison Des Forgesâ€šÃ„Ã´s life. The first was nearly 15 years ago, when a luxury jet carrying two African presidents was shot down by missiles over Rwanda. The second was last week, when a cramped commuter plane crashed in icy weather near Buffalo, New York, killing 50 people. The first crash served as the pretext for the swiftest genocide in history. The second silenced its most dogged witness, a tiny American lady with silver hair.
On April 6th 1994, Mrs Des Forges was at home in Buffalo. The presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were assassinated at 8.20pm that day, which was lunchtime in Buffalo. Twenty minutes later, a friend telephoned Mrs Des Forges from Kigali, the Rwandan capital. â€šÃ„ÃºThis is it. Weâ€šÃ„Ã´re finished,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Monique Mujawamariya, a fellow human-rights monitor.
Mrs Des Forges called her every half-hour, late into the night. She heard her describe steadily more alarming scenesâ€šÃ„Ã®militiamen going from house to house, pulling people out and killing them. Eventually, they came to Ms Mujawamariyaâ€šÃ„Ã´s door. Mrs Des Forges told her to pass the telephone to the killers. She would pretend to be from the White House, she said, and warn them off. â€šÃ„ÃºNo, that wonâ€šÃ„Ã´t work,â€šÃ„Ã¹ said Ms Mujawamariya. Then she added: â€šÃ„ÃºPlease take care of my children. I donâ€šÃ„Ã´t want you to hear this.â€šÃ„Ã¹ And she hung up.
From that moment on, Mrs Des Forges made a lot of noise. She was steeped in Rwandaâ€šÃ„Ã´s turbulent history, having written her doctoral thesis about it in 1972. And she had a better sense than most of the evil that was brewing two decades later. She had spent years in Rwanda, investigating political violence for Human Rights Watch. She knew that a 1993 peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and a Tutsi-led rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), was written in water, and that Hutu military leaders were mulling mass killings to avoid sharing power. She knew something terrible was afoot.
Shouting at the deaf
She made calls, sent faxes and frantically gathered information. By April 17th she was convinced that a full-blown genocide was under way. She was one of the first outsiders to say so. But everyone who mattered ignored her. Africa specialists at the State Department wept with her when she described what was going on, but who listens to Africa specialists? The top bureaucrats at the UN were concerned mostly with evacuating foreigners. President Bill Clinton was anxious to avoid another Somalia (where, the previous year, 18 American soldiers had been killed during a humanitarian mission). Mrs Des Forges could not even persuade the Pentagon to jam the radio broadcasts that co-ordinated the slaughter. It would have cost too much.
The genocide ended when the RPF rebels overthrew the Hutu government and seized power. For the next four years Mrs Des Forges led a team of researchers to dig up the facts. She then wrote the definitive account: nearly 800 pages of scrupulously footnoted horror. Future historians will depend on it. Her testimony helped put several of the perpetrators behind bars. And she made it impossible to argue, as many did at the time, that the genocide was a spontaneous explosion of ancient tribal hatred. She read the plans. She saw the receipts for half a million machetes.
In some ways, she was old-fashioned. Whereas other human-rights activists fuss about an ever-lengthening list of socio-economic â€šÃ„Ãºrightsâ€šÃ„Ã¹ (subsidised housing, fair trade, and so forth), Mrs Des Forges stuck to the basics, such as the right not to be murdered. She took extraordinary risks, rushing to the scenes of massacres and questioning killers when their blades were barely dry. She left out none of the ghastly details: the wives forced to bury their husbands before being raped; the baby thrown alive into a latrine.
She never went further than the facts allowed. Others might speculate that the genocide claimed 800,000 victims, or a million. She stuck with half a million, because she could substantiate it. Others assumed that if the genocidal Hutu regime were the bad guys, then the Tutsi rebels who overthrew them must be the good guys. Not so fast, said Mrs Des Forges: only one side was guilty of genocide, but both committed war crimes. The RPF killed perhaps 25,000 people in 1994, she reckoned.
Mrs Des Forgesâ€šÃ„Ã´s integrity made her unpopular with the RPF regime that still rules Rwanda. Last year, after she wrote a balanced but critical report about the Rwandan justice system, she was barred from the country. Shortly before she died, she spoke up for an exiled academic she thought was unjustly accused of taking part in the genocide. She never seemed to rest. A report she edited about violence in Congo was published posthumously.
What drove her? One story is revealing. In Burundi, Rwandaâ€šÃ„Ã´s neighbour, tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in 1993. The Western media barely noticed. Hutu officers in Rwanda concluded that they could do the same thing, and no one would give a damn. Mrs Des Forges wanted to document such atrocities so meticulously, and publicise them so persistently, that people would have to give a damn. Her book was called, after a killerâ€šÃ„Ã´s cry, â€šÃ„ÃºLeave None to Tell the Storyâ€šÃ„Ã¹. She knew that story-telling matters.
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Copyright The Economist