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RIP Alison Des Forges

The Human Rights Watch activist, who died in the Buffalo plane crash, was controversial, but she cared: About Rwanda, about rights, about life.

Last fall, I called Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watchwho died Thursday night in the crash of a Continental Airlines plane near Buffalo–to ask for her help with my forthcoming story on Rwanda. She didn’t respond as most potential sources do. She didn’t say, “Sure!” She didn’t say, “How can I help?” She didn’t pencil me in. She gave me a reading list, and she said, “Then we would have something to really talk about.”

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In subsequent weeks, we traded emails, a correspondence that revealed to me a woman with passion–for human rights, for doing what she saw as good wherever she could, for her family. She felt all this deeply. Her ardent belief that civil rights are not being respected in today’s Rwanda made her a pest to that country’s government. Her commitment to not waste any time meant that I’d get emails telling me that she might be able to squeeze in a brief chat in between research for a UN Security Council briefing, a meeting with ex-Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Security Council briefing itself. Her  commitment to her grandchildren meant that I couldn’t interview her the week I wanted to–all those days, she told me, would be totally blocked off for her family.

Five years after the genocide, Des Forges published an 800-page, painstakingly researched account of the tragedy called Leave None to Tell the Story. Some have said her recounting was “authoritative;” it certainly was exhaustive and in many ways exhausting. Many people dispute some of her interpretations of events, past and current—I certainly didn’t agree with everything she told me. But those who know Rwanda would acknowledge that her contributions were enormous. Another friend and source who’s as passionate about Rwanda as she was—but also passionate in his disagreement with much of what she has said in recent years in very strong criticism of Paul Kagame’s government—told me: “She did more to document and teach the true nature of that genocide than anyone else.”

Certainly she helped me to ask good questions. In our brief interactions, she acted less like a source than a professor: She questioned my questions and forced me to consider underlying assumptions and conclusions that I hadn’t even realized I’d made. She, of course, had made a lot of assumptions and conclusions, too–and she defended them fiercely.

Des Forges was forthright about her opinions, never hesitated to share them, and felt free to take on those who differed with her. But I can’t–nobody can–question that she sought justice and the truth, which, in the murkiness of geopolitics and the tragedy of events like 1994’s genocide, are often awfully hard to find. I think the title of her book is especially telling. Why did Alison Des Forges do what she did with her days? So many people don’t have the freedom to watch and to record, to speak out and to call out. But she did—and she used it. She told that story, as honestly and powerfully as she knew how.

About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.

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