This time of year, I am drawn to reading over years of my correspondence with Alison des Forges. That’s because six years ago today, Alison, a senior advisor to our Africa Division, died when Continental Airlines Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York. As I read over years of exchanges on a range of human rights concerns in Rwanda and Burundi, I find myself renewing my commitment to try live up to Alison’s stellar standards, professionally and personally.
In her passionate commitment to justice – from the public schools of Buffalo, New York to the killing fields of Rwanda – Alison consistently displayed determination and patience. She did not let logistical and practical obstacles get in the way of gathering detailed and credible information, even in challenging situations which would have deterred many. From early on in the establishment of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, her careful and inventive approaches to collecting and corroborating information set a standard for human rights research with compassion and rigor.
Her visits to our offices in Burundi and Rwanda meant long hours, intense discussions, and moments graced by her wry humor. She traveled light with her swimming goggles, photos of her grandchildren, and chocolates as gifts. It wasn’t unusual at an airport or a restaurant for Alison to stop to greet the many people who knew her, or who recognized her and wanted to introduce themselves.
Human Rights Watch’s work on Rwanda – where Alison first carried out her dissertation research in the 1960s – has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The post-genocide government imposes severe restrictions on freedom of expression and often reacts with hostility to criticism of its human rights record. Just a few months before her death, the Rwandan authorities prevented Alison from entering the country. In Burundi, despite some optimism at the end of the civil war in 2006, impunity for human rights abuses and harassment of the media and activists persists. In 2014, Alison’s beloved friend and leading human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was arrested and charged for remarks he made on the radio. Despite these challenges, Human Rights Watch has continued carefully documenting human rights abuses in Rwanda and Burundi, inspired and encouraged by Alison’s memory.
Last year, which marked the 20th year since the genocide, Alison’s award-winning account of those events, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” was released in Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda. This is a fitting tribute to Alison whose first concern was always to speak and listen to the local population – not only ministers, ambassadors, and academics, but ordinary people across Rwanda’s hills.
Alison led by example, encouraging us to be generous with our time to mentor others, to be patient with one another despite deadlines, and to listen more than we speak. Her death was a devastating loss for the human rights community and anyone who believed in standing up for justice and equality. Our memories of her have not faded and continue to guide us in our resolve to fight human rights abuses across the world, every day.