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“The story must be told”

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Some terrible news late last week: Alison Des Forges, a well-known researcher and historian, and an expert on Central Africa, was on the plane that crashed near Buffalo.

I met Des Forges in 1996. Three years later I thought back on some personal advice I got from her:
In 1999 I was preparing for my first trip to Africa for Oxfam, and I was at the travel clinic at Mass General Hospital getting jabbed for yellow fever and a few other maladies when the doctor stopped and looked me over for a moment.

“You’re a runner,” she said. It sounded like an accusation.

I am not much of a runner but I do sometimes jog, especially when I am traveling, in order to get some exercise. So I admitted it. The doctor pretty much begged me not to run when I went to Africa, because she said she frequently treats travelers that have been bitten by dogs while running.

Bit by a rabid dog in Africa, I remembered thinking. That would be just my luck.

But I have gone out for a short run many times in Africa and South America. It’s a good way to reduce stress, and it helps you get over jet lag and sleep better.

I am thinking about this because when I met Alison Des Forges she recommended running. I was at Human Rights Watch in New York discussing some writing I was doing on Burundi and trying to talk her into hiring me to do some work for her in that country. I asked her how she handles the stress of her work and we talked about running for just a minute.

This was just one of the personal moments of this meeting. We had just talked over the fact that one man she had interviewed for a report on Rwanda had been subsequently murdered, she thought, as retribution for collaborating with foreign human rights investigators. Des Forges described how the victim’s son had told her about the incident, and how resigned he seemed to his father’s demise.

Des Forges was 66 when she died last week. She was one of the early voices raised when the genocide in Rwanda was gaining momentum, demanding that the world respond. This was after 200,000 people had been murdered, according to the New York Times obituary. There were at least another 300,000 who were about to die. There were no serious international efforts to stop this violence.

In her book Leave No One to Tell the Tale: Genocide in Rwanda published by Human Rights Watch, Des Forges lays out all the facts and events of this horrid chapter in history. The conclusion states:
“This work is one of the many that must come to establish the historical record, to lay the groundwork for justice for Rwandans and accountability for all others who failed to respond to the bonds of our common humanity. The story must be told.”

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  1.  avatarjoelb

    Chris, thanks for writing about this outspoken, engaged citizen. I didn’t know about Alison before this. It’s always heartening to read about people who will speak out against injustice, especially in the face of unbelievable resistance or apathy.

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