Alison Des Forges
Last Thursday night, we lost an outspoken and cherished activist, analyst, and friend, and a “most valuable player” of the Great Lakes family of analysts. Alison’s colleagues and friends in Africa, the United States, and in Europe cannot shake the irony that she survived war zones and patched-up Antonovs in remote locations of the globe, and was taken from us on a short, routine flight home to upstate New York, a flight she has taken countless times.
Alison was that rare breed of analyst who moves easily from university lecture halls, to high-level policy meetings, to modest hostels in the field, with the same unpretentiousness that she brought home to Buffalo. She had a kind grandmotherly smile that invited nervous first-year graduate students to approach her, and a devilish twinkle in her eye that always made me think that she had something really good up her sleeve that would win her the argument at just the right moment. In the last 48 hours of email disbelief, countless colleagues and friends have recounted how she helped launch their career or introduced them to the Great Lakes. My 20-something year old program assistant who’s mulling over graduate and field work in the Great Lakes and to whom I introduced Alison a couple of months ago, exclaimed in an email, “But she has been a role model for me!”
Alison, who cut her professional teeth on chronicling, analyzing, and speaking out about the 1994 Rwanda genocide, did not hesitate to speak out against the growing political repression and alarming authoritarian tendencies shown by the Rwandan government in recent years. This did not earn her points in Kigali””in fact, once the darling of the Rwandan government, in recent years she was banned from entering the country. Unlike so many Western analysts who entered the Great Lakes region through the Rwanda genocide and who today insist that President Kagame can do no wrong, Alison’s lenses remained clear and sharp. While others became Kigali’s apologists, Alison spoke out loudly against Rwandan aggression in the region and repression at home. It is rare for an analyst to give up that kind of access for principle.
Today, with Rwandan and Ugandan troops back in the DRC in what many of us see as a back to the future of 1998 moment, Alison’s sharp analysis and outspoken voice will be sorely missed. But she has taught us that good research and solid activism can and should be linked. And that we must hold even our friends to account, as we should hold ourselves. It is now our job to pick up where Alison left off.