Alison Des Forges

Alison Des Forges (née Liebhafsky; August 20, 1942 – February 12, 2009) was an American historian and human rights activist who specialized in the African Great Lakes region, particularly the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the time of her death, she was a senior advisor for the African continent at Human Rights Watch. She died in a plane crash on 12 February 2009.[3]

Alison Des Forges
Alison Des Forges.jpg
Alison B. Liebhafsky

(1942-08-20)August 20, 1942
DiedFebruary 12, 2009(2009-02-12) (aged 66)
Cause of deathPlane crash
Alma materRadcliffe College
Yale University
Known forHuman rights activism
Roger V. Des Forges
(m. 1964)


Des Forges was born Alison B. Liebhafsky on August 20, 1942, to Sybil Small and Herman A. Liebhafsky. She married Roger Des Forges, a historian at the State University of New York at Buffalo who specialized in China, in 1964. Des Forges earned her B.A. in history from Radcliffe College in 1964, and her M.A. and a PhD in the same discipline from Yale University in 1966 and 1972. Her master's thesis and doctoral dissertation both addressed the impact of European colonialism on Rwanda.[2][1][4] Defeat Is the Only Bad News: Rwanda under Musinga, 1896–1931, her dissertation, was published posthumously in 2011. Describing the politics of the court during the reign of Yuhi Musinga, it shows how divisions among different groups in Rwanda shaped their responses to colonial governments, missionaries and traders.

She specialized in the African Great Lakes region and studied the Rwandan genocide. She was also an authority on human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Burundi.[5]

Des Forges left academia in 1994 in response to the Rwandan genocide, to work full-time on human rights.[6]

In 1999, she was named a MacArthur Fellow in recognition of her work as a "human rights leader.[7] She became the senior advisor at Human Rights Watch for the African continent.

She died on February 12, 2009, in the air crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, en route from Newark, New Jersey, to her home in Buffalo, New York.[2]

Witness to Rwandan genocideEdit

Des Forges is thought to have been the most knowledgeable American on the genocide as it was unfolding. She was on the phone to Monique Mujawamariya in Rwanda in April 1994 when Mujawmariya apologised for putting down the phone as she did not want Des Forges to hear her die. Mujawmariya lived, but her reports meant that[8] Des Forges was one of the first outsiders to observe that a full-blown genocide was under way in Rwanda, and afterwards led a team of researchers to establish the facts.[9] She testified 11 times before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and gave evidence about the Rwandan genocide to panels of the French National Assembly, the Belgian Senate, the US Congress, the Organisation of African Unity, and the United Nations.[4]

She was the primary author of the 1999 book Leave None to Tell the Story, which The Economist[9] and The New York Times[2] both describe as the definitive account of the Rwandan genocide. In the book, she argued that the genocide was organized by the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government at the time, rather than being a spontaneous outbreak of tribal conflicts.[5]


Africanist René Lemarchand states, "That the story of Rwanda is at all known in the United States today owes much to the work of Philip Gourevitch and Alison Des Forges."[10]

The Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism is named after her; until 2009 it was known as the Human Rights Defenders Award.[11][12] It is given out by Human Rights Watch.[11]


  • Des Forges, Alison. Defeat Is the Only Bad News: Rwanda under Musiinga, 1896–1931 (1972; 2011).
  • Des Forges, Alison. Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda – Human Rights Watch et FIDH – 1999 – ISBN 1-56432-171-1.
  • Roth, Kenneth; DesForges, Alison (Summer 2002). "Justice or Therapy?". Boston Review.


  1. ^ a b "9/11 widow, MacArthur Fellow, jazz musicians among victims" (2009-02-13). USA Today. Retrieved February 13, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c d Chan, Sewell (2009-02-13). "Alison Des Forges, Human Rights Advocate, Is Dead at 66". New York Times. Retrieved February 13, 2009.
  3. ^ Straus, Scott; Waldorf, Lars (April 18, 2011). Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. xiii. ISBN 978-0-299-28263-9.
  4. ^ a b "Alison Des Forges". Human Rights Watch. Archived from the original on February 12, 2009. Retrieved February 13, 2009.
  5. ^ a b Bigg, Matthew (February 13, 2009). "Key human rights advocate dies in U.S. plane crash". Reuters. Thomson Reuters. Archived from the original on February 16, 2009. Retrieved February 14, 2009. A central thesis of her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” was that the genocide was not an uncontrollable explosion of ancient tribal hatreds but a carefully orchestrated by the government which seized control of Rwanda in April, 1994. Des Forges also argued that the rebel army that defeated the genocide regime and is now in power should also be held accountable for crimes during and just after the genocide.
  6. ^ "Alison des Forges" Archived February 17, 2009, at the Wayback Machine. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved February 13, 2009.
  7. ^ "Alison L. Des Forges Human Rights Leader Class of 1999". MacArthur Foundation. July 1, 1999. Retrieved December 25, 2020. Through informed analyses, Des Forges has focused attention on Rwanda and Burundi in particular, and central Africa in general, before, during, and after the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and has been instrumental in assisting the International Criminal Tribunal in its prosecution of those responsible. She visited the sites of massacres, exhumed bodies from mass graves, collected human bones strewn in the game parks of Rwanda, and interviewed victims of atrocities. Her book, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (1999), marks the culmination of years of intense work and research.
  8. ^ [1], Papicek, 9 April 2009, European Tribune, Retrieved 1 March 2016
  9. ^ a b "Obituary, Alison Des Forges". The Economist. February 19, 2009. p. 88. Archived from the original on February 27, 2009. Retrieved March 6, 2009.
  10. ^ Lemarchand, René (2009). The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-8122-4120-4.
  11. ^ a b "HRW to Honour Six Human Rights Defenders".
  12. ^ "Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism". Human Rights Award Index. Archived from the original on April 11, 2016. Retrieved March 30, 2016.

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