Rwanda expert dies in Buffalo plane crash

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

MARCO WERMAN: Investigators today found the flight recorders from the plane that crashed near Buffalo last night. The accident killed 50 people. President Obama offered his condolences today. He said tragedies like this remind us of the fragility of life and the value of every single day.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: One person who understood that well was Beverly Eckert who was on that flight and who I met with just a few days ago. You see, Beverly lost her husband on 9/11 and became a tireless advocate for those families whose lives were forever changed on that September day. And she was an inspiration to me and to so many others, and I pray that her family finds peace and comfort in the hard days ahead.

WERMAN: There was someone else on that plane whose life touched many others. Her name was Alison Des Forges. She was a researcher for Human Rights Watch and one of the leading authorities of the Rwanda genocide of 1994. You couldn't read an article about Rwanda in this country without seeing Alison Des Forges quoted. Ken Roth is Director of Human Rights Watch in New York. First of all, Mr. Roth, our condolences to you and your organization.

KEN ROTH: Well, thank you. It was quite a blow to wake up to this morning.

WERMAN: Rwanda was Ms. Des Forges's life work. When did that start?

ROTH: It really started for her in graduate school. She did her dissertation on Rwanda. But I've been working with her now for nearly 20 years, and she began with Human Rights Watch a few years before the genocide and was actually one of those who saw the rise in ethnic tension that you know, we all feared would lead to genocide and ultimately did. Once the genocide broke out, she was just incredible trying to save people. I remember one of Rwanda's leading human rights activists at the time, Monique Mujawamariya, who was really hiding in the attic of her building as the [INDISCERNABLE] came to try to kill her. And Alison was able to arrange for diplomats to come and save her and to get her out of the country clandestinely. But that kind of dedication just continued. She would travel to various European capitals where she was always seen as the expert on Rwanda. But she wasn't like the rest of the world who thought that the current Rwandan government, lead by President Paul Kagame, could do no wrong. She remembered all too well that Kagame is the head of the so-called ?Rwanda Patriotic Front? at the time, those opposed to the genocide. Its forces committed some 30,000 murders, and she didn't want the world to forget about that either. She was insistent that the International Tribunal pursue those crimes as well as the genocide crimes and that made her, to say the least, unpopular in Rwanda. And indeed, just this last year, the Rwanda finally government barred her from entering the country.

WERMAN: Alison Des Forges was clearly an extraordinary person. You knew her for 20 years. Describe her personality and what made her that way.

ROTH: Well, she was absolutely determined to do what she could to protect the people of Rwanda. I was with her once shortly after the genocide of Rwanda, and we learned of a massacre that had been committed way off in some distant hills. We got in the car and drove for some two hours to the middle of nowhere, and after interviewing a few survivors, we suddenly encountered the very troops who had committed the massacre ? who, needless to say, were not happy that we were there. But Alison just, you know, negotiated her way out of a very difficult situation and then we ? and then drove as quickly as we could once they let us get away. But she did that over and over and over again.

WERMAN: What will be your lasting memory of Alison Des Forges, Ken Roth?

ROTH: Well, for me ? it's important to remember that Alison was sort of a diminutive woman. She couldn't have been more than five-feet tall. She was well into her 60s, but she had an
energy and determination about her that was really unlike anyone that I've ever met. So at a time when most people were thinking about retirement or spending time with their grandchildren, she was hopping on yet another plane to go to yet another capital to try to protect the people of Central Africa. You know, I suppose that it's sadly ironic that it's on one of those planes that she lost her life.

WERMAN: Ken Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, speaking with us about Alison Des Forges, one of dozens of people killed last night in that plane crash outside Buffalo, New York. Mr. Roth, thank you very much.

ROTH: Thank you.