- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009


For humanitarian workers and foreign correspondents, one of the greatest fears is that they will survive wars, revolutions, civil conflicts, dictatorships, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes - and then come home and die in a car crash.

It eats away at them, this disgraceful possibility, and it is the ultimate humiliation for the real risk-taker.

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But it happened to one of the world’s truly remarkable women when Continental Airlines Flight 3407 left Newark Liberty International Airport and crashed in Upstate New York two days before Valentine’s Day.

Alison Des Forges‘ name was not, in fact, one that most Americans would know, for her work was very specific: It was humanitarian dedication specializing in the darkest histories of Africa, in particular, Rwanda. But it was, and is, a name that should not only be known but celebrated. This tiny and impassioned woman - some called her, incongruously, a “towering figure” - was one of those rare and precious human beings who could foresee events accurately and devise answers to the most horrendous foreign policy questions.

In fact, if the world would only heed her style, we might well solve many of our foreign policy and human rights problems long before they begin.

Think first of her work in Rwanda, that once-prosperous little country in the center of Africa. It fell into such unspeakable savagery between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in 1994 that upward of 800,000 people were slaughtered within months, while a hapless world looked on in silence and, largely, indifference.

But Ms. Des Forges, a native of Schenectady, N.Y., who received her Ph.D. in history from Yale University, did not merely look on. Before it was over, she would exhume bodies from mass graves, soberly gather skeletons tossed in public parks, and learn how to deal with the crazed adolescent soldiers who were everywhere. Above all, she offered practical ideas about how to stop mass killings.

When the savagery broke out, for instance, she pleaded with the State Department during the Clinton administration to take one simple action: Block the signals of Rwandan radio stations that were urging the poorer Hutus everywhere to set out and massacre the prosperous Tutsi “cockroaches.” These mad and explicit radio broadcasts made the African holocaust possible, but Washington refused to act.

In her 800-page book “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” she effectively changed the world’s entire understanding of what had happened that horrible year in Central Africa.

Before that book, the most common model was the “ethnic conflict” one, in which one ethnic group rose spontaneously to smite the other. Ms. Des Forges showed that such conflict was not even primarily ethnic at all. “This genocide was not an uncontrolled outburst of rage by a people consumed by ‘ancient tribal hatred,’” her book read. “Nor was it any preordained result of impersonal forces of poverty and overpopulation. This genocide resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and fear to keep itself in power.

“Like the organizers, the killers who executed the genocide were not demons nor automatons responding to ineluctable forces. They were people who chose to do evil. Tens of thousands, swayed by fear, hatred, or hope of profit, made the choice quickly and easily.”

In many of our most delicate and dangerous foreign policy situations, her kind of clarification could have saved hundreds, even thousands, of lives. After the Gulf war in 1991, thinking similar to hers could have forced Saddam Hussein to accept his defeat from the allies and forbid his helicopters to fly against his Shi’ite foes. And during the Serbs’ war against Bosnia in 1993 and ‘94, when the beautiful old city of Sarajevo was being shelled continually by Serbian artillery, all the Americans and Europeans would have had to do to relieve the siege was to bomb the old Serbian artillery positions that were literally hanging off the sides of mountains.

But for Western nations, there was no alternative between doing nothing and involving oneself in a major war. And so these easier ways to peace were never even explored.

Finally, Ms. Des Forges’ life and work show that the most crucial part of any struggle is to analyze it correctly. Everything else stems from that analysis. Whether in Vietnam or Somalia or Afghanistan, the analysis has been largely incorrect - and without the intermediary fallback position that this remarkable and clear-minded scholar always recommended.

In 1999 after the United States had led NATO into the Serb province of Kosovo to free the Kosovars from the Serbs who were attacking them, I spoke at length with Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who had founded Doctors Without Borders in 1971. He was, by then, the United Nations’ highest representative in Kosovo and was considered by many to be the world’s supreme humanitarian worker. By this time, he too was thinking of a new step in humanitarian work.

“We must now turn to the preventions of disasters,” he said that day. “Humanitarian work is always necessary, but in recent years it has always come too late. We have to turn to ways of preventing war. That is why we must have the right to intervene beforehand and why we must stop leaders from killing minorities within a country.”

We have not realized, not yet at least, ways to bring Dr. Kouchner and Ms. Des Forges’ special, almost instinctual, knowledge to bear on foreign relations. But perhaps that will eventually come. It will be all the harder without this brave and unusual woman.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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