Feature Article

Alison Des Forges: A passion for justice

How meetings in Delaware Park led to an annual symposium, a park bench, and more

Alison Liebhafsky (second from right) with students in Tanganyika, Africa, 1963. The photograph was taken by her classmate and fellow teacher Karen Weiskopf, when they participated in a Harvard student-run program and taught English to Francophone Rwandan Tutsi refugees in the Kimuli Valley in western Tanganyika. The image is provided courtesy of Jessie Des Forges.

Alison Liebhafsky (second from right) with students in Tanganyika, Africa, 1963. The photograph was taken by her classmate and fellow teacher Karen Weiskopf, when they participated in a Harvard student-run program and taught English to Francophone Rwandan Tutsi refugees in the Kimuli Valley in western Tanganyika. The image is provided courtesy of Jessie Des Forges.

Alison Des Forges was one of the greatest advocates for human rights in our time. There was no one who knew more and did more to document the genocide and to help bring the perpetrators to justice"

                    — Human Rights Watch

Published May 27, 2021

Keywords: Human rights, social justice, Des Forges, Rwanda, Africa, genocide, war crimes.

Title:  Alison Des Forges: A passion for justice
Article by: Debra Kolodczak, PhD

Even now, it is difficult to grasp how the courageous activism of Alison Des Forges continues to inspire people. This article seeks to add context to Alison's interdisciplinary scholarship in the global arena of law and social policy. Perspective is provided by Roger Des Forges, Helene Kramer, and Irving Massey. Together, they became key components in forming an educational enterprise that would do justice to Alison’s memory. Today, that enterprise is a solid foundation for sustaining community activities, one of which has become an annual international symposium.

Beginning in 2012, the activities of the enterprise have been sponsored in part by The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.  And each year we see the international event growing stronger. Not even the global pandemic could slow it down. Committee organizers were quick to adapt to drastic change. As a result, the 2020 and 2021 events became online-only webinars, thus expanding access within the web-connected world.

Planning is underway for the 2022 symposium. Stay tuned.

Given the extensive reporting about the work of Dr. Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges (1942-2009), this article gathers excerpts from websites hosted by: the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee;  Human Rights Watch;  New York Times;  Democracy Now;  PBS Frontline; and Wikipedia; among others, as a way to better understand Alison's passion for justice.

Roger Des Forges describes Alison as both pragmatic and principled, somehow mixing political activism with philosophical realism:

“It’s not that she was pragmatic in a negative sense,” he said. “You have to deal with the world the way it is, and you have to figure out ways to compromise when you have to compromise to get what you need — as well as to be principled whenever you can be, when you can afford to be. She decided to continue to work with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) even though she came to believe they were never going to get around to prosecuting the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). And I think that was a difficult decision because in a sense she had to give up the leverage which would come from not testifying, not cooperating, in return for making sure that the people who were guilty on the Hutu side were at least prosecuted.” Democracy Now (2009)

"Almost no one was able to stay with it the way she did. The psychological trauma that so many people went through and that she vicariously shared was just insupportable. People just couldn’t do it. She stuck with it. Alison was just as involved right at the moment of her death as she had been at any time.”

For Roger it was symbolic that Alison died as she was returning from a trip to London to pressure Parliament about some extradition cases. "Her message was typical Alison: these people may not get fair trials back in Rwanda. So whatever you do, do it with your eyes open and know what harm your actions might cause."  New York Times (2009)

DEFINING TERMS: GENOCIDE vs. WAR CRIMES

"We used the word genocide beginning on April 17, 1994. In a letter to the Security Council and from that time on, we used the word regularly. [...] We used it in all of our meetings with government officials, with journalists. We used the term with our colleagues, of course, because from our point of view, by mid-April by the end of the first week, it was clear what was happening — that people were, in fact, being targeted with the intent to eliminate them. [...]  

The genocide took place in the context of war. In a war, you can also have war crimes, and either side can be guilty of war crimes. In this particular war, both sides were guilty of war crimes. One side was guilty of genocide. [...]

We need to be ready for the future. These kinds of wars directed against civilians are increasing. The kind of war that happened in the middle of the twentieth century, where you had professional armies confronting each other, has given way now to another kind of war, which is being waged against civilians.

The laws of war that we drew up were meant to protect civilians. Now the context has changed, and the civilians are becoming the object. Are those laws of war still valid? Can we enforce them? And what will we do, the next time a civilian population becomes the objective for extermination?" 

—Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, interview excerpts from PBS Frontline  Ghosts of Rwanda (2004) 

 

JUSTICE PROVIDES CLOSURE

“Justice is not going to erase the memory of crimes, but it will provide people with some level of closure. At least they will know the crime has been dealt with, it has been talked about, someone has been held responsible, and perhaps even, ideally, the victim has received some form of compensation.”    

—Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, Commencement Address,  SUNY Buffalo State College (2005)

 

Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee

How is it that a memorial committee, simply comprised of local volunteers, could actually survive beyond the few years one might expect?  Here's how: "The Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee  is dedicated to honoring the memory of Dr. Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, an inspirational and tireless crusader for human rights and social justice around the world. The organization seeks to continue Alison’s quest to educate people about the injustices in the world and the part we all must play as members of an increasingly interdependent global community."

As an organization that accepts donations, the Committee's fiduciary structure is under the umbrella of UB Foundation Activities, Inc. The Committee's work involves awarding scholarships, organizing annual symposia, and hosting special events, among other activities. Learn more, here.
 

Sustaining the Alison Des Forges International Symposia

The Baldy Center recently produced a podcast featuring, Roger Des Forges, the Committee's co-founder. He is joined in discussion with Ellen Dussourd and Shaun Irlam, the Committee co-chairs. Together, they provide insight about the annual symposia. 

People still ask: What would Alison do?

Ida Sawyer, Deputy Director, Human Rights Watch, Africa Division, attests to the influence Alison had, and will continue to have on the human rights activist community. “We miss Alison deeply,” writes Sawyer. “We strive to live up to the example she set for us, and with each new challenge, we ask ourselves, ‘What would Alison do?’” (Human Rights Watch, Feb 12, 2019).


25 Years Later: A look at the genocide in Rwanda and the woman who tried to prevent it  is the title of a web-based essay by Maggie BenZvi, a former student of Alison's. In the essay, BenZvi observes: 

"Following the genocide and the minimal response from the international community, Des Forges undertook a massive 4-year study of what had happened. She and her team of researchers interviewed survivors and killers. She wrote the 800-page chilling and meticulously documented report that was titled from a killer’s cry, Leave None to Tell the Story. Des Forges knew that telling the stories of the victims was important for truth and justice to have any hope in the region or in the international community which had simply stood by while the genocide took place. For the sake of the truth, Des Forges was careful to not embellish the facts. She estimated that about a half a million people died in the genocide, less than some reports of 800,000 or a million. For her the credibility of human rights advocacy lay in the accuracy of what was said." Read the full article by Maggie BenZvi (July 14, 2019).

 

Fast walks around Delaware Park

Where did Alison find the strength and resolve to carry on? How did Alison counteract the outrageous indifference to genocide on the world’s stage? Most certainly, Alison's uncompromising intellectual fortitude was sustained by Roger, their children, and close friends. Roger recalls:

“Alison was able to endure these tremendously tragic events in part because she constantly sought ways to find joy in life. Part of that was just being perceptive about what was happening around her and describing it to others... She really needed a quiet base of quiet affection, and that’s what we had.” (New York Times, 2009)

Perhaps another reliable source of Alison’s fortitude derived from fast 1.8-mile walks around Delaware Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1876,  the park is intended to provide city residents with a peaceful place for personal reflection. It is possible that those fast walks helped her sort out ‘what to do’, and then, Alison actually did it.

Roger indicates that Helene Kramer was one of the few who could keep up with Alison. While walking together in the park, Helene came to be inspired by Alison's dedication to public education.

 

Dedication to public education in Buffalo

From Helene's perspective, Alison's intense dedication to improving public education is lesser known but another way that Alison sought to address issues of social justice.

“Alison profoundly believed in public education, versus private or parochial education, as a leveling field for children. Alison worked tirelessly in that realm, particularly in Buffalo. During the difficult era of court-ordered school desegregation, the City of Buffalo started to organize magnet schools. Alison, a big believer in the Montessori form of education, worked with the Buffalo Public School administrators in designing and implementing what became the Bennett Park Montessori School. That's when I first met Alison. At that time there were private Montessori schools, but none in the public school system. My children, along with Alison's, attended one of those private schools. It was not long before Alison invited me and others to enroll our children in the new magnet school."

Helene credits their deep friendship as a lifelong source of inspiration in her own work in areas of public education. On one of their walks Alison encouraged Helene to run for election to the Buffalo School Board as the Member-at-Large in 1994. She won the election, and eventually became a civic leader. Among Helene's many accomplishments: in 2003 she served as founding executive director of Read to Succeed Buffalo, and she was the convening founder and board chair of the Charter School of Inquiry, authorized by the New York State Education Department in 2014. Today, the charter school promotes a safe and supportive community for children and families by infusing the heritage and culture of people of African descent, embracing the concept of Ubuntu and promoting academic growth through challenging student-led investigations.

 

Memorial bench with three Red Bud trees

The memorial bench in Delaware Park, Buffalo, NY, was dedicated in Fall 2012. In the following spring, the Committee convened the first international symposium. The bench is located along Ring Road, between the Buffalo Zoo and park kiosk. We invite you to take a walk in the park, visit the site, and reflect on Alison's passion for justice. Photograph courtesy of Helene Kramer, 2021.

The memorial bench in Delaware Park, Buffalo, NY, was dedicated in Fall 2012. In the following spring, the Committee convened the first international symposium. The bench is located along Ring Road, between the Buffalo Zoo and park kiosk. We invite you to walk in the park, visit the site, and reflect on Alison's passion for justice. Photograph courtesy of Helene Kramer, 2021.

About the origins of the Committee, Helene recalls that Irving Massey was the primary organizer of their first meetings. He brought together a diverse group of supporters. Irving remembers one key moment in an early meeting that galvanized the commitment to collective action within the group. In that moment they became united as a single family. Irving indicates that there was never any particular leader of the group. Rather, everyone was willing to do something. Countless supporters from all walks of life were eager to pitch in, thereby establishing the cohesive foundation of the Committee as it exists today.

In 2012, next to the path where Alison regularly walked, the Committee installed a memorial bench framed by three Red Bud trees in the park. Helene, Irving, and Roger were among those who spoke at the dedication ceremony.

Helene reflected on Alison's ability to inspire her young students:

“One of my fondest memories during my twenty years of walking around Delaware Park with Alison was of young men and women approaching Alison to thank her for teaching them to read when they were children at the Bennett Park Montessori School. During those moments, I saw the human connection – a glow of pride in her eyes, and theirs. There is a no more fitting place to remember Alison than in Delaware Park.”

Irving, inspired by Alison's personal sacrifice, stated:

“Anything that can draw us closer is what we all most need. When Shakespeare said (in Troilus and Cressida), 'One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,' by 'nature' he meant everything that is weakest in human nature, our greed, our attraction to novelty. [...] But there is something else that can make the whole world kin. By an act of sacrifice, by giving up her life for us, Alison made all of us her kin, wiping out the differences among us: at one stroke, she made all of us members of her family; of a single family. [...]

Roger spoke about the relevance of three Red Bud trees:

"One has been contributed by our family, including our son Alexander and daughter Jessie, as the first beneficiaries of Alison's remarkable capacity to care for others. One has been contributed by our friend Helene and her sons Malcolm and Marcus, Helene having, with Alison, devoted much of her career to improving public education in Buffalo. And one has been contributed by our colleague Irving and his daughter Rachel, Irving being an academic who has also been concerned about human rights and who recommended the Red Bud trees we are planting today." 

"If the three trees we are planting here today can in some small way represent Alison's extraordinary contributions to family, friends, and colleagues, so the larger trees behind us might stand for the national and world stages on which she also played important roles. The vista in front of us, then, can be seen to include the heaven and earth within which we are all living out our lives, seeking to perfect our human nature through service to others."

"On behalf of our family, I thank you all for coming out to join in celebrating Alison's exemplary life and her immortal spirit."

Read more about the Committee's park bench dedication ceremony, here.

 

RELATED RESOURCES
  • Leave None to Tell the Story  by Alison Des Forges, Human Rights Watch, online publication.
  • PBS Frontline  interview of Dr. Alison Des Forges, Historian and Social Justice Activist.
  • PBS Frontline: 'Ghosts of Rwanda documents significant events, statements and decisions that reveal how the United States and the West chose not to act to stop the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
  • United Nations  establishes 7 April as annual "International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda".

  • 3407 Memorial Legislative Accomplishments advocated by family members of the victims of Continental Flight 3407 who pushed for significant improvements in aviation safety, notably, PL 111-216, The Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2010, with key provisions, such as the FAA's Pilot Records Database. The tragedy represents a milestone in the history of aviation safety.

  • Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee  continues Alison’s quest to educate people about injustice in the world and the part we all must play in mitigating injustice in an interdependent global community.

 

Roger Des Forges.

Roger Des Forges

Roger V. Des Forges  met Alison B. Liebhafsky  at a high school Model United Nations in 1958. As an undergraduate, Roger majored in Public and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University while Alison majored in European and African History in Radcliffe College at Harvard University. They married in 1964, did their doctoral studies in History at Yale University, and conducted field and archival research in Rwanda and Taiwan. They taught History at Middlebury College and Yale before coming to Buffalo in 1972.  

Helene Kramer.

Helene Kramer

Helene Kramer has served as a board member of numerous organizations relating to improving the quality of education in Buffalo Public Schools. She is a former member and past president of the Buffalo Board of Education. Kramer was appointed executive director of Good Schools for All, a partnership of foundations, businesses, educators, parents, students, faith organizations and the community at large that focuses on improving student achievement in the Buffalo Public Schools. Recognized by Buffalo Business First as a 'thought leader', Kramer was the convening founder and board chair of the Charter School of Inquiry, authorized by the New York State Education Department in 2014. The charter school promotes a safe and supportive community for children and families by infusing the heritage and culture of people of African descent, embracing the concept of Ubuntu and promoting academic growth through challenging student-led investigations.

Irving Massey.

Irving Massey

Irving Joseph Massey, son of Yiddish poet Ida Maze, was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1924. Irving is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, University at Buffalo. He received his BA from McGill University, MA's from both Harvard and Columbia University, and his PhD from Harvard. He taught at UB from 1964-1996, and has published many books, including: Find You the Virtue: Ethics, Image, and Desire in Literature; The Uncreating Word: Romanticism and the Object; The Neural Imagination: Aesthetic and Neuroscientific Approaches to the Arts (University of Texas Press, 2009); and, most recently, 'Necessary Nonsense' (Ohio State University Press, 2018).