Coming home on the train tonight, I gasped out loud. More than once. Stunned into disbelief. I was reading this week's Economist, came across the obituary, and there she was: Alison Des Forges. Alison was a human rights activist who devoted a great part of her life to highlighting the plight of Rwanda, from its days as a European colony to the genocide in 1994 that cost the lives of up to 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
I was fortunate to have met Alison on a number of occasions when I went to law school. I had helped arrange for her to speak on campus about the Rwandan genocide. You couldn't really call the way she spoke "speaking". She fired off her words. About how Rwanda was too far away, too poor and too black for any Western government to give a damn. I would have sat there completely mesmerized had I not also felt embarrassed to see how few people had shown up to hear her. She later graciously accepted another invitation to speak, this time at a hearing on women's rights violations. She stood on a stage in a darkened auditorium before 200 people. But who needed a spotlight when you had such an aura of moral authority? She was an angel who had been placed on Earth to help and cry out for those who couldn't. Her tiresome campaign to raise awareness of Africa led to a MacArthur fellowship in 1999 and a senior advisor position with Human Rights Watch.
Alison was one of the passengers on the plane that crashed near Buffalo on February 12. All 50 people on board killed. Like everyone else, I saw the story on the news. But had I not bought that Economist at Penn Station tonight, I would never have known that Alison had been on that plane. She was only 66. I still can't believe that she's gone.