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Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges was born in Schenectady, New York, to Herman A. Liebhafsky, a chemist, and his wife Sybil Small. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 with a B.A. in history, and went on to earn an M.A. and a PhD in history from Yale University. In 1964, she married Roger Des Forges, an historian at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her research focused on the African Great Lakes region and the impact of European colonialism on Rwanda. She became an authority on human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, and on the Rwandan genocide. Dr.
Des Forges left academia in 1994 in response to the Rwandan genocide, to work full-time on her human rights activities. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999, and became the senior advisor at Human Rights Watch for the African continent.

She leda a team of researchers to establish the facts in the Rwandan genocide and testified 11 times before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as well as other bodies such as the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.
She wrote the landmark 1999 book Leave None to Tell the Story. She died on February 12, 2009, in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407, en route to her home in Buffalo, New York.
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