Jeff Sharlet: Among the dead of Continental Flight 3407 was a 66-year-old historian and activist named Alison Des Forges. In a short essay about the Rwandan genocide for The Revealer in 2004, I referred to Des Forges’ 1999 book on the subject, Leave None to Tell the Story, as “a painful masterwork.” That did not do the book justice. It is a modern scripture, a designation it deserves not just for its exposure of the fact that the genocide had roots in bad biblical scholarship, a misreading of Genesis applied to ethnicity in Rwanda. I first encountered Des Forges and her work while researching a story about debates between scholars of the genocide for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I wrote then that

Ms. Des Forges, also an activist for Human Rights Watch, is the main author (with eight other researchers) of the most comprehensive study of the killing: Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (Human Rights Watch, 1999). At nearly 800 pages, it is less a narrative or an analysis than a horrifying collage; with the instincts of a novelist and the precision of an architect, Ms. Des Forges collected and compiled eyewitness testimonies, diplomatic dispatches, minutes of local meetings, datebooks of murderers, radio show transcripts, inventories of weapons. On one page she reproduces a receipt for 25,662 kilograms of machetes to be delivered to one of the genocide’s conspirators nearly half a year before the killing began.

To say that Des Forges book was a collage, not a narrative, was not to say it was lesser than
powerful narrative accounts of the genocide such as Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda. (Gourevitch, in fact, told me he considered Des Forges the only fully trustworthy historian of the genocide.) Indeed, Des Forges respectfully challenged what she saw as the narrative neatness of books such as Gourevitch’s and the numerous works of scholarship that sought to identify an overarching cause of the genocide. The mistake of such worthy efforts, she said,

is in attempting to come to a conclusion about a genocide. Her book, she says, has just begun to lift one corner of the truth, and everything in it can be seen from another angle. She admits that she might plead guilty to the “stubborn resistance to theory” that [political scientists] say marks too many scholars of the genocide. Theories of the genocide in Rwanda tend inevitably toward the monocausal… race… homicidal masses… [or] treacherous elites.

But ethnic groups are not concrete building blocks, she points out, and elites alone can’t be blamed for a slaughter that did not respect class boundaries. In the context of Rwanda, it is even difficult to say what constituted the act of murder. “Do you have to have a machete in your hand to be a killer?” she asks. “The little old lady sitting on a stool when the militia comes running down the road, who nods in the direction of bushes where people are hiding — is she a killer? The young woman who reports that there is more laundry than usual on the lines of her neighbors? The street kid who says he saw someone with no money buy bread? A man who shuts the door in his sister-in-law’s face, because she’d draw attention to his own half-Tutsi children? Who is a murderer?”