MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up - the future of the American auto industry, GM and Chrysler reveal their restructuring plans. But first, 50 people are dead after a commuter plane crashed near Buffalo, New York last night. President Obama said this at the White House today.

President BARACK OBAMA: Tragic events such as these remind us of the fragility of life and the value of every single day.

BRAND: The Continental airplane crashed into a house in a suburban neighborhood, killing everyone on board and one person in that home. It was snowing at the time, but there's no official word yet on what caused the crash. One of the dead was Beverly Eckert. She was a 9/11 widow who had become a tireless activist for better security. She was on the way home to celebrate what would have been her husband's 58th birthday and dedicate a scholarship in his honor. Another woman on board was Allison Des Forges. She was a senior adviser on Africa for Human Rights Watch. She had won the MacArthur Genius Award for her work on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Earlier, I spoke with Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.

Mr. KENNETH ROTH (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch): I mean, this is a shocking - well, I've got to say the staff here is just devastating. Allison was a wonderful colleague. She was as dedicated as they come. She - in many respects, she kind of epitomized what a human rights activist should be, in that she was principled, willing to uncover the truth to try to protect people.

BRAND: And I understand she'd worked for some 17 years for human rights in Rwanda.

Mr. ROTH: For Human Rights Watch, actually. And before that, she was an academic who had specialized in Rwanda. So, I mean, I remember working with Allison at the time of the genocide. She, in many ways, had seen the genocide coming. She had been in Rwanda and had issued a report just before the genocide, highlighting the rise in ethnic tensions that looked so dangerous at that time. She really dedicated herself to trying to protect people.

I recall at the time, Rwanda's leading human rights activist was a woman by the name of Monique Mujawamariya. And Allison, I think, singlehandedly arranged for diplomats to come and rescue this woman who was being actively tracked down by the genocidaire and was able to get her husband out of the country. But it's that kind of dedication that really epitomized Allison to this day. I mean, you know, she was not a young woman, but she was constantly back and forth to Rwanda, to neighboring Congo, to various capitals in Europe, trying to ensure that the authors of the genocide be brought to account for their crimes, but also, I think, very importantly recognizing that, you know, even though the current Rwandan government of Paul Kagame is very popular in the United States and Britain and is seen as a new African leader, that he oversaw the Rwanda Patriotic Front at the time of the genocide and through those forces, was responsible for the murder of some 30,000 people.

And so, just in this last year, the Rwandan government barred Allison from entering the country because they viewed her as a thorn in its side. She kept insisting that, not only should the genocidaire be brought to justice, but also, the people within the current Rwandan government, who themselves have been responsible for mass atrocities.

BRAND: Well, do you know what she was doing on that plane going to Buffalo?

Mr. ROTH: Well, she lives in Buffalo. And so, she was returning home from an advocacy trip that she had just taken for Human Rights Watch in Europe. Her current preoccupation had been the fighting in eastern Congo, where Rwandan forces have now gone into the country with permission of the Congolese government, going after, you know, ironically remnants - Hutu remnants, of the genocide. And Allison, who supervised not only our Rwanda work but also our work in the so-called Great Lakes region of Africa, was responsible for trying to engage the international community to bolster the U.N. peacekeeping troops in eastern Congo, so that they could protect civilians who, you know, to this day, have lost some 5 million lives in conflict-related losses.

BRAND: Well, again, I'm very, very sorry. My condolences to you and really, I guess, condolences for all of us.

Mr. ROTH: Yeah. I mean, I think the world is a more impoverished place by the loss of Allison. She has saved countless lives in central Africa, and there are many, many people around the world today who are mourning this loss.

BRAND: Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. We've been talking about the death of Allison Des Forge. She was on that plane that crashed outside Buffalo.

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