Oslo Journal, Part VI

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of his journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V.

Lapiro de Mbanga is maybe the most colorfully dressed person here. He is — let me quote from his bio — “a Cameroonian musician and pro-democracy activist.” Let me keep quoting (for this is very interesting):

In 2008, Mbanga composed a song, titled “Constipated Constitution,” which was highly critical of Cameroonian president Paul Biya, who has ruled the country since 1982. The song became an anthem at opposition rallies and protests, and Mbanga was subsequently charged with “complicity in looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading public or classified property, and forming illegal gatherings.”

Mbanga was thrown into prison for three years. He was released in 2011. He now lives in America, where he was granted political asylum.

At the rostrum in Norway, he thanks those who “worked for my liberation.” He also thanks “all the religious communities in Cameroon that never ceased to pray for me.”

He describes Cameroon as a “volcano,” which, unless someone does something to relieve the pressure of tyranny, will “explode” soon.

Mbanga makes me think of the revolution in Estonia, at the end of the USSR, a revolution known as “the Singing Revolution.” I wrote a piece about it two years ago: “Songs and Tanks.”

The revolution in Syria started out with some singing too (as I say in the above-linked piece). That has not worked out so well as Estonia.

Natalia Kaliada brings something onstage with her: a garment rack, with a suit on it — a suit belonging to a man. It just hangs there. She is a woman of the theater, the co-founder and artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre, an underground group. She and her husband have been forced into exile. They live in the U.K.

She shows us pictures of Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko — “Europe’s last dictator,” as he is known. He is pictured with Hugo Chávez, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the gang’s all there. Les beaux esprits se rencontrent.

“Belarus is not sexy,” Kaliada says. It has no oil, gas, coast, or mountains. “No one comes to Belarus, even our closest neighbors.” Belarus may be Europe’s last dictatorship — but she would like it to be known, very soon, as the world’s youngest democracy.

In December 2010, Belarus had an election. Lukashenko stole it, and cracked down viciously. I wrote a piece called “Belarus, Assaulted.”

About that suit that Kaliada has brought out: If I have heard correctly, it belongs, or belonged, to a young man who was executed. It was to be his wedding suit. His mother gave it to Kaliada. His family is still waiting for the corpse, or what’s left of it.

Ali Ferzat is the Syrian cartoonist who displeased the regime and was attacked by goons. They broke both of his hands and left him basically to bleed to death. But Ferzat survived, and is with us here at the forum. I have interviewed him — and expect to write about him in a forthcoming National Review.

But let me mention just a few things here . . .

In his speech to the forum, Ferzat makes clear that he objects to the idea that Syria is engaged in a civil war. It is not a civil war, he says: On one side are the regime and its foreign allies — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, etc. — and on the other side are the Syrian people.

He says that, 50 years ago, women had the right to vote, and to run for parliament. The country has gone backward. It reminds me of the famous pictures of the graduating classes at Cairo University. There came a point, relatively recently, when all the women were covered in scarves.

Ferzat notes that Bashar Assad has a lot of support throughout the world. Diplomats, including U.S. diplomats, have said nice things about him. “If you like him so much, why don’t you import him? You are perfectly free to have him!” (I have paraphrased, but closely.)

More about Ferzat in due course.

Mario Vargas Llosa is here — one of the outstanding men of letters, and of politics, of our time. He has composed a paper: “Literature, Freedom, and Power.” I’m not sure I agree with what he says, but when Vargas Llosa talks, you listen.

(I realize I have made him sound like E. F. Hutton.)

Vargas Llosa mentions a string of writers. The order, I believe, is Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy. I love that Cervantes — the Spanish-speaker — is first. (And the order is not strictly chronological, as you see.)

Part of the Oslo Freedom Forum is the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. This year, it goes to three people — or two individuals and a group. The individuals are Ali Ferzat and Park Sang-hak, a North Korean activist. The group is Cuba’s Ladies in White, represented by Berta Soler.

One of the presenters is a former president of Romania, Emil Constantinescu, who was a friend of Václav Havel. He quotes Havel as saying that “most people have illusions, not ideas.”

Garry Kasparov is another presenter. He says that democracy and human rights are especially dear to “those of us born in Communist countries.” He further says, “I apologize on behalf of my compatriots” for the Putin government’s supply of “the Syrian butcher who has been killing his own people.”

Park Sang-hak is an extraordinary man — yet another one, here at the Freedom Forum. He escaped from North Korea in 1999. His uncle was beaten to death in retaliation. Park is now in South Korea, heading a group that uses helium balloons to float leaflets, DVDs, USB drives, and transistor radios into North Korea.

He gives a rip-roaring speech to the forum.

The North Korean dictatorship, he says, has spent millions to preserve the body of Kim Il-sung. At the same time, millions of North Koreans are starving. The new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is “as evil as or worse than his father or grandfather.”

Which is saying something.

Park faces assassination attempts from the North. From the South Korean authorities, he faces either indifference or hostility. They don’t like his human-rights activism. They would rather not rile up the North. The South is “clueless” about the North, Park says. “What, is something happening on the moon?” North Korea? Never heard of it.

Alienated by the South, threatened with murder by the North. “That means we must be doing something right,” says Park.

He speaks in Korean, while the rest of us listen to a translator via our headsets. Somewhere along the way, the translator belches. I don’t know about you, but that’s a first for me.

Here is an interview with Park Sang-hak, conducted earlier this month. One question is, “Do you feel any connection to Václav Havel?” His answer:

In September 2008, I was invited to an event by George W. Bush and I happened to meet Havel there. . . . Coincidentally, Havel died on December 18, 2011 — one day after the death of Kim Jong-il.

I think often about the death of the two men. The two leaders died one day apart; yet one will be remembered as a liberator, and the other as an oppressor.

Having lived under the DPRK dictatorship, I know what it fears most: the people’s realization that the truth contradicts the regime’s propaganda. For this reason, I cannot stop working on projects that expose for North Koreans the regime’s propaganda . . .

What an important life Park is leading.

The session ends with a Norwegian pop singer, Haddy N’jie (whose father is from Gambia). She sings a pretty song, and sings it beautifully. There is a young Norwegian sitting next to me, and I ask, “Do you know this song?” Bright smile — she does. “Is this singer well-known here?” I ask. Another bright smile: She is.

I’d like to hear another song from Haddy N’jie, but that’s it.

We are way up north, here in Norway, and it stays light quite late. A walk through the Vigeland Sculpture Park at twilight is beautiful. Actually, a walk in this park is beautiful at anytime. This evening, there is not a breath of wind. I’ve mentioned something in this space before: The Abraham Lincoln memorial in Vigeland is one of the best and most moving I have seen (and I’ve seen a lot of them).

End this installment on a music note? Okay, you got it. One minute, I’m on Gustav Street. The next minute, I’m on Oscar Street. I think, “I feel like I’m in Un ballo in maschera” (a Verdi opera in which those characters — king and page — feature).

Listen, if you don’t want strange tidbits, don’t come to this column. Anyway, see you tomorrow, for our Norwegian finale.

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