Welcome to the finale of this journal, these notes from the Oslo Freedom Forum in the handsome Norwegian capital. Links to previous parts are as follows: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.
Maybe the most colorful participant is Leymah Gbowee, an African heroine. As her bio says, she is “a peace activist who was instrumental in ending the Second Liberian Civil War.” Her story is told in a celebrated documentary: Pray the Devil Back to Hell. I love that phrase, one of my favorites, all-time.
Gbowee wears a splashily wonderful African dress, and displays a similar personality. She is funny, entertaining, and compelling. Her subject could not be more serious: the insanity and sadism that gripped her country, Liberia. We’re liable to forget how depraved humanity can be.
Terror, maiming, murder. Girls hauled away to be raped; boys hauled away to be soldiers. Gbowee speaks of “the total breakdown of traditional and moral values.” (She sounds suspiciously like a conservative. Would the Left in America denounce her as a dangerous theocrat?)
Gbowee organized women for peace, for putting pressure on the combatants to stop their violence. They wore white, these women. So do the women in Cuba, pleading for their loved ones in prison.
Of the Liberian women, Gbowee says, “They had seen the worst, but they still had a yearning for life.” What finally pushed them into activism was that “the price of sitting and doing nothing was getting higher than the price of getting involved.” It was either “accept death or fight back.” So they “boldly decided to step out.”
At one climactic point, they borrowed a page from Lysistrata: staging a sex strike. What was old, very old, was new again.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell is worth a look. And when you encounter Leymah Gbowee, you feel you have encountered someone who is one in a million, probably more.
I remember my American-history teacher in 8th grade: saying, with a tremulous voice, that there was no war like civil war — that it was the worst thing in the world.
In the first installment of this journal, I introduced you to Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor. I quote again from his bio: “In 2009, his three daughters and his niece were killed by Israeli fire. Despite his tragic loss, Dr. Abuelaish has remained focused on achieving peace in the region.”
He gives, as you might imagine, a powerful presentation in the Christiania Theater. He says that an Israeli shell hit the family house. And the girls, who would die, “were armed only with love.” Behind Dr. Abuelaish is a slideshow. There are captions. One of them reads, “My daughter’s room which was shelled by Israeli tank.” We see body bags. And a cemetery: “My daughters and niece under the ground.”
Dr. Abuelaish kind of shouts his way through the presentation, his voice and face reflecting pain. When he is through, he receives a standing ovation, the only one of the entire conference. And the applause is sustained.
What this man experienced is basically unbearable; and yet, remarkably, he is bearing it. How people bear the unbearable — a bit of a mystery.
I have three hard questions. Was the presentation on the exhibitionistic or exploitative side? Sure. Did Dr. Abuelaish say anything about why the Israelis might have been in Gaza in the first place? That would probably be too much to ask.
Finally, there are many Israeli fathers who have lost daughters to Palestinian terror, many Israeli uncles who have lost nieces: If one of them addressed the assembly, in like fashion, would he also receive a standing ovation? Maybe. I don’t know.
If Izzeldin Abuelaish can work for reconciliation and peace after what happened to him — he is one of the most valuable players in the whole of his region.
The last speaker of the conference — the grand finale — is Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel peace prize. Last year’s final speaker was a Nobel laureate, too: Poland’s Lech Walesa. Ebadi is from Iran. Apparently, she was the first female judge in the entire history of Iran — a phenomenal distinction.
That was under the shah. When the mullahs came to power, all bets were off. They said that Islam forbade women to serve as judges; for one thing, they were too emotional. So, Ebadi became a defense lawyer, particularly dedicated to serving women and children. Since the violence of 2009, she has been in exile.