Welcome to the second installment of these jottings from the Oslo Freedom Forum, here in the historic, smart Norwegian capital. Part I appeared on Monday: here. Sorry for the long delay between installments. With that delay in mind, should I just wade in, without further prelude?
One morning, there is a press conference, featuring a slew of Freedom Forum speakers — about a dozen of them. Most have stood up for human rights in their countries (as well as all over), and paid a serious price for it. These people are amazingly, almost shamingly brave. Let me discuss just a few of them — though each of them deserves a long piece all to himself.
‐Mukhtar Mai is from Pakistan, a women’s-rights activist. I will quote from an autobiographical sketch of her. It will not make for easy reading, I’m afraid.
“In 2002, she was gang-raped when a neighboring clan carried out an ‘honor revenge.’ Although it is customary for women to commit suicide after such an atrocity, Mai fought back by taking her assailants to court . . .” She then opened a women’s-welfare organization. “Although her work comes at great personal risk to her and her loved ones, Mai remains committed to bringing national and international attention to the abuses perpetrated against women in her country.”
At the press conference, she notes that she is a Muslim woman from a remote and rural area, working out of a village. And if she can do what she is doing, in her circumstances, women elsewhere can do the same. Hard to argue with that, isn’t it?
‐Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani is a journalist from Yemen who has been imprisoned, tortured — you know the routine. Ghastly, sadistic stuff. He says that journalists in free and open countries ought to sympathize with journalists in other countries who are in distress. I myself have been singing this song for years. There is little solidarity among journalists, especially where places such as Cuba are concerned. Cuban journalists, if they try to be independent, face the worst things. Their brethren in free countries are apt to spend their time excusing the persecutors.
This is why one of the most refreshing groups, anywhere, is Reporters Without Borders. They don’t care where you are being tortured, or by whom. They just care about justice — which is why I say, “refreshing.”
‐Lidia Yusupova has been called one of the bravest women in the world. Thor Halvorssen, the founder and president of the Freedom Forum, says that her job carries with it an extraordinarily high mortality rate: human-rights lawyer in Chechnya. Yusupova is under constant threat. A beautiful woman, she has a rather haunted, hunted look on her face, as well she might. At the press conference, she says that one of the benefits of the Freedom Forum will be the gaining of “psychological support” from others: those who understand and appreciate her and are doing similar work to hers.
‐Kasha Jacqueline is amazingly cheerful-seeming. She has a ready, easy laugh. She set up a gay-rights organization in Uganda. She says how happy she is to be in Oslo. Norway is a beautiful country, she says — very different from “my dusty country.” But “I don’t like the weather, I must confess.” (The weather is in the low 50s now, and must feel frigid to Jacqueline.) (By the way, could any non-Ugandan, or non-African, get away with describing Uganda, or any other African country, as “dusty”?)
In Uganda, there has been a fierce national campaign against homosexuality and homosexuals. Jacqueline, still cheerful, explains that, when she gets home, she may face death. She is not joking — far from it.
Have a nice day . . .
‐Guadalupe Llori is a politician and indigenous leader from Ecuador. She tells us that her country’s government is developing along the lines of Chávez’s — and the Castros’. This government threw her in prison for eleven months. She was beaten, put to hard labor — all of that. She was released “thanks to the Human Rights Foundation [Halvorssen’s organization in New York], thanks to journalists [who gave attention to her case], and thanks to God.”
She says that, when she was invited to the Oslo Freedom Forum, “I received many threats indicating that, if I came here, I would not be allowed back into my country.” When she arrived at the airport in Ecuador, the police harassed her. And “I am wondering every moment I am here, ‘Should I say things? Should I not say things?’” She is trembling, tearful. She says that, whenever she leaves home — whether for other parts of Ecuador or for other countries — she wonders whether she will see her family again. But “I am here representing those people who cannot speak, trying to get the message out, asking the world for solidarity, because we are slowly losing our freedom.”
‐Gilbert Tuhabonye was caught up in the Burundian genocide — an event much less well-known than the genocide in Rwanda, as he points out. I will quote from his biographical sketch: Tuhabonye spent “nearly nine hours hidden beneath the burning corpses of his classmates and suffering burns over much of his body.” I think that gives picture enough, for now.
He went to the United States, where he became a champion runner, an inspirational speaker, and a humanitarian. He seems the picture of contentment. He has seen the most hellish things.
‐Lubna al-Hussein is the Sudanese journalist — you may remember her — who in 2009 gained some renown when she stood up to the government in Khartoum: which was prosecuting her for wearing pants. She was accused of “dressing indecently in public.” Astonishingly, she won: She took on the government and won. I will have more to say about her later.
One of the points she makes during the press conference is the following: “There is no contradiction between being a Muslim and being a human-rights activist. Unfortunately, religion is used to justify oppressive practices. In medieval times, many bad things were done in the name of Christianity and in the name of the Christian Church.” But those bad things “had nothing to do with the Christian religion,” rightly understood. “We [Muslims] are passing through the same experience.”
‐How much do we know about the North Korean gulag? Not much. What we do know is likely to come from The Aquariums of Pyongyang, the stunning book by Kang Chol-hwan, who is present. At age nine, he was sent to a camp along with his family. This camp was . . . almost a parody of evil. He was kept in it ten years. Then he escaped and wrote his story. He is a witness in the long, honored tradition. He comes from a place from which precious few witnesses emerge. I am kind of amazed to be around him, to shake his hand. I’m afraid I stare at him, just a little. Did he really come from a North Korean prison camp? Indeed, he did. And here he is, in Oslo, Norway, just as though everything were normal.
‐A broader point: As I look at this lineup of human-rights warriors and former prisoners of conscience — and I have mentioned only a few — I try to think what must, or might, be going through their minds. It must be at least a little — to use that word again — surreal: to be in this glorious European capital, talking to the international media. Such a long way, in more than one sense, from their cells and battlegrounds.
They are staying in the very luxury hotel that hosted President Obama when he picked up the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
‐Armando Valladares spent 22 years in the Cuban gulag. He is in this “lineup” — at the press conference — and I ask him a question. I do so, I admit, conscious that the Norwegian press is here. And you remember that the Nobel Peace Prize is given by a committee of five Norwegians, right? They are appointed by the parliament. I ask Valladares, “Do you think a Cuban dissident or symbol of freedom could ever win the Nobel Peace Prize?” His answer is, in essence, Don’t wait up nights. The Norwegians showed great, great concern for South Africans under apartheid, and great, great concern for Chileans under Pinochet. Don’t Cubans deserve the same sympathy and care?
Valladares and I will later agree that, if Cubans were persecuted by a dictatorship seen as right-wing rather than left-wing — and what does it matter whether the boot is red or black, as long as it’s stomping on your face? — they would have won two or three peace prizes already. Castro seized power in 1959.
Who might have won the peace prize? Valladares, once upon a time; Biscet now — many others.
At the press conference, Valladares makes clear that he wants to distinguish between the Norwegian government and the Norwegian people. The Norwegian people have always been magnificent, he says; the government, not. He remembers that Norwegian human-rights groups worked very hard for his freedom, “and I owe them a debt of honor.” But “the attitude of the government” has been something else altogether.
I find this a curious thing. Norway is a democracy — a gleaming, free-and-open democracy. Hard to think of a freer country. Between the government and the people, is there all that much difference? I mean, no one shoots his way into power here. Everyone is placed democratically. If the government is not a reflection of the people in Norway, where is the government a reflection of the people?
‐Of the 40 or so speakers who will address the conference, many — maybe most — have spent time in prison: as political prisoners, prisoners of conscience. If you toted up all the years they have spent, collectively, what would the sum be? You would get a very high number, for sure. Maybe someone should do this toting — maybe I should. A macabre exercise, granted, but interesting.
‐Halvorssen points out that most of the people who have come to speak at the conference are criminals — that is, regarded as criminals by the criminal governments of their countries. This is a bracing thought.
‐He also points out that the Oslo Freedom Forum is unlike other human-rights conferences — what we have here are victims of human-rights abuses, and campaigners for human rights. Think of your typical “human rights” conference, such as a U.N.-sponsored one: Durban I, Durban II. That is more a collection of human-rights violators than a gathering of human-rights advocates.
‐Halvorssen is eloquent on the subject of witnesses: the power of one man’s, or woman’s, witness to rock tyranny. He cites the all-time example, Solzhenitsyn. And I think of his image, a folk image, of the oak and the calf. A calf butts his head against an oak, in the foolish belief that he can knock it down. That is an illustration of futility — of wishful thinking. Solzhenitsyn titled his classic literary memoir “The Oak and the Calf.” But of course, he was a toppler. And participants in the Freedom Forum have the same kind of butting ability, if I may put it that way.
‐Here’s an interesting development. Halvorssen says that, by sheer coincidence, Russia’s president Medvedev is on a state visit here in Oslo. Further by sheer coincidence, he is staying in the same hotel as the Freedom Forum crowd — on the same floor as the press conference. We are in the Grand, on Karl Johan’s Street, the main drag. Halvorssen says (I paraphrase), “We’re sure the president’s schedule is very full, but maybe he could spend a few minutes with us? Maybe meet in the lobby? It would be good to discuss freedom of expression and related matters. He has nothing to fear from us. After all, he’s got a huge army, nuclear weapons, hundreds of bodyguards. We just have e-mail and fax machines.”
This has a strong rhetorical effect.
Several people from Russia are in attendance at the Freedom Forum. I have mentioned Yusupova. And then there is Garry Kasparov. And Vladimir Bukovsky, who was a guest for many years in the Soviet Union’s lovely prisons.
One more bit of news on the Russian front: Do you recall that, in Part I of this journal, I mentioned the Freedom Forum banners lining Karl Johan’s Street? They have been taken down, in favor of Russian flags. Halvorssen has been told that the Freedom Forum banners will be restored, once the Russian president leaves.
‐Klassekampen is a Communist newspaper here in Norway — or formerly Communist newspaper or post-Communist newspaper or whatever they’re claiming to be this week. (The name of the paper means “The Class Struggle.” Sweet, no?) Last year, it reported something interesting. It reported that Thor Halvorssen had been a CIA agent, working in El Salvador, from 1980 to 1989. In 1980, Halvorssen was three or four. Very precocious kid.
Also, the Cuban embassy let it be known that Valladares had planted bombs in Cuba — a bald-faced lie, of course. Strange, that the Cuban government should be lying. Maybe Wayne Smith should be called in, to say that it’s somehow all Miami’s fault?
‐Claudia Rosett, that indispensable, unique journalist is here. Someone asks her, “So, what do you do?” She gives an answer I love: “I write about bad people — very bad people.” So she does. So do I, often.
‐She makes a notable point about Kasparov, the former chess champion, now known for his political and human-rights activism. He could really live anywhere — any capital would be pleased to have him. He could live comfortably, well, easily: riding the ongoing waves of chess greatness, right? But he continues to stick it out in Russia — which is to his credit.
‐In the evening, participants in the Oslo Freedom Forum are given a reception in City Hall — a stately, handsome building (certainly on the inside), where the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out every year. That event takes place on December 10. Why that day? Why is 12/10 “Presentation Day”? Because that is the day of the testator’s — of Alfred Nobel’s — death (1896).
There is music at the reception, provided by Jennifer Glass, a singer-songwriter who lives in New York. Her band is Starling Crush, and she is a host of Concert TV. She sings purely, naturally, and pleasingly. She’s a lot of fun, to boot.
‐Oh, I could go on, but you’ve had enough — more than enough — for one day. I will see you on Monday, promise — no more eons between installments — for Part III.