Earlier today, I had a post mentioning the dictators of Togo. Father and son have ruled since 1967. In Azerbaijan, father and son have ruled since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
At the Oslo Freedom Forum last week, an Azerbaijani human-rights leader spoke. She is Leyla Yunus, and she works with her husband, Arif. They do what they can to help the prospects of freedom and democracy in their country. They have paid a steep price. In 2011, Leyla was quoted in the New York Times, criticizing the dictatorship. Immediately, the dictatorship bulldozed the Yunuses’ office, destroying the files they had amassed. In 2014, the couple was imprisoned. They were about 60 years old. They were beaten, tortured, and denied medical attention.
Thanks to international pressure, they were released in 2016. They are now exiled in the Netherlands.
Onstage in Oslo, Leyla mainly talked about torture victims — people tortured to death. One by one they die, or are killed. Leyla tries to keep track of them all. She wants some record that they existed.
When she herself was in prison, she saw Lady Gaga on television. The singer had come to Azerbaijan to perform at the European Games. She was singing about freedom. She was paid $2 million for her appearance. Try to picture Leyla Yunus, sitting in prison and watching this spectacle.
Another speaker at the Freedom Forum was Vanessa Berhe. Her parents are from Eritrea. Vanessa was born and raised in Sweden. She is now a law student in London.
Her uncle, the photojournalist Seyoum Tsehaye, was imprisoned in Eritrea in 2001. When she was in high school, Vanessa began campaigning for his release. In Oslo, she said, “I raise my voice because it is my duty. I’m an Eritrean who was lucky enough to be born outside the country.” So true. “That luck and that distance does not erase my responsibility.” A noble conviction.
Vanessa has not met her uncle. As I remarked to her, he will be so glad to see her, when the time comes.
Viktor Yushchenko is a regular attendee at the Freedom Forum. He was president of Ukraine from 2005 to 2010. During the campaign of 2004, he was poisoned and almost killed by the Russian secret police. His face was badly, badly disfigured. I saw it not long thereafter: at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Yushchenko carried himself with immense dignity and grace. I will never forget it. And I have never seen a nobler face. Never. Last week, I said this to Yushchenko, and I know he has heard it many times before, from people who feel as I do.
(Today, 14 years after the poisoning, Yushchenko’s face is practically normal.)
I will remark on one more speaker — Asma Khalifa, a Libyan. A Berber Libyan. Her testimony was extremely moving.
When the Libyan civil war broke out, she took a side: with the rebels, against Qaddafi. She was a nurse and saw terrible things. This filled her with rage against government forces. She dehumanized them, in her mind.
So consumed was she by her rage, she was alarmed. This rage, this grief, this hatred, was destroying her. She decided to do something about it. In the hospital where she worked, she volunteered to care for government forces — for their wounded. (This was in rebel-controlled territory.) No one ever volunteered to care for these guys. They were in their own ward, under guard. Only doctors ever went in there.
“I wore a bracelet with the opposition flag,” Asma told us. “I never spoke to them. I wanted them to see what side I was on.”
One morning, she was doing a round of antibiotics when a young man looked at her. “I could see in his eyes the same bewilderment and grief that I had. He said, ‘You make me feel inhuman.’ And the realization hit me very hard that we were both Libyans, caught in a war that we did not decide on or plan for, thrown on opposite sides. I sat next to him and held his hand and we wept for a while.”
Later, she realized that her side was committing atrocities too. As I understood her, she was essentially healed of her torments. And she has worked for peace and reconciliation since.