Magazine | June 17, 2013, Issue

Three Brave Lives

Encounters with a Chinese legal activist, a Syrian cartoonist, and a Cuban ‘Lady in White’

Oslo, Norway — There comes Chen Guangcheng, walking down the hallway. I say to him, “My hero.” I have never said this to anyone, or at least not to a stranger — someone I have yet to meet. People said “my hero” to the founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., all the time. I witnessed this. Anyway, Chen may not understand my words, but his wife, Yuan Weijing, does, and she tells him. We are at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the world’s premier human-rights conference. Chen is a featured speaker.

It is very gratifying to see him. I wrote a piece about him in November 2011: “A Hero of Us All.” I wanted to write about him before it was too late, so to speak. There were reports that his government, the Chinese government, had at last killed him, or that he was near death. Chen is the “blind peasant lawyer” who blew the whistle on forced abortions and sterilizations. He was imprisoned in 2006. He was then imprisoned in his own home, enduring a brutal kind of house arrest. Chen was subjected to practically everything but outright murder; Yuan was beaten very badly too. People from around the world waged a campaign in their behalf. Then, in April 2012, they made a dramatic escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Chen broke his foot in the process. Several weeks later, the couple was flown to New York.

In an interview, I ask Chen, “Was the escape thrilling, terrifying, or both?” (We have an interpreter.) He answers, “A bit of both, but more thrilling, I would say.” Can he tell us anything about how the escape was accomplished? No, too sensitive, at this point. Was he confident he would survive his ordeal, those years of persecution? He was, yes, “absolutely confident.” And international attention made a big difference, he says. His health appears good — and it is good, he says. He has some “minor issues,” but otherwise he is fine.

I wonder why the Chinese government — one of the most powerful in the world — is unnerved by him, this blind, self-taught legal activist from the countryside. Why have they done so much to crush him? “They may appear powerful,” says Chen, “but I actually don’t think they are. They fear anyone who does what I do. They’re scared of any civil-rights promotion at the grassroots level.” I ask where he found his boldness, the willingness to stick his neck out. Boldness or bravery, he says, had nothing to do with it: In China, forced abortions and sterilizations are against the law — at least officially — and he was merely standing up for the law. I further ask whether he is religious. “No,” he says, “not so far.”

In their usual fashion, the Communist authorities are retaliating against Chen’s family. They have beaten and imprisoned his nephew. When the young man came down with appendicitis, they refused him medical care. They have beaten Chen’s brother to a pulp. They have even pulled up the vegetable garden of Chen’s mother (80 years old). Another speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum is Park Sang-hak, who defected from North Korea in 1999. In retaliation, they beat his uncle to death. Chen says that he feels a burden of responsibility for the fate of his family back home. At the same time, pressure of varying sorts would cause Beijing to cease and desist, he says.

In America, he has had some champions, most prominently Jerome A. Cohen, a China scholar at New York University. But many scholars, Chen confirms, are fearful of crossing the Chinese government. That might endanger their opportunities to visit China, for example. “They are not what we think of as persons of academic integrity,” Chen says. His distaste for them is clear. Does he himself expect to return to China one day? “Definitely,” he says, and soon. “I believe that the future of the country will not be captive to one party.” There should not be a ruling few who decide who has to leave, who has to stay, and who gets to come back in. “I should be able to travel in and out of my country.”

#page#Two years ago, Chen’s fellow dissident, Yang Jianli, told me that Chen had extraordinary charisma — obvious qualities of leadership. This was evident even when Chen was a boy, said Yang. Adults were drawn to this child. Anyone in Oslo can easily see the charisma. Chen tells me that the Chinese people are waking up, gradually losing their “fear of persecution.” Indeed, his address to the Freedom Forum is entitled “China’s Inevitable Transformation.” At the end of that address, he says, “The idea that universal values don’t apply to China is a myth propagated by a regime that is trying to hang on to power.”

Chen may not think he is particularly bold or brave or extraordinary, but others of us certainly do. He has demonstrated courage physical, mental, and moral. He must be one of the bravest people alive.

It is gratifying, and somewhat amazing, to see Ali Ferzat. A Syrian cartoonist, he is a hero throughout the Arab world, and beyond. He looks like a cartoonist ought: shaggy, bearded, iconoclastic, animated — a twinkle in his eye. As Garry Kasparov notes at this conference, “Dictators hate humor.” (Kasparov is the great chess champion who now devotes himself to human rights, especially in his home country, Russia.) Ferzat has been upsetting dictators for a long time. In 1989, Saddam Hussein threatened to kill him. He has been barred from many countries in the Arab world.

In his own country, Syria, some space seemed to be opening up in 2000. The dictator Hafez Assad had died, and his son Bashar was taking over as new dictator. He was promising reforms. Seizing the opening, Ferzat started a satirical magazine, Al-Domari, or The Lamplighter. It was the first independent magazine in Syria since the Baathists took power in 1963. “There was joy on the streets,” Ferzat tells me. “After 40 years of forced silence, the people had a voice. There was a magazine that expressed their concerns. I remember we sold out even before we went to press.” The fun lasted until 2003, when Assad had had enough.

Eight years later, in March 2011, Syrians began their uprising. Ferzat was an inspiration for them. They put his cartoons on their posters and placards. In August 2011, as Qaddafi was on the run in Libya, Ferzat drew a cartoon that was a last straw: It showed a desperate Assad trying to hitch a ride with Qaddafi. Goons set upon Ferzat, breaking both of his hands and all of his fingers, and warning him that next time it would be worse. The Assad dictatorship knows how to send a message: When a singer named Ibrahim Kashush proved troublesome, they slit his throat, ripped out his vocal cords, and threw his corpse into a river. No more singing.

I ask Ferzat, “Did you know that your cartoons could mean a physical attack on you?” He did, yes. “I had received death threats, but I carried on anyway.” Ferzat has always been a defiant and uncontainable type. His health is getting better “day by day,” he says. He has the use of his hands. (I have to force myself not to look at them too hard.) He now lives in Kuwait, where he is hailed on the streets, as he is in every other Arab country he visits. “This incident,” meaning the attack, “has made me into a disaster star,” he says, with that twinkle.

But all twinkling stops, naturally, when he discusses Syria and international politics. He has a fierce objection to the idea that Syria is experiencing civil war. This is a propaganda point, he says, of the dictatorship. Fighting alongside Assad are Iran and Hezbollah; helping all these forces are Russia, China, and others. You call that a civil war? I mention that some in America believe it is too late to help the Syrian opposition. “Those words,” he says, in disgust and agony, “are no less dangerous than the napalm bombs dropped on people” by the government. But is the opposition not compromised by extremists, as bad as Assad? This, too, earns Ferzat’s agony and disgust. “How many members does the Ku Klux Klan have?” he demands of me. I imagine very few, I tell him. And so it is with the Salafists and Qaedists in Syria, he says. “There are probably even fewer.” The world sees a few thousand black flags in Syria, he says, but the world then turns a blind eye to hundreds of thousands of yellow and Iranian flags. (Black is the Salafist or Qaedist color; yellow is for Hezbollah.)

#page#In Ferzat’s view, al-Qaeda is an American creation, used by America as a tool: an excuse to interfere, an excuse not to interfere. Furthermore, he emphasizes that Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad, has described Assad as Israel’s “minion” in the Middle East. (It’s true that Foreign Affairs has just given an article by Halevy the exciting but strained title of “Israel’s Man in Damascus.”) I ask Ferzat whether he believes Israel has a right to exist. He says, “Well, you can’t negate places or people. But why does Israel insist on negating others?”

He expresses reverence for America’s Founding Fathers and for Abraham Lincoln, and says that the country’s current leaders are “dwarves” compared with these “giants.” Americans should return to their high and universal ideals, he says. He believes that America and the West went into Iraq, Libya, and Mali for the sake of oil. “What would prevent Mr. Obama from taking humane measures for Syria? Is it that we have no oil? Well, maybe we should start digging for some. Maybe that would prompt Mr. Obama to defend us.” He does not ask for boots on the ground. He asks that the regime’s missiles be “deactivated” — countered, disabled — and that a safe zone be established, “to protect civilians.”

You do not have to like everything Ali Ferzat says or thinks to appreciate his bravery and example — also his concern for his slaughtered and ravaged countrymen. After our interview, on the way back to the hotel, he says something both mirthful and serious. The world complains that the Syrian opposition is too divided. “For 40 years, there was a monopoly of opinion in our country. And now we are criticized for a diversity!”

Berta Soler has a dangerous job. She is the leader of the Ladies in White, Cuba’s best-known human-rights group. These are ladies who, dressed in white, engage in peaceful, usually silent protest. They attend Mass, walk through the streets, and hold prayer vigils. They are the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of political prisoners and former political prisoners. Why is the leadership job dangerous? First, because dissidence in Cuba is always dangerous — the Ladies in White are repeatedly beaten, by government agents and the mobs they organize. But second, because the previous leader, Laura Pollán, was in all likelihood murdered by the government. Berta Soler is convinced of it, and gives me a detailed accounting of her predecessor’s final, mysterious days.

When I meet her, Berta (I can call her no other) is dressed in white. She is warm, strong, earthy, personable, and wise. She has a ready and infectious laugh. In all her 49 years, she has never before been out of Cuba. How does it feel? “You feel free, you breathe freedom, and this free air increases your courage.” I ask why the dictatorship has let her out. “International pressure,” she says — no other reason. We talk a little bit about her background. She comes from a poor family, Afro-Cuban, and she has always been an anti-Communist. Her father, a rice-factory worker, died when she was seven. Her older brothers told her, “Never be a Communist, because the Castros care only about themselves.” Her husband, Ángel Moya, is a dissident who is now out of prison on a kind of parole.

I have something to say to her and ask her about: I don’t really understand how men can beat up women. Men beating up men, I can understand, pretty much. But it is natural for men to protect women. How can they beat them up, and beat up strangers at that? “When the beast is desperate,” she says, “the beast lashes out. It is liable to do anything.” She believes that the Castro dictatorship is desperate. Besides, she says, the mobs are paid, and people do things for money. I ask whether she and the ladies ever fight back. “Para nada,” she says — no way. For one thing, they are peaceful women, but for another, what good could it do? They exercise passive resistance.

#page#I tell her I have a couple of questions that will make her laugh, one of which is this: Have the Communists been good for black people, just as the Communists and their many supporters around the world say? She laughs her wonderful laugh — and again says, “Para nada.” She continues, “Neither the black man nor the white man has ever gotten anything from the government. All we have managed to get comes from our own sacrifices. The government has never given us anything but misery and need.” She explains how the ruling Communists discriminate against black people. And she says that, when they beat her, they are sure to talk about her race. “Nera!” they say. “Why are you protesting against us? You should be thankful to the revolution. If you went to America, you would be killed by the Ku Klux Klan.” (I think I have heard more about the KKK in two days at this conference than I have in many years.) “Obama may be president,” say the attackers, “but you’re just an ordinary black woman.”

Cuban exiles in America, like exile communities everywhere, are divided and squabbling. I point this out to Berta. I say that, in my observation, they spend more time fighting one another than they do fighting the Castros. She says she has noticed this. On the island, however, the opposition is basically united, she says. I then ask her about the U.S. embargo on Cuba, or what remains of that embargo: Is it mainly a good thing or mainly a bad thing? She gives me a look that indicates she is about to state a plain fact of life. “Cuba’s problem is not the embargo or the U.S. government. Cuba’s problem is the Castros.” Then she laughs the wonderful laugh. She adds that she respects sincere differences of opinion, but she herself is in favor of the embargo. Finally, there is a question I have asked of many dissidents: Why do you walk into danger, rather than out of danger? Wouldn’t you like a quieter, more normal life? She says she does it “for love of life, my family, and my country. And for Christ, who allows us to remain standing.”

At these Oslo Freedom Forums, I find I have some questions for myself, in addition to others: I was lucky to be born into a free country — but what if I had been born into an unfree country? Would I try to lead as normal a life as possible within that country? Would I seek exile, and lead a normal life there? In or out of my home country, would I work to relieve oppression there? I find it impossible to answer these questions with certainty.

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