News You May Have Missed (15-21 February 2015)

Photo from Muslim Public Affairs Council's Facebook page
Photo from Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Facebook page

A weekly roundup of the human rights news items that I’m following that I think deserve a little more attention.

More than 1000 Muslims formed a human shield around a synagogue in Oslo, NORWAY on February 21  in response to an attack on a synagogue in Denmark last weekend.  Chanting “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia,” an estimated 1200-1400 Norwegian Muslims formed a “ring of peace” around the synagogue, offering symbolic protection for the city’s Jewish community.  See video coverage on the NRK website here.  One of the speakers in the video is 17-year-old Hajrah Asrhad, one of the event’s organizers.

Children began returning to classrooms in LIBERIA this week after seven months of closure due to the Ebola epidemic.  Education is key to development and improving human rights, so the schools are being reopened but UNICEF and its partners are putting in place safety measures to minimize the potential risk of transmission of the virus.  Safety measures, including taking children’s temperatures when they arrive to school and making them wash their hands before entering the classroom, have been successfully used in GUINEA, where more than 1.3 million children have returned to school since January. Nearly all of Guinea’s more than 12,000 schools are now open, and school attendance is at 85 per cent of pre-Ebola attendance, according to data collected by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF.  Following Guinea’s experience, UNICEF has worked closely with the Liberian government and local communities to develop similar safety protocols. Teachers have been trained to implement and monitor the safety measures, soap and other hygiene materials have been distributed.  

Beginning last summer, UNICEF collaborated with Liberian musicians to conduct mass mobilization campaigns on Ebola prevention nationwide.  In case you missed it, here is one example from August 2014:

The International Labour Organization (ILO) spotlighted recent progress in the fight against child labour in KOSOVO, where children as young as 10 are forced to work on garbage dumps or in the fields harvesting grapes and onions, risking their health.   Since March 2013, members of the Kosovo Chamber of Commerce are obliged to observe the ILO’s four fundamental labour principles, including the elimination of child labour.  So far, 40 members of the Chamber of Commerce have adopted codes of conduct on combating child labour in their supply chains and communities. In addition, occupational safety and health issues will be mainstreamed into the compulsory education (grades 8-9) and upper secondary school curricula.

Turkish men aren’t known for wearing skirts. But they are turning out in large numbers in Istanbul later to protest about violence against women in TURKEY.

Men in mini skirts campaign
Men in mini skirts campaign

They’re joining others outraged by the murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan who was abducted on 11 February and killed for apparently trying to prevent a bus driver from raping her.

In the UNITED STATES, a federal jury has awarded $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to five Indian guest workers who were defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme engineered by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labor recruiter who lured hundreds of workers to a MISSISSIPPI shipyard with false promises of permanent U.S. residency. The trial was the first in a series of cases spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center that together comprise one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the U.S. government’s H-2B guest worker program to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities. Under the guest worker program, workers are not allowed to change jobs if they are abused but face the loss of their investment if they are fired or quit.

The plaintiffs in this case are Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, Hemant Khuttan, Padaveettiyl, Sulekha and Palanyandi Thangamani.  Each paid the labor recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families. Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.

When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, MISSISSIPPI, they discovered that they wouldn’t receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised. Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labor camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer. None of Signal’s non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.  An economist who reviewed Signal’s records estimated the company saved more than $8 million in labor costs by hiring the Indian workers at below-market wages.

Pro bono legal representation was provided in this case by Southern Poverty Law Center, Crowell & Moring, LLP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker, and the Louisiana Justice Institute.

An estimated 93 million children (1 in 20 up to age 14) worldwide live with a moderate or severe disability. #Draw Disability is a new global campaign launched by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), in partnership with the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI) and theUnited Nations Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group (GEFI-YAG).

The campaign has two main objectives: 1) To encourage dialogue and raise awareness on disability and related issues among teachers and learners within educational environments. 2) To create a global art project focused on disability. Schools from all over the planet are encouraged to get involved in the project. Teachers can use the #DrawDisability guidelines to promote critical reflections and awareness on disability within the classroom (guidelines are available in Spanish, French and English).  Children with and without disabilities are encouraged to #DrawDisability. Drawings can portray their understanding and feelings towards disability and related issues, such as accessibility, inclusion and discrimination.

All drawings received will be uploaded and displayed on a website and shared on social networks using the hashtag #DrawDisability. Early submissions by April 1, 2015 are highly encouraged as selected drawings will be showcased at the World Education Forum in May 2015 in Incheon, SOUTH KOREA, and the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (COSP-CRPD) in June 2015 New York, USA. The final deadline for all submissions will be July 15, 2015. Check out submission information here.  

We Do Photocopy Here

"We do photocopy here."
“WE DO PHOTOCOPY HERE”

I really love this photo, which I took at the University of Liberia in Monrovia in February, 2008.  I love it because it of the sheer entrepreneurial spirit that you often witness in post-conflict societies.

The photocopy entrepreneur was not there on that day, but you can bet your bottom dollar that students on campus knew when s/he would be there to provide the services they needed.  Although I have always wondered whether it was possible that the photocopier somehow managed to bring a photocopy machine to this spot by the electric pole.  What do YOU think?

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Express Yourself.”

Abandoned Buildings in Post-Conflict West Africa

hotel africaHotel Africa in Virginia, Liberia

The Hotel Africa, built in a beach resort area north of Monrovia, was once a 5-star grand hotel.  It was built to impress  as the location of the 1979  Organisation of African Unity  summit.  (The pool was made in the shape of the African continent.)  Just a few months after the Hotel Africa hosted the OAU, however,  Liberia’s President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was overthrown by  Samuel Doe.  From 1979 to 2003, Liberia was engulfed in violent conflict too complicated to detail here.

Stories about the historic Hotel Africa abound; many of them parallel the violence that was happening in the country at large.  For example, the hotel’s owner  was kidnapped in 1990 by the rebel Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. They allegedly murdered him by throwing him off the fourth floor balcony.

By the time I visited the Hotel Africa in 2008, it had been bombed, burned, and stripped bare of everything that could possibly have a value.

Abandoned.

burned building Sierra LeoneKono District, Sierra Leone

This is a photo of the remains of a building in the Kono district that was burned by the rebel Revolutionary United Front during the conflict in Sierra Leone. I’ve heard so many personal stories of escape and of loss that I assume this was once the private home of a family with means.  But it could just as easily have been a government building.

The conflict in Sierra Leone left so many destroyed buildings. Not to mention lives.

gas stationMonrovia, Liberia

In Monrovia, buildings destroyed in the conflict loom gloomily as people go about the process of rebuilding their lives in the midst of the rubble. This photo was taken at a gas station.  Like many resourceful Liberians, they were also selling “pure and safe drinking water”.  But the thing I like about this photo is this – if you look closely at the larger building above, you can see laundry hanging out to dry. Life springs up inexorably, like blades of grass in the spring.

In post-conflict West Africa, the abandoned buildings hold more than just memories.

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Abandoned

Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes

How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says this week hit right smack dab on one of my favorite hobbies.  Wherever I go in the world, I take pictures of interesting signs that I see. Here is a sampling of my collection:

Some are hilarious signs I have spotted in bathrooms.  (And it’s worth noting that I have been accidentally locked in a bathroom on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.)

Question:  To flush or not to flush?

To flush or not to flush?  That is the question.
To flush or not to flush? That is the question.
Kathmandu, Nepal

Answer:  DO NOT FLUSH!  DO NOT FLUSH! PANTHERS IN THE BATHROOM!

IMG_0207
Kathmandu, Nepal

USE THE TRASH CAN FOR ALL PANTHERS! I REPEAT:

Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)
Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)

At times, signs can be very clear and direct.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
You do want your clothes to be CLEAN, right?
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

No Grown Ups! Accra, Ghana

CAUTION!  GROWN UPS!

Accra, Ghana

IMG_0404

Relax.

Minneapolis, MN USA

 Other times?  Well, everyone could use a good editor.

What does this even mean? Zanzibar, Tanzania
What does that even mean?
Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monrovia, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia
Indira Ghandi Airport Delhi, India
Indira Ghandi Airport
Delhi, India

But my favorite signs are those that inspire me.

Kathmandu, Nepal
In the library of a women’s empowerment organization
Kathmandu, Nepal

 

In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a schoolYaounde, Cameroon
In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a school
Yaounde, Cameroon
Raj Ghat Ghandi Memorial New Delhi, India
Raj Ghat Gandhi Memorial
New Delhi, India
Minneapolis, MN USA
Minneapolis, MN USA

Letter from Liberia

Great post by my colleague Amy Bergquist on the pro bono needs assessment work we are doing this winter through our Africa Advocacy Project in four countries: Liberia, Morocco, Cameroon and Tanzania. Amy writes about the first country our team visited – Liberia.

The Advocates Post

Liberia 20-21 January 2013 020

By Amy Bergquist

Life can be a heavy load in post-conflict Liberia, a country torn apart by a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. What happened to a little girl, Olivia, evidences the toll of human rights abuses in that country, as reported to The Advocates’ “Team Liberia” while we were in Liberia in January conducting needs assessments with that country’s human rights organizations.

Olivia, at age 7, was reportedly raped by her 20-year-old cousin in 2005. The rape wasn’t reported to authorities until three years later when the girl’s uncle discovered his niece gravely ill and family members told him about the crime. The uncle took Olivia to Monrovia for medical care. The cousin was arrested.

A heavy price was paid for the uncle breaking the silence: The family shunned Olivia and her mother. The ostracism they suffered compelled Olivia’s mother to drop all charges, and the…

View original post 614 more words

Cutting The Head Off The Snake

Charles G. Taylor with NPFL fighters during attack on Monrovia in 1990

(Image Source) 

The Special Court for Sierra Leone  today sentenced former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in the Sierra Leonean conflict in the 1990s.   Mr. Taylor helped fuel bloody conflicts between 1989 and 2003, not only in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but also throughout the sub-region of West Africa.  For thousands – if not millions – of West Africans, May 30 will now mark the anniversary of accountability.

Eight years ago, in May 2004, I was in Sierra Leone to monitor the efforts that were being made to bring justice and reconciliation to that shattered country.  In August of the previous year,  Charles Taylor had resigned as President and exited Liberia for temporary asylum in Nigeria, the result of a deal brokered to end Liberia’s brutal civil war.  His infamous last words as he boarded the plane were, “God willing, I will be back.” Almost everyone I talked to in Sierra Leone expressed fear of a return to chaos and war in the region if Mr. Taylor did not stand trial.  As one person explained,

“We have a saying in West Africa.  If you cut off the head of the snake, it is then only a rope.  That’s why Taylor must go.”

Mr. Taylor was indicted on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a United Nations-sponsored “hybrid” war crimes tribunal based on international and Sierra Leonean law that had strong support (including $20 million appropriated by Congress) from the United States.  The charges against Mr. Taylor included aiding and abetting the most serious of human rights abuses:  killings, torture, mutilation, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, conscription of children, abduction and forced labor perpetuated by Sierra Leonean rebel forces that Mr. Taylor actively supported.  Not to mention the part about fueling the conflict by trading arms for diamonds.

Special Court for Sierra Leone

Under construction in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May 2004

Yet, even after trials began at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor remained in Nigeria, immune from justice.  Even worse, he appeared to continue to meddle with affairs in Liberia.  Impunity for Mr. Taylor was an affront to the thousands of victims and their families.  Fortunately, international pressure finally resulted in Mr. Taylor being taken into custody and brought to the SCSL for trial in 2006.  Due to concerns about security and the potential destabilizing impact of holding the trial in West Africa, Mr. Taylor’s trial was moved to The Netherlands to a chamber borrowed from the International Criminal Court.  (Mr. Taylor complained bitterly about the food he was served.)

I interviewed Sierra Leonean staff members of the SCSL in The Netherlands about the Taylor case in 2008.  Their estimates at the time about the length of the trial proved far too optimistic. The trial, which included testimony from more than 100 witnesses in addition to the defendant (who testified during 81 trial days), took twice as long as planned.

When I traveled to Liberia in February 2008, I asked people about what they thought about the Taylor trial.  Many Liberians did not seem to understand that Mr. Taylor was being tried for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, not Liberia.  When I pointed out the distinction, most seemed not to care.  In general, the Liberians I talked to just seemed relieved that he was behind bars – and that those bars were controlled by the international community.  When I mentioned the analogy to cutting the head off a snake, I was uniformly met with wise nods of agreement.

The verdict of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in late April of this year marked a historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.    The sentence today of 50 years (which was consistent with the previous sentences of Sierra Leonean commanders tried by the SCSL) essentially means that Mr. Taylor will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone is important, but we must never forget the remaining impunity for the war crimes that he is responsible for in Liberia.  Liberian civilians were subjected to massive human rights abuses, exercised with direct command responsibility by Mr. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and, after his election in 1997, the Liberian security forces and paramilitary Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) .  Of a pre-war Liberian population of 3 million, an estimated 250,000 were killed and 1.5 million displaced, with tens of thousands of refugees forced to flee West Africa for safety in the United States.

I spent three years working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, taking statements in the United States, United Kingdom and Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.  The statement giver’s account of violence below is representative of the scope of the human rights abuses and level of brutality suffered by many Liberians:

At the initial stages of the war, I moved to Ninth Street in Sinkor, Monrovia…  The children were outside cleaning the yard. Suddenly they ran inside and said that they saw armed men coming. Moments later, Taylor’s men busted  in. One of them said, “This is the dog I’m looking for.” He told us to come outside. Myself, my ten children, and my wife obeyed.

The NPFL [commander] knew me…He had run against me in an election… before the war. He said to me, “You cheated me during the election, but now I am in power. I will teach you a lesson you will never forget.” He told his NPFL boys to take my eldest daughter into the house. She was 11
thirteen years old. They dragged her inside and dragged me in after her. [The commander] raped my daughter in front of me. My father (my daughter’s grandfather) was still in the house. He rushed at the NPFL men, trying to stop the rape. One of the men – I don’t know his name – shot and killed my [father] right there.
[The commander] then brought me and my daughter back outside. He said, “I’m going to show you what I came here for.” He beat the children with the butt of his gun. He made two of my sons, who were seventeen and twenty, drink dirty water with the urine of one of the NPFL men in it. When the twenty year old refused, he shot him in the foot. [The commander] stabbed my other son, who was eighteen, in the elbow with his bayonet.

He then began to beat my wife. He told her to lay on her back and stare at the sun. [The commander] said, “You will eat your husband’s heart very soon.” He took the daughter who had been raped. [The commander] held her and said, “I want you to know how you all will die.” He ordered one of his men to cut off my daughter’s head. She was beheaded in front of our eyes.

They dragged me over to lay beside her body. [The commander] said, “You will be the next one.” Then I heard heavy shooting. ECOMOG was coming. The NPFL scattered.  Before [the commander] left, he made a remark. He said, “Anywhere in
Liberia I meet you or your family, I will kill you.”

Will it make a difference that the international community has now “cut off the head of the snake”? I do, in fact, think it will.  Our international justice system is still in its infancy.  As of yet, it is neither swift nor strong; neither peremptory nor comprehensive.  But with the sentencing of Charles Taylor, not only can West Africans be confident in the knowledge that one individual who wrought destruction will not do so again, but we can all have hope that one day, as a matter of practice, all perpetrators of gross human rights abuses and war crimes will be held accountable.

Children of the Rainbow v. Anders Breivik and Charles Taylor

Folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen and a crowd of 40,000 sing Barn av regnbuen (Children of the Rainbow) at the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Oslo (Source: NRK)

I thought I would write about the Charles Taylor verdict today.  The verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone marks an historic moment in international justice – the first conviction of a serving head of state for war crimes and crimes against humanity.     I thought today would be a day to write about the importance of holding Charles Taylor accountable for the war crimes that he aided and abetted in Sierra Leone, but also about  the remaining impunity for the war crimes he was responsible for in Liberia.  I’ve been spent time in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, so I’ve seen firsthand the horrific  impact that Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Liberation Front have had on the people in those countries.  I’ve followed this trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone – and waited for this verdict – for years.

But I found myself this morning more powerfully impacted by events surrounding another trial, in another country where I have spent time. I speak Norwegian, so have been following the Norwegian media coverage of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.   Today, that coverage included an allsang with the well-loved Norwegian folksinger Lillebjørn Nilsen.   In a chilly spring rain in Oslo, a crowd of more than 40,000 people joined Mr. Nilsen in singing Barn av regnbuen.  

This is a song that Mr. Breivik, apparently, detests.  He testified recently that this song, with its concept of living together in a multicultural Norway (“sammen vi skal lever“) was brainwashing children into supporting immigrants. Norwegians throughout the country sang it as a form of protest against his hatred.

This is a song that I learned many years ago.  It is actually a Pete Seeger song called My Rainbow Race, translated into Norwegian by Lillebjørn Nilsen.   My rough translation follows – with apologies for inaccuracies! I use the translated version as there are a lot of aspects that make this song feel particularly Norwegian.  The references to nature, for example, and the disdain for “plastic and synthetic food”.

Written in the 1970s, Lillebjørn Nilsen’s song has an obvious anti-war theme.   The lyrics of the song, however, seem especially fitting today.  “Some steal from the young, who are sent out to fight…” could well apply to Charles Taylor, whose recruitment of child soldiers stole the lives of thousands in West Africa.  “Some steal from the many, who will come after us.” Anders Behring Breivik’s acts of violence stole not only the future of dozens of young people, but the innocence of a peaceful nation.

I won’t write about Charles Taylor today.  Neither will I write about Anders Behring Breivik.   Instead, I will write about the voices raised today throughout our world – in celebration of justice and in a call for peace in the face of hatred.  Because today I remembered that  Lillebjørn Nilsen -and Pete Seeger – were right.  We do need justice for the Charles Taylors and Anders Behring Breiviks of the world, but we also need to share our hope for the rest of us.

Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Barn av regnbuen

En himmel full av stjerner.
Blått hav så langt du ser.
En jord der blomster gror.
Kan du ønske mer ?
Sammen skal vi leve
hver søster og hver bror.
Små barn av regnbuen
og en frodig jord.

Noen tror det ikke nytter.
Andre kaster tiden bort med prat.
Noen tror at vi kan leve av
plast og syntetisk mat.
Og noen stjeler fra de unge
som blir sendt ut for å sloss
Noen stjeler fra de mange
som kommer etter oss.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å del e et håp på jord.

Refreng:
Si det til alle barna!
Og si det til hver far og mor.
Ennå har vi en sjanse
til å dele et håp på jord.

Children of the Rainbow

A sky full of stars.
Blue sea as far as you can see.
A land where flowers grow.
Could you want more?
Together we will live
every sister and every brother.
Small children of the rainbow
and a flourishing world.

Some believe there is no point.
Others waste their time with talk.
Some believe that we can live on
plastic and synthetic foods.
And some steal from the young,
who are sent out to fight.
Some steal from the many
who will come after us.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

Refrain:
Say it to all the children!
And tell every father and mother.
We still have a chance
to share our hope for this world.

With thanks also to Pete Seeger for his song My Rainbow Race.  Words and music by Pete Seeger (1967) © 1970 by Sanga Music Inc.

CHORUS:

One blue sky above us,

One ocean lapping all our shores,

One Earth so green and round,

Who could ask for more?

And because I love you,

I’ll give it one more try.

To show my Rainbow Race

It’s too soon to die.

Some folks want to be like an ostrich,

Bury their heads in the sand.

Some hope that plastic dreams

Can unclench all those greedy hands.

Some hope to take the easy way,

Poisons, bombs, they think we need ‘em.

Don’t you know you can’t kill all the unbelievers?

There’s no shortcut to freedom.

CHORUS

Go tell, go tell all—– the little children.

Tell all their mothers and fathers, too —

Now’s our last chance to learn to share

What’s been given to me and you.

CHORUS

For a related post on what I learned from the way Norwegians have dealt with the tragic events of July 22, see https://humanrightswarrior.com/2012/07/19/the-lessons-of-22-july/

Talking To My Kids About Death

Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not  in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure.  Why not?”

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long.  As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as  the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°.  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well.  We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn’t know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her.  The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar.  For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling  me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me.  “My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.”   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said.  “That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It is sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.

So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon.


 

I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.

You Really Can’t Make This Stuff Up – Part I

Ever notice that human rights lawyers are almost never characters in romantic comedies?  If there does happen to be a human rights lawyer character, he is portrayed as a stuffy old stick-in-the-mud like Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’ Diary.  (There’s also the guy that Ricky Gervais is supposed to get Tea Leoni to break up with  in Ghost Town, which probably also proves that you really only even have a human rights lawyer as a character because there was a Brit involved.)  But the reality is that I would never be able to do this work if I didn’t have a sense of humor.  The subject matter may be serious, but the fact is that bizarre and funny things happen all the time to us human rights lawyers.  Here are just a couple of examples:
1.  The “Did I Accidentally Stumble Into a Comedy Sketch?” Moment.  During an interview on Sierra Leonean television, the chair I was sitting in started to fall apart.  It didn’t crash to the ground or anything, but all the parts (legs, arms, seat) just started to shift slowly towards the left.  I had to increasingly lean the other way to keep from sliding to the ground.  You try answering questions about women’s rights when you’re sitting on Fun House furniture.
2.  The “Did I Just Hear That?” Moment, a.k.a. the “What Is this, Monty Python?” Moment.  Last year, during an interview with a government official about conditions on a refugee camp, the guy suddenly stops the discussion and just randomly throws out, “So … does anyone here speak … NORWEGIAN?”  After the interview, I also learned that this guy was “the number 3 film idol in Ghana.”  Apparently, being #3 on the Ghanaian film scene doesn’t make you a big enough star to quit your day job.


I’ve learned to look for and relish the humor in every situation.  My penchant for absurdity has brought me a lot of joy. Here are a few photos from various countries in West Africa.

Caution: Grown Ups!

El Sabor del Perú

3.  The “I Can’t Believe I Brought My Breast Pump to a Prison” Moment.  I was once visiting a prison in Peru to observe the conditions of detention.  During the first part of the visit, we had been given refreshment in the form of very, VERY large glasses of Inca Kola.  We’re talking Big Gulp, Trenta sized beverages.


Never had Inca Kola before?  It is a shocking electric yellow color.  Supposedly, it is flavored with lemon verbena but to me it tastes like super-syrupy, bubblegum flavored cream soda. The Inca Kola in my very large glass on this late spring day was also very warm.   But Inka Kola is a national icon and, since it would have been rude and ungracious not to accept it, I managed to do the right thing and drink it all. Which meant, of course, that I soon had to go to the bathroom. Since this was a men’s prison, this created a pretty big problem.   Luckily, there was a private bathroom that I could use at the checkpoint to the high-security part of the prison.  When I came out of the bathroom, the guard was going through my briefcase.
Now, I spent a cumulative total of about 40 months of my life breastfeeding my 3 kids and I had this small, battery-operated breast pump for when I traveled. When I came out of the bathroom, I discovered that the guard had taken the breast pump apart.  He had all the pieces laid out and, one by one, was carefully holding them up to the light to examine them.  He was obviously trying to figure out exactly what kind of  weapon this strange object was. Could it be a bomb?   Let’s just say he had never even heard of breast pump and it took some time to explain.  Once he understood, the guard dropped the piece he was holding like it was a hot potato.  He even started blowing on his fingers.  The security check came to a speedy conclusion and we went on with our visit. By the time we came back out, though, the guard was laughing about it.  Perhaps, like me,  he is still telling that story and laughing about it to this very day.