Making the Impossible Possible

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NINE LIVEs Making the Impossible Possible NINE LIVEs Making the Impossible Possible Peter Braaksma WORLD changing Nine Lives: Making the Impossible Possible First published in the UK by New Internationalist
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NINE LIVEs Making the Impossible Possible NINE LIVEs Making the Impossible Possible Peter Braaksma WORLD changing Nine Lives: Making the Impossible Possible First published in the UK by New Internationalist TM Publications Ltd Oxford OX4 1BW, UK New Internationalist is a registered trade mark. First published in Peter Braaksma 2009 The right of Peter Braaksma to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing of the Publisher. Series editors: Troth Wells and Chris Brazier Designed by Alan Hughes Printed on recycled paper by TJ International, Cornwall, UK, who hold environmental accreditation ISO British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A catalogue record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: Dedication Life may not be fair, but it is crucial we try to make it so. This book is dedicated to those who did not get a fair deal and to those that may still get exactly that, perhaps aided by the efforts of the contributors to this book. About the author Peter Braaksma (born in 1960) has worked as an editor, communication adviser and corporate journalist in the Netherlands and Britain. From Asian countries he contributed to various public and corporate magazines. This caused him to focus on human rights, the environment and (corporate) social responsibility, and to create Nine Lives. These stories reflect the endeavors of people who embody Gandhi s notion you must be the change you wish to see in the world. Acknowledgements This book could not have been realized without the support of many people around the world. Naturally, the contributors come first, as the book is essentially theirs. Rami Elhanan, thank you for that cup of coffee (or two) and pointing out the many things I didn t know. May your nation of peace-seekers continue to grow. Bassam Aramin, thank you for your double efforts to see justice done. May peace prevail in every Palestinian and Israeli household. Youk Chhang, thank you for your humility and understanding. May the mothers, fathers and children of Cambodia enjoy a prosperous future. Chaeli Mycroft, thank you for your indomitable spirit. May your example remind differently-abled people everywhere to believe in themselves. Harry Wu, thank you for your extra time and Chinese tea. May your work, and the Laogai Museum, contribute to greater respect for human rights in China. Oscar Arias Sánchez, thank you for being a peacemaker. May the Arms Trade Treaty help towards a safer and more honorable world. Sompop Jantraka, thank you for your generosity. May your unstoppable work for girls, boys and families succeed throughout the Mekong region. Malalai Joya, thank you for your time and above all your courage. May the people of Afghanistan overcome the enemies of happiness. Monireh Baradaran, thank you for your hospitality and the Iranian meal. May the people of Iran find their way to reconciliation and civil rights. Second, in alphabetical order by country, I would like to thank all staff at the supporting or sympathizing organizations and all those who have helped as appointed or unappointed proofreaders, critics and providers of advice and suggestions. Afghanistan / Spain: Eugenia Garcia Raya of the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees (CEAR), the Association for Human Rights of Spain (APDHE) and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Cambodia: Staff at the Documentation Center of Cambodia and the Tuol Sleng Museum; Lisa Som (Royal Secretariat of Cambodia). China / United States: Kirk Donahue and staff at the Laogai Research Foundation and the China Information Center. Costa Rica: Katherine Stanley of the Presidential Office and staff members Alejandra Valderrama, Ana Yancy Espinoza and Felicia Ramírez Agüero of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. Iran / Germany: The One Million Signatures Campaign. Israel and the Palestinian National Authority: The Parents Circle and Combatants for Peace, with special thanks to the Palestinian NGO Wi am, and Search for Common Ground (United States). South Africa / The Netherlands: The Mycroft and Terry families and all staff at The Chaeli Campaign, Jesse Randelhoff, Lezanne de la Rey and staff at the Ocean View and Sinethemba Special Care Centers, with special thanks to Jessy Lipperts (South Africa) and the CSR Chicks (The Netherlands). Thailand: Staff members Alinda Suya, Somporn Khempetch of the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC); volunteers Sarah Tilford, Jaymi Holt, and Graziella Ramponi; Rebecca Perham (United States). Zimbabwe / South Africa: Never and Sibongile Chanengeta and Hope in Motion. International: in alphabetical order of last names, I would like to thank Leonardo Alfonso (Colombia), Hannah Asomaning (Ghana), Pia Boonstra (The Netherlands), Dusan Gamser (Serbia), Indeevari Illangasinghe (Sri Lanka), Desi Indrimayutri (Indonesia), Elvira Helena Mendoza (Colombia), Mazdak Mirramezani (Iran), Intong Eric Monchu (Cameroon), Michael Sarcauga (The Philippines), Emma Tilquin of the Unrepresented Peoples Organization (UNPO, The Netherlands), Janine Tijhoff (The Netherlands), as well as those who chose to remain anonymous. Special thanks to Marjon van Opijnen (The Netherlands), who provided invaluable help on various aspects of the project. As the inclusion of various chapters depends on time and circumstance, some of the help from the people and countries mentioned may manifest in later editions. Thanks also to all at New Internationalist, especially Chris Brazier, Alan Hughes, Jo Lateu, Dan Raymond-Barker and Troth Wells. Photo credits Page 21: Rami Elhanan Circle of Bereaved Parents, Israel. Page 49: Bassam Aramin Combatants for Peace, Palestinian National Authority. Page 77: Youk Chhang Documentation Center of Cambodia, Cambodia. Page 105: Chaeli Mycroft AP Braaksma, The Netherlands. Page 129: Harry Wu Laogai Research Foundation, United States. Page 165: Oscar Arias Sánchez Casa Presidencial, Costa Rica. Page 183: Sompop Jantraka Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities, Thailand. Page 215: Malalai Joya Defense Committee for Malalai Joya, Afghanistan. Page 245: Monireh Baradaran AP Braaksma, The Netherlands. It always seems impossible, until it s done. Nelson Mandela Contents Introduction: What if? 11 1 Cracks in the Wall 17 Rami Elhanan, Israel 2 The Closest Thing to the Heart 45 Bassam Aramin, Palestinian National Authority 3 Reconciliation One Heart at a Time 73 Youk Chhang, Cambodia 4 Dreams and Abilities 101 Chaeli Mycroft, South Africa 5 One of the One Million 125 Harry Wu, China 6 Responsibilities for Leaders 161 Oscar Arias Sánchez, Costa Rica 7 Daughters with a Future 181 Sompop Jantraka, Thailand 8 The Coming of Spring 211 Malalai Joya, Afghanistan 9 The Phoenix Rearranges Its Nest 241 Monireh Baradaran, Iran Epilogue: Walls or Bridges? 271 Introduction What if? Anything is possible! But who would think so in times of recession and depression? Half a century ago, writer JK Galbraith passed a bookshop on his way to New York s La Guardia airport. Not revealing who he was, he asked the bookseller about a book with a bright red jacket, his own disaster study The Great Crash. That s certainly not a title you could sell in an airport, the woman replied. Even though the last few years are reminiscent of previous crashes and crises, let s hope that Nine Lives fares better. And not just in airports. This book presents the life stories of people who were confronted with insurmountable obstacles, opposition and oppression. Yet they make the impossible possible. Reading this book, you might think more lightly about the barriers in your path. As contributor Rami Elhanan says: If we can, anyone can. Sorry, your call cannot be connected Snapshot 1. Can I speak to any of the human rights activists we talked about? Silence. But the woman at the other end of the phone hasn t hung up. No, she says after a sigh. That won t be possible. Why not? They re all in jail. 11 Nine Lives Compiling these personal narratives led me into some very unexpected encounters and to anticipated meetings that never took place. Don t come, someone said. If they find the two of us in one room, it will be too tempting to destroy us. But arranging these meetings with remarkable men and women was not always so hard or risky. Most of them were able and willing to share their stories. However different, they each represent a cause that rises above them and the region they represent. If there was only one raison d être for this book, it would be that these stories deserve to be heard. Amidst today s information anxiety, the sheer speed and volume of news that snowballs from every corner of the globe, it is difficult to get any depth. Our mental and emotional disk space runs out, leaving us little time to uncover the underlying stories that gave birth to the news, the why and how of it let alone take up a well-informed stance on each of them. Does it matter? Well, entire wars are being waged based on misrepresentations, to use a friendly term, so I think it does. It helps us to understand more deeply if we learn about people s intimate personal experience. If you don t feel it, both the talking and the listening become meaningless. This is why these stories are told in the first person. It gives them a sense of intimacy, as if you were sitting across the kitchen table which in fact is the way some of them came into being. They have not been summarized to meet the needs of fast-track information, as shortcuts often misinform. You get, as much as possible, an unadulterated experience. Consequently, paraphrasing a famous beer commercial, these stories refresh the parts that other stories cannot reach. The phrases you will remember from the book will not be headlines War in Gaza ; Arms Trade Treaty Postponed. Instead, they might be memorable lines in which important messages are embedded: There is no future without making peace with the past ; Opportunity is there all the time, but often we don t see it ; Our global military expenditure is simply 12 What if? immoral ; You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring. But now we re returning to soundbites again, when actually these statements gain in power when read in context. So, why these nine individuals? Well, I was searching for people that matched three criteria. Are they authentic, is their cause constructive, and is their work of (global) significance? I was seeking out lives that embody Gandhi s famous phrase you must be the change you wish to see in the world. Of course, it must be possible to have thousands of such encounters, and I have had the privilege of meeting many more than the nine lives reflected here. There were some that did not warrant inclusion, while other stories were set aside for a future book. While I gained access to some people quickly, in other cases it took seven months to fix a date or multiple dates. It changed my agenda into a stand-by button. Impressed as I was by the odysseys of the contributors, their stories became my odyssey in turn, and may become yours. The stories, though, are worth it. They are captivating, This way, please Snapshot 2. At Phnom Chisor, in southern Cambodia, a young girl guides me to an ancient Angkorian temple. Her friends join us on the climb to the hill top that offers a panoramic view of the surroundings. But does she know where she is going? Why does she keep stumbling over rocks and bumping into branches? She knows the site well, as she grew up here, and she can almost find her way by memory and by touch. And that s exactly what she is doing. She speaks about the site from memory, as she is being blinded by a tick that has infected her eye. In developed countries, this condition is easy to cure at little cost. But, despite the changes that are taking place in her country, in Cambodia she will simply become blind. 13 Nine Lives confronting and uplifting. They demonstrate self-effacing honesty, resilience, courage, ingenuity. They show some people staying true to their beliefs, and others leaving cherished views behind forever to embrace entirely new ones. When it comes down to it, people from every corner of the globe have a similar decency and dignity. In their darkest hour, every person hopes to survive, to return to normal life, or to rise again like a phoenix. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. There is hope for the unrecognized, the suppressed, the underprivileged. Sometimes, that hope or last straw turns out to be yourself. The book functions as a platform for views that would otherwise go unreported. As Nelson Mandela says, it always seems impossible, until it s done. It can be done and it is possible. Each of these nine voices was confronted with an urgent and inescapable need to dig deep, either to rescue themselves or to forge a fresh way forward for others. Cats are said to have nine lives; perhaps some of these contributors do too. In several cases, the only way out was by teaming up with former adversaries. Despite their trials and tribulations, they built bridges across their predicaments to a different future. Not only that, they made their cause public, as is evident from their activities and websites. You may be familiar with a few of these names, some of whom I could only meet abroad or in exile. I spoke with Malalai Joya, Harry Wu and Monireh Baradaran in Madrid, Washington and Frankfurt respectively instead of Kabul, Beijing and Tehran. The other six chapters were created in the places where the interviewees live. Some simply call for recognition of their cause, others speak truth to power. As such, they reflect the challenge of homo sapiens to live up to its noble name, or claim the rights as enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their rights are everybody s rights; our rights. What they did and still do presents us with a mirror and makes you wonder: what if I had been in their shoes? How 14 What if? would I deal with questions without answers, problems without solutions? Where to begin, for example, when confronted with the question: What should be done with the former Khmer Rouge leaders? Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center for Cambodia feels it is impossible truly to punish them. How would they pay back two million lives? Should they die two million times? Live in hell for two million years? The crimes they committed are so grave that I don t know what punishment would be fair. Efforts to improve one s lot and that of others reflect a universal, innate and irrepressible urge towards human fulfillment that exists before laws, text books or permits. Together, these Nine Lives represent a microcosm of such efforts, and the resistance they encounter. It shows what the human race is capable of its best and its worst. Questions remain. What if poverty was an epidemic and could grab you this afternoon, drain your bank account and force you to live in a cardboard box tomorrow? What if trafficking and rape suddenly became contagious and you found yourself systematically abused, and crying out for help from a windowless cellar? What if freedom of speech was suddenly abolished and Have-nots and will-nots? Snapshot 3. Landing in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2004 as a volunteer teacher of English to a Buddhist monastery in Bodhinath and Little Angels Primary School, I notice something awkward. It is possible to run my shower for an entire day at no additional cost. But it represents a stark contrast to my immediate environment. Leaning against the outer wall of the guesthouse is a man that cannot even afford one bottle of clean drinking water he is exhausted and ailing. Why is this life-saver in short supply in a country that has it in superabundance? 15 Nine Lives for an innocent remark the thought police dragged you out of your home? Plausible? Possible? A person s greatest fear may be a knock on the door by a man in a three-piece suit; their greatest joy making friends with the enemy. The snapshots above and the chapters that follow demonstrate that human rights are not abstract and neither are missions impossible that are made possible. They re hands-on affairs. Born under a different constellation, I might well have been the subject of any of these stories. But on which side? It caused me to look into the mirror and ask: What if I had been in their shoes? Any shortcomings of the book are my own. Peter Braaksma 16
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