NEWS:"No safety in cowardice"

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Subject: NEWS:"No safety in cowardice"
From: Jyothi Kanics (
Date: Fri Mar 26 1999 - 10:09:54 EST

Thursday March 25, 10:12 pm Eastern Time

FEATURE-"No safety in cowardice"
could be activists' motto

By Grant McCool

NEW YORK (Reuters) - One traveled on foot in rural Burma
gathering testimony from villagers forcibly removed from their homes and
terrorized by soldiers.
One who escaped from sexual slavery in West Africa now helps spirit others
out of bondage.

Another is a student leader who was repeatedly arrested and tortured by
authorities in his
campaign for democratic reforms in Kenya, and the fourth defends poor people
sent to death row
-- sometimes wrongly -- in the United States, where capital punishment is

All four, men and women in their 20s, met in New York this week before
receiving a human rights
award Wednesday night from the Reebok International Ltd. athletic footwear

Gathered around a conference table a day before the awards ceremony, they
discussed their
activism, their hopes for their generation, the state of world human rights
and the compassion, pain
and despair that have indelibly marked their lives.

``Despite my suffering ... the fact that I survived has come to teach me
there is no safety in
cowardice,'' said Suba Churchill Meshack, 26, chairman of the Kenya
University Student
Organization, who has been arrested and tortured eight times by authorities,
who he said pulled off
all of his toenails.

``Everybody who bears a human face must stand up and rise to the occasion
when it comes to
fighting dictatorships,'' said Meshack, who was expelled from a university
for speaking out against
corruption in Kenya's university system and in the government of longtime
President Daniel arap

His elderly father died of shock in 1996 after being wrongly told that his
son had been killed in


Some of the activists cried as they recounted human rights abuses and
listened to one another's
stories of being tortured or seeing friends or people they came to know
being mistreated or killed in
front of them.

They said they felt their work had gone largely unrecognized by the world
outside their immediate
community and all expressed a determination to turn adversity into positive
change in their societies.

``The mistreatment of people is frighteningly universal,'' said Tanya
Greene, 28, a lawyer for the
Southern Center for Human Rights. In just two years she has become known as
a tenacious
defender of indigent black death row inmates in Georgia and Alabama who are
victims of racial

``It seems like you can go to all corners of the world and find people who
are being mistreated in
the name of government, order, discipline and tradition,'' said Greene, a
Harvard Law School
graduate who lives in Atlanta.

``I think this award and meeting these three people inspires in me the power
of young people to
just go out and do things.''

The four received the Reebok Human Rights Award, which was established by
the company in
1988 and comes with a $25,000 grant. All 56 recipients in the past 11 years
are advocates of
nonviolent change. They are selected by company advisers who receive
nominations from human
rights organizations.


``I used to think that people from Burma suffered the most but now what I've
heard from the
others, it makes me think I need to learn more about the other countries and
why human rights
abuses happen there too,'' said Ka Hsaw Wa, 28, an advocate for ethnic and
rural minorities in
Burma (now called Myanmar) who has lived in hiding in Thailand for 11 years.

Co-founder of EarthRights International, he documented oral evidence and
filed an unprecedented
class-action lawsuit in a U.S. court against Unocal company for alleged
human rights violations on
the Yadana gas pipeline project in Burma.

The testimony accuses soldiers of the ruling military government -- the
State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC) -- of clearing villages to make way for the
pipeline. Among the
worst atrocities, he saw a woman impaled with the branch of a tree through
her vagina and was
told of a soldier who cut out the fetus of a pregnant woman and killed her.

The woman's 12-year-old brother vowed to arm himself and seek revenge
against soldiers. ``I
heard that he doesn't want any education, all he wants is revenge. I don't
want that happening in my
country,'' an emotional Ka Hsaw Wa said.

Julie Dogbadzi of Ghana was sent away from home at the age of seven in a
sexual slavery and
labor tradition intended to redeem her family for the alleged sins of an

She said she was forced to work for a priest and fulfill him sexually. While
she declined to discuss
details of her experiences, she has previously recounted being forced to
work in the fields with little
or no food and being beaten by the priest if she refused his sexual demands.

``I feel a bit sad to know what is going on around the world about human
rights and meeting my
colleagues fighting for the rights of others. It touches me, it touches my
heart a lot,'' said Dogbadzi,
covering her face with her hand.


Dogbadzi, 24, escaped after 14 years in bondage, taking her two children
with her to the refuge of
the International Needs organization. She has become an advocate for other
young girls and
women forced into the practice known as Trokosi in the Upper Volta region of
West Africa.

Speaking in the Eve language through an interpreter, she said she had helped
free 1,000 women
but 4,000 were still in bondage. Her work was instrumental in getting
Ghana's parliament to pass
legislation that outlaws the practice.

``I think we are all working in the right direction. I want to call on young
people to work harder to
free our colleagues from bondage and suffering and to get their rights,''
she said.

At one point in the discussion, Greene, who says her family has been the
victim of racial
discrimination, and the Burmese activist briefly debated the relative merits
of the U.S. political
system and those in other countries, which often look to America as a model
of democracy and

``So you mean you got a great system but not the best?'' Ka Hsaw Wa asked.
``We have a really
bad system. The worst.''

Greene replied in essence that every endangered human life was worth saving
if it could be saved.
``We can't make a hierarchy. I think it's dangerous because then I can sit
and think I have nothing
to say,'' she said.

``But actually the people that I serve, whose lives I'm trying to save, are
in the same boat as the
people you are trying to save because they are all going to die at the hands
of the government if we
don't step in. It's just mine is legal and yours isn't.''

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