I want to pay tribute to a few brave men and women who in 2012 fought for dignity, justice and peace in some of the world’s most troubled countries.
My list is limited by space considerations. So I’ve chosen to focus on people I’ve been privileged to meet or whom I’ve learned about from contacts in their countries. What distinguishes them is that each has chosen to struggle, at great risk, for values that most of us take for granted – though their odds of success are small.
I’ll start with someone you probably have heard of, Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education. I never met Yousufzai, who is still recovering from her wounds in England. I did talk with her impressive, reform-minded father when I visited Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2009.
I name her first because she stands for so many brave girls in Swat and other remote Pakistani and Afghan regions who risk their lives by insisting on their right to study. In case anyone needs reminding of the danger, consider this: According to British press reports, Yousufzai called officials in Pakistan to urge them to reverse a decision to rename a college in her honor, in her hometown of Mingora. The reason? The girls at the college feared it would become a target for attack if it bore her name.
I also want to pay tribute to the nine female Pakistani vaccination workers (one only 17) who were murdered by extremists. Female health volunteers are on the front line of Pakistan’s war on polio. (It is one of three countries where the disease still threatens – the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria.) Due to conservative tribal customs, only women can enter houses to give vaccines to children.
Imagine the guts it takes to do this work, which has been temporarily halted. Clerics across Pakistan have condemned the murders, but these women – and the children whose health they protected – are still under threat.
If these cases touch you, stop for a moment to consider what awaits thousands of courageous Afghan women and girls if (when?) we exit their country in a careless fashion. The Taliban is already sending out warning signals. Last month, Najia Siddiqi, acting head of women’s affairs in Laghman province, was shot to death in broad daylight; her predecessor was killed by a bomb under her car.
Of the many extraordinary Afghan women I’ve met, I’ll cite two, who both live in the city of Herat, near the border with Iran. Suraya Pakzad runs shelters for women abused by family or spouses (the only other alternatives for such women are prison or murder by their relatives), and Maria Bashir is the only provincial chief prosecutor in the country. Both receive frequent death threats, but they refuse to go into hiding. Pakzad was recently in Washington to ask U.S. officials not to trade away women’s rights in any talks with the Taliban. Will we let her down?
And then there is Syria, where so many nonviolent activists have paid with their lives for their dreams of a peaceful revolution. At least 69 of the dead are media activists or journalists, who record the carnage inflicted by government forces and planes on civilians, and then send reports and footage out of the country.
I met several Syrian media activists on trips to Lebanon, Turkey and Syria; I can’t name them for their safety. So let me cite the words of the activist-filmmaker Tamer al-Awam, 34, whom I never met and who was killed in Aleppo in September. In his short film “Memories at a Checkpoint,” he said his goal was to give voice to people who wanted “to tell the world: Stop the killing. We are a people who love life.”
Finally, let me pay tribute to Alexei Navalny, a 30ish Russian blogger, anti-corruption crusader and leader of Moscow’s middle-class opposition to Vladimir Putin’s autocracy. I met Navalny in Moscow in March, where he described how he trolls through documents leaked by disgruntled bureaucrats to reveal the mafialike criminal behavior of the regime.
Navalny is fearless, even accusing Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia’s FBI-style Investigative Committee and a Putin buddy, of criminal property violations. But the regime has struck back, leveling ludicrous corruption charges against Navalny and his brother, a common tactic to silence dissidents. These kinds of charges can lead to long prison terms, or even murder, yet Navalny refuses to bow.
I could cite so many other acts of courage in 2012, by women activists in Egypt, rule-of-law crusaders in China, etc. But all these activists share a common characteristic: They refuse to stop fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds, because they know – as the Arab Spring revolts proved – that we never can predict when history will deliver surprises.
In some cases, U.S. officials can help (by not abandoning Afghan women or by smarter policy on Syria), and concerned U.S. citizens should pressure them to do so. In other cases, we can bring their struggle to the world’s attention, support human-rights organizations that defend them – and keep these men and women of courage in our prayers.