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Nobel Peace Prize: Invisible faces and unheard voices

Smita Sharma
Smita SharmaDec 27, 2014 | 18:54

Nobel Peace Prize: Invisible faces and unheard voices

"I am not very tall, and small. But I have promised myself to fight for the rights of girls. The right for girls to have a book and a pen and education." Amidst thunderous applause that refused to die down, 17-year-old international icon Malala Yousafzai addressed the world at the Oslo Spektrum Arena during the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. Just a day earlier, she had shared the stage with India's Kailash Satyarthi as they jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014.

"This award is not just for me," said Malala.

"It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change. I am here to stand up for their rights, raise their voice."

Malala wasn't the only one who was trying to make her voice heard, though.

Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan was about to perform with his sons at the Nobel Peace Centre, when a young boy rushed to the stage waving a Mexican flag streaked in red. Adan Cortes Salas, 21, had wanted to draw the attention of the Nobel laureates to the killing of 43 students, allegedly by drug lords linked to the Mexican government.

The protester was taken away and calm returned shortly.

But when Satyarthi rose up to speak, an empty chair on the stage symbolised the sufferings and struggles of millions without a face. "I represent here the sound of silence," said Satyarthi.

"The cry of innocence. And, the face of invisibility."

The Nobel Peace Prize gives hope and strength to those hundreds of thousands who struggle for equality, for freedom of expression, for the right to live with dignity. And in the lobby of the stunning Grand Hotel in Oslo, where the Nobel laureates stayed amidst tight security, one came across several faces with stories to tell of silent suffering and resilience.

 

Suzan has a round, fair, kind face. A face that has weathered much. Her grown up daughters stay with her in Sweden. She does not want to talk about her husband whom she separated from many years ago. But Sweden is not home for Suzan. 54 long summers ago, she was born in Tehran. But 34 winters have passed by and Suzan has not been to what is home. Neither does she hope to be. She has traveled the world, but the flower tufts in Spain or Sweden are just not the same. To her the orange blossoms in Tehran are the most beautiful flowers she has ever seen.

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As a 20 year old Suzan was part of college protests that sparked off with the Islamic regime attempting to ban students' organisations in Tehran University. A pharmacology student, she joined the protests led by the overseas student groups, heading to the campus with posters that read "I want freedom" . She had been married when she was 18 and was a mother of two very young girls. As Ayatollah Khomenei's Supreme Cultural Revolution Coucil banned textbooks and purged students and lecturers who stood up for human rights, several of Suzan's friends were imprisoned. Allowing a protester to stay home would also invite draconian action. As the cultural revolution sparked off , Suzan and her husband were forced to be on the run. They would change places at least ten times a week. Not be able to go over their families. And Suzan recalls "Sometimes we would drive all the way from Tehran to North of Iran and back, simply so that children could get some hours of sleep in the car".

Eventually when the Islamic Revolutionary Guards were close on the heels, life took them to Kurdistan where the Bahar family lived for four years before moving to Sweden as political refugees.

Resettled in Sweden, Suzan launched the first edition of her magazine Darvag in 1997 with the cover story of Iqbal Masih, a child slave who broke free of his bondage, became a global child rights activist, and was shot dead at the age of 12 in Muridke, Pakistan. Two years after that, Suzan met Kailash Satyarthi for the first time at Hello Convention for Child Rights.

She says Kailash is a very "real person" who does everything for children. She giggles remembering how she had gone to interview Kailash the first time and ended up being interviewed by him instead.

In 1998, The Global March movement began with Kailash Satyarthi as a founding member. Thousands of people came together for a 80,000 km long physical march across 103 countries to built awareness about child abuse.

Coordinator for Global March in Sweden since 1999, Suzan and Kailash have visited each others' homes a few times. She attended the first child labour congress in Italy and the next one in Delhi in 2006, participated in anti child trafficking marches. In 2010 she invited Kailash Satyarthi to address the Swedish Parliament and talk about his millennium goals.

In 2013 Suzan petitioned for Iranian children and began a Global Campaign for Justice and Promoting Child Rights. She says Iranian laws are completely anti-childhood. She refers to the civil law 1 to 10 which she says is contrary to childrens' convention. Under these laws, a child above 9 years old can be considered an adult and can work. Children can be married at 13 and tens of thousands are married off at an even earlier age. She is vociferously opposing the law passed last year that supposedly allows a parent to marry an adopted child.

Suzan hopes Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi's support will strengthen her campaign. Kailash endorsed his support earlier in 2014 and even wrote a letter to the Iranian President calling the child legislations as unacceptable. She is unable to go back home since activists are unwelcome in Tehran, but she hopes to bring some change for children there.

Grandmom Suzan sighs when asked about her fondest memory. "Stones, asphalt, streets. I try remembering smallest details to keep them close to me. I miss the Iranian sky with the stars."

Every time a flight to some destination takes Suzan over and across the Iranian skies, tears roll silently down her cheeks .

 

Sanam Noor Pechucho is chirpy and brimming with energy and enthusiasm. She loves to laugh even if it annoys those who think a human rights activist should have a more serious persona. Sanam does not agree. At 34, Sanam Noor Pechucho is a student of a human rights masters program. While her first semester is in Sweden, the remaining two would be in London and Norway. She belongs to Humayun sharif village of Sindh in Pakistan.

Her great grandfather Mian Abdul Gaffur Humayuni was a Sufi poet born in 1844 who penned collection of poems. Famous Sufi Singer Abida Parveen sang Humayuni's poetry -- Tunjhe Zulfa je banda kamanda widha, Zindan Hazaren maan na rugo.

But for Sanam, life as a teenager in a conservative Sindhi village was not romantic poetry. She had to fight for her right to education. She broke societal shackles to work and study abroad. Education for the girl child was not a right and not too many Malalas could put up a fight.

Born in Quetta to a policeman, Sanam's family came to Karachi in 1992 where she matriculated from. She had always been told that she would be married off post her bachelors degree. Sanam's eldest sister was the first girl from Humayun Yusufi village to go to school. Her mother was illiterate, and was taught Urdu by her husband post marriage so she could write letters to him when he was away on police postings.

When Sanam wanted to go to Karachi University for her Masters, she had to face much resistance from her father who was comparatively liberal. He was strongly advised against such a move by his relatives. Her father's family would tell him ," Ladki kharaab ho jayegi, parh kar kya karegi ." One uncle would insist that Sanam would someday elope with the driver entrusted to take her to University. It took much persuasion and pleading on Sanam's part for her father to allow her to carry on with higher education and then take up a job.

But even to this day, Sanam wraps herself up in chador every time the family visits Humayun Yusufi village. Sanam recalls that Eid used to be special for the girls in the village, because all the men would go to Eidgah for prayers. And for those few hours, the young women would venture out without the "purdah".

From 2009 till recently, Sanam worked with the political department of the US embassy in Islamabad. She worked on the State department annual report on human rights and minority issues in Pakistan.

Sanam had not heard of Kailash Satyarthi till he was announced winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2014. She wrote to the Nobel Peace Committee that she wanted to sing the Indian National Anthem, a request that was not met. She recalls it was an evening in Chalmers University in Sweden that attracted her to the anthem. She had been invited to Rang -- a Dance and Music evening organised by the Indian Students Association, where Jana Gana Mana was played.

"YouTube is banned in Pakistan but not in Sweden. So I went to my room, turned it on and learnt the meaning of the song," says Sanam.

Sanam says it is one of the most beautiful prayers written by a human being. She felt it to be a kind of Sufi poetry that would go straight to Allah without any intervention.

Seated in the Alfred Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, as Kailash Satyarthi delivered the Peace Lecture, Sanam was in tears. She was reminded of children miles and miles away in her Sindhi village. "Woh maar khatey hain, barey ho jatey hain - jaldi barey ho jaatey hain (they get beaten up, they grow up and age too soon)," she says.

And what about Malala Yousafzai's speech? "It was a positive one, it gave us hope... isliye main sambhal gayi (I could control myself)," she adds.

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Kailash Satyarthi bonds with Sanam Noor Pechucho.

On the third day of waiting in the hotel lobby where the Nobel laureates were staying in Oslo, Sanam runs to Kailash as he walks in. She makes him wear a Sindhi topi she brought to gift him. And he asks her to pledge that she will be a part of the Global Campaign for Child Rights. Sanam couldn't stop smiling.

 

Hatef Mokhtar goes out of his way to help strangers but is incapable of displaying modesty. An adamant Pashtun, who loses his temper every now and then. But scratch the surface and you meet a man who has been toughened by life's hard experiences. Born in Afghanistan's Maazar E Sharif, Hatef grew up in rugged Kandahar. Destiny brought him to the Norwegian Capital of Oslo in 2001.

As a young boy, Hatef lost his father Maulvi Gul Mohammad Khan for his anti communist views, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. His most important memory of Afganistan is the most painful one too. The day the Russian army suddenly raided and took away his father. And a 12 year old Hatef ran behind the security vehicle for a long distance, bewildered with what was happening.

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Afghan author and founder and chief editor of The Oslo Times, Hatef Mokhtar.

When the Americans invaded Afghanistan, they broke the prison door and Hatef saw the first rays of the sun in more than a year.This life episode left him with a strong urge for human rights which he thinks is the right to discover yourself, practice and be the way you want to be. It encompasses political rights to protest, vote and elect your leaders. In the 90s, Hatef wrote in several newspapers in Pashto and English against extremism and championing for freedom of expression. His anti Taliban articles landed this first journalist in his family, in a jail in Kandahar in 1999. As a political prisoner, he was Tortured, given electric shocks, beaten by sticks and rods. He was lodged alone in a dark cell, but saw many of the 3000 inmates in the crowded prison lose their lives. In a 2 metre by 1 metre cell, Hatef was all alone, barred from meeting family or friends. A bottle of water with 3 pieces of bread was his daily meal.

With his mother and younger brother, Hatef then undertook a journey via Pakistan, staying in Delhi for around 5 months to Oslo, where he was granted political asylum and began a new life.

In 2011 Hatef started The Oslo Times, a leading English online daily which has 55 perecnt of its focus on Human Rights News. With a strength of 55 journalists across Norway, Denmark, Sweden, South Asia, US and Latin America, the paper will launch its print edition early next year.

Hatef says freedom of expression is the only way to attain a democracy and media has a role to play. Especially in South Asia and Africa, where yellow journalism and propaganda, too, has deep roots today. He thinks the Nobel Ceremony is a symbolic event, but it does have a strong message for advocates of human rights. A message to eradicate discrimination and seek equality.

Not one among the naysayers, Hatef thinks the Malala foundation works for 1,00,000 children across the globe today. And the Nobel Peace Prize Money will strengthen it further. He adds Kailash was not very well known before the award. And that the Prize will be good for Bachpan Bachao Andolan and for India.

Hatef cannot go back to Afghanistan because Taliban is resurgent in the tribal belts but he misses the smell of his soil. His 70-year-old mother has adjusted to Norway for her sons. But he says: "When you are born and grow up in some country, you miss your motherland. I love the Afghan nature. I love my country."

Last updated: December 27, 2014 | 18:54
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