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2005 In Review: People Making A Difference -- Six Acts Of Courage

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Belarus's Alyaksandr Milinkevich (official site) Prague, 27 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It takes courage to swim against the prevailing current, particularly in societies where political authoritarianism or social convention penalizes those who do. But there are inevitably individuals with such courage -- people who are ready to stand up for their beliefs and willing to tell the truth for the common good. RFE/RL profiles six people whose courage fueled their activities.

Belarus Oppositionist Undeterred


The authoritarian president of Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has been deemed by some "Europe's last dictator."

Alyaksandr Milinkevich wants to change that -- by winning the presidential election next spring.

It is a potentially dangerous task. Belarusian opposition figures like Yuri Zakharanka and Viktar Hanchar have previously disappeared without a trace. Another challenger, Mikhail Marynich, is in jail on what many see as trumped-up charges.

But Milinkevich says he is undeterred.

"To tell the truth, if the intention is to kill me, no amount of bodyguards, not even a hundred men, will help," Milinkevich says. "I don't really think ahead about what my fate will be in the event of a loss. I only know that if we lose, it will not be a loss for Milinkevich; it will be a loss for Belarus."

For much of 2005, the 58-year-old Milinkevich has been traveling around the country to mobilize a constituency seeking democratic change, such as students, small-business owners, and opposition supporters.

Predictably, authorities have thrown up roadblocks for his team. And worse is expected as the election draws closer.

Milinkevich maintains that the opposition would prevail over Lukashenka if it were allowed access to the mass media, and if elections were free, fair, and transparent.

But even in the present unequal conditions, Milinkevich says he believes Belarus has a chance to repeat Ukraine's experience of peaceful transition.

"If the government falsifies the election yet again, we will have no recourse but to join the people and take to the streets, to defend our dignity and our future," Milinkevich says.

Belarus has set 19 March as the date of the presidential election.

Lone Voice Breaks Uzbek Silence

In testimony to Uzbekistan's highest court, Mahabuba Zokirova accused the government of shooting down its own citizens.

A 33-year-old housewife, Zokirova was eyewitness to the bloodshed in the eastern city of Andijon last May.

Zokirova giving testimony in a screen capture from the trial

The authorities say 187 people died in Andijon, many of them militants seeking to overthrow the government. But human rights groups, basing their estimates on accounts by witnesses such as Zokirova, say hundreds of people died -- mainly civilians shot by soldiers.

But amid a flurry of high-profile prosecutions denounced by rights groups as show trials, one witness refused to parrot the official line. After a parade of witnesses had confirmed official allegations that religious extremists bore responsibility for the bloodshed -- with no one suggesting that government forces had acted improperly when they quelled the unrest -- Zokirova gave evidence that shocked the Supreme Court.

She recounted how she was with a crowd of people on that day when soldiers began shooting directly at them. One person near her fell to the ground, and a small girl next to her said she had been hit in the leg. In fact, she was hit in the shoe, and Zokirova said the bullet hole could be plainly seen.

A flustered prosecutor asked: "What are you talking about, [did] the terrorists shoot the people?"

Zokirova dismissed that notion.

"They are all Andijoni, how can they shoot their own townsmen?" she responded. "Their mothers and sisters gathered there. How can they shoot their own mothers and sisters?"

Zokirova is in virtually all other respects an ordinary citizen. Like many other housewives, she rises before dawn to tend to her family of four children. Her husband sells onions in a local bazaar.

Zokirova feared she might be jailed for her testimony, but returned home safely.

RFE/RL later asked her if she regretted her testimony, to which she replied: "I don't know. Perhaps they would understand; if not today then tomorrow they will surely understand. Everyone has a conscience and has to be honest with it. I believe in this."

Human Rights Group Records Atrocities In Chechnya

Lidiya Yusupova is a woman who lives dangerously. As the head of one of a handful of human rights groups remaining in the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, Yusupova documents atrocities against civilians committed by both Russian federal forces and Chechen separatists.

As coordinator of the Grozny office of the Moscow-based rights organization Memorial, Yusupova has over the last five years documented summary executions, disappearances, rapes, and the use of torture.

Lidiya Yusupova (courtesy photo)

She does this not only by taking witness and victim testimony in her office, but, if necessary, she travels to the scenes of atrocities -- a risky job when soldiers regularly act with impunity in what is widely described as the most vicious conflict in the world today.

Memorial has taken a number of cases to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg based on information gathered by Yusupova and her team. Memorial has won three of those cases.

In recognition of her courage, Yusupova was awarded the 2005 Norwegian Rafto human rights award in November.

Rafto Foundation Chairman Arne Linngard praised her at the presentation ceremony: "We think that Lydiya is a very brave woman. She felt, in the year 2000, that since she was an educated person, she had a special responsibility to stay behind [in Chechnya] and use her resources to help the situation for the civilian population of Chechnya. So she was one of those who remained, and didn't escape from Chechnya."

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Yusupova called for the Russian government, as the "strong side" in the conflict, to grasp the initiative for peace, and to put in place measures to bring some stability at last to shattered Chechnya.

Kyrgyz Youth Leader Mixes Politics And Music

The year has also been a dramatic one for Uzbekistan's fellow Central Asian republic, Kyrgyzstan. In early 2005, popular demonstrations there resulted in the collapse of the regime of longtime President Askar Akaev.

Youth leader Alisher Mamasaliev, and his civil youth movement Kelkel -- meaning "new Epoch" -- helped to lead the demonstrations.

Alisher Mamasaliev (center)

Mamasaliev gave a speech at one of first of those fateful protests in February, attended by only about 50 people. In his address, Mamasaliev called for honest elections.

He and some of his companions then toured the country, drumming up support for a renewal of Kyrgyz political life.

An accomplished musician, economist, and lawyer, Mamasaliev caught the imagination of young people through his music. (Listen in RealAudio or Windows Media.) And the demonstrations began to grow.

By 24 March, demonstrators had seized the government house in central Bishkek.l

"We are invincible when we stick together. Hurrah," Mamasaliev told a cheering crowd.

During this period he was constantly on the run, and sleeping about four hours a day in different locations so as to avoid arrest. He also had to bear criticism of his activities from his parents, other relatives, and even some of his friends.

Now that the so-called Tulip Revolution has driven out the old regime, what lies in store for Mamasaliev?

The task now, he says, is to steer Kyrgyzstan toward a place in the modern world.

Serbian Woman Refuses To Look The Other Way

Belgrade is not a comfortable city for someone dedicated to uncovering war crimes committed by Serbs during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Natasa Kandic (AFP)

For Natasa Kandic, threats against her personal safety are an almost daily occurrence as she works to bring war criminals to justice through her organization, called the Humanitarian Law Fund.

"Those people in the street assail us with offensive words," Kandic says. "They have a repertory that is hard to repeat, especially having in mind our culture, with a tradition of using curse words to a greater extent toward a woman than toward a man with whom you disagree."

This is the land where fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime leaders like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic still find strong popular support.

The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague is still seeking Karadzic and Mladic, its most high-profile indictees.

Kandic persists, too -- despite the threats.

Learning The Meaning Of Peace

Long after wars end, their psychological scars remain.

As a child, ethnic Albanian Fatmire Feka knew the horrors of war with Serbs in Kosovo.

"I survived the war. I survived many difficult things," Feka says. "I've seen corpses and people getting killed. As children, we did not know what was going on, but mother used to say, 'They are asleep.' It was a very difficult situation, not only for me, but for everybody. Our biggest pain is [the loss] of my sister and brother. It is like your heart being cut in half."

Now 17, Feka says that as an 11-year-old, she had no idea what world peace could possibly mean.

Then she met Canadian peace activist Rudi Scalert from World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group. She was deeply moved by what he said, and she resolved to help.

First, she had to overcome the mindset created by war in Kosovo, the Serbian province where the ethnic Albanian majority seeks independence.

"It was very difficult for me and my parents because of our own experience during the war," Feka says. "We couldn't say 'yes' to peace. With my engagement, I started to take part in some conferences and meetings, organized within Kosovo. All of them were on peace, but the participants were grownups. I was the only child."

In 2002, when she was 14, Feka began a project to develop Children For Peace clubs. By the following year, eight clubs were running in five districts of Kosovo.

Today, more than 350 children of different ethnic origins are members. There are also another four clubs called Youth For Peace.

(Compiled by RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke with reporting by the RFE/RL's Belarus, Uzbek, Chechen, Kyrgyz, South Slavic and South Slavic/Kosovo desks and subunits.)
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