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People Making Headlines in...

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Articles in English

Israel: No Peace, No Process?

The Israeli Press Reacts to the Road Map: Bumpy Road Ahead

The Israeli Press Reacts to the Prisoner Exchange with Hizbollah

Israel’s Security Fence—Back To The Wall

A Woman President in the White House?

New York Stories:
Freedom of Speech

New York Stories:
9/11—Tilting at Windmills

German Press on Iraq:
Front Line Berlin

Bush Takes On Europe—Again

A European in New York

Jewish Lawyers Defending Anti-Semites?

Cooperation and Competition — American Jewry and Israel's Development

In Memoriam Yehuda Amichai

In Memoriam Hildegard Knef

2000... And the Emperor Still Has No Clothes

 

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People Making Headlines in 2002

 

Home Page > Articles in English > People 2002

 

Mexico: Digna Ochoa

Iran: Tahmineh Milani

Norway: Åsne Seierstad

Turkey: Ayse Nur Zarakolu

France: Madeleine Mukamabano

Somalia: Fatima Jibrell

Argentina: María Adela Gard de Antokoletz

Afghanistan: Shukria Barakzai Dawi

 

 

 

 

From the January 2002 issue of World Press Review

Digna Ochoa :
Defender of the Poor

By Tekla Szymanski

Digna OchoaOn Oct. 19, the country's most prominent human-rights lawyer, 38-year-old Digna Ochoa, was shot and killed.

Ochoa, a former Roman Catholic nun, was famous for taking on high-profile cases, like the defense in May 1999 of Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera—arrested on gun and drug charges—who lead a peasant group opposed to wildcat logging by local political bosses.

Ochoa was repeatedly threatened, twice kidnapped, tortured, and nearly killed. Her assassination has raised suspicions of military involvement, and Ochoa's cold-blooded killing was deemed the first political crime committed during the Fox administration.

Mexicans, hungry for improvement in their country's human-rights record after Vincente Fox's election, may have cheered too soon. Indeed, Mexico may be slipping back into old patterns of impunity: In selecting as his attorney general Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the top military prosecutor under former President Ernesto Zedillo, Fox had ignored pleas from rights activists to establish a clear division between military and civilian law enforcement. Now, de la Concha may be implicated in Ochoa's assassination. "[He] stands out as the main suspect in the crime," Brig. Gen. José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez was quoted in Mexico City's Proceso. (Gallardo was imprisoned in 1993 in reprisal for his writings on military human-rights abuses. )

Ochoa believed that Fox's election did not herald real change in Mexico: She was still threatened, watched, and made to feel vulnerable, for many of the cases defended by her were linked to Mexico's army. And it was de la Concha who requested in May 2001 that protection orders issued for Ochoa be withdrawn, arguing that those measures were no longer warranted.

Still, Ochoa "believed in what she did and downplayed the risk," writes Pablo Romo in Mexico City's La Jornada.
And Gilberto López y Rivas adds in the same paper (Oct. 26): She was "willing to take all the risks of the profession that was her only weapon: the law."

[Note: On July 20, 2004, the Human Rights Commission of Mexico released a 200-page report, challenging the government's position that Ochoa had not been murdered. The three state prosecutors—who were appointed to investigate Ochoa's death—had concluded that Ochoa had been distraught and that she committed suicide. They also claimed that she had made up death threats against her to draw attention to her human rights cases.


Members of Mexico's Human Rights Commission have questioned the integrity and consistency of the state's investigation into Ochoa's death all along. However, on Febr. 25, 2005, bowing to a court's decision, the state prosecutors reopened the investigation into Ochoa's death.]

 

 

 

From the February 2002 issue of World Press Review

Tahmineh Milani :
Filmmaker on Trial

By Tekla Szymanski

This could be the test for artistic freedom in Iran: Tahmineh Milani, a renowned feminist filmmaker, is accused of "waging a war against God." She could face execution.

Amnesty International called her a prisoner of conscience after she was arrested and jailed for seven days in late August (before release on bail pending trial) for her latest film, The Hidden Half. Milani, 41, has been accused by Tehran's Revolutionary Court, headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, of "abusing the arts as a tool for actions" and "support of counterrevolutionary grouplets"—accusations that carry the death sentence.

In fact, Milani is a pawn between the liberalizing policies of President Mohammad Khatami and the fundamentalist hard-liners. Her film was approved officially and it is still being shown in Tehran. Even President Khatami publicly came to Milani's rescue, in direct opposition to the clerics, supporting her release on bail. Milani, however, still faces prosecution.

The Hidden Half focuses on a dutiful wife who reveals to her husband her hidden past as an activist in opposition to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Milani's persecution began after the London-based Hambastegi, a publication of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees, published an interview, in which she acknowledged that her film depicted a reality she had lived. "[Milani] has taken greater risks than her better-known contemporaries, rarely cloaking her messages in allegorical terms and frequently speaking about her work in public," wrote Steve Ross in Johannesburg's Mail & Guardian.

Now, Milani's case could become a victory in Khatami's drive for reforms. Or it could leave this outspoken filmmaker out in the cold.

 

 

 

 

From the March 2002 issue of World Press Review

Åsne Seierstad:
On the Front Lines

By Tekla Szymanski

Don't call her a war correspondent. Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad, 31, resents the label. "I hate weapons," she says simply—and continues to report from the world's battlegrounds.

She has won many awards for her reporting from Kosovo, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. "I won for 'fearless journalism,' but I can tell you it was often 'afraid journalism,' " admits Seierstad, who entered her profession "casually," posing as a reporter in Moscow to interview then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin's political rival Ruslan Khasbulatov (who in 1993 led fellow legislators in a coup attempt).

Born to a feminist author mother and a leftist politician father, Seierstad did not stay long in her birthplace, Lillehammer. She lived in France, then went to Mexico after college; she worked for Russia's news agency ITAR-TASS in Moscow; she spent six months in China studying Chinese, resided in Belgrade in an artists' collective, then in Venice, and took German classes in Berlin. Fluent in five languages and with good working knowledge in another four, Seierstad is able to cover her subjects as few other war correspondents can.

Last year, Seierstad published the book With My Back to the World, a portrait of 13 individual Serbians and one family during a decade of war. But she has refused publishers' offers to write a book on her work that would seem, as she puts it, to be about "Me and My War."
[Note: At the end, however, she did write a book based on her stay in Afghanistan, The Bookseller Of Kabul, which was published in 2003 and drew criticism and praise].

"I haven't found the peace inside myself to settle down in any one place," Seierstad admitted to the Oslo newspaper VG. "I am rootless." According to Oslo's Aftenposten, Seierstad recalls sitting in a bunker on the front line near Kabul as the city was liberated from the Taliban. She thought about death but was more concerned about getting shrapnel in her thigh—which would have stopped her from skiing. "Nothing is worth getting shot for," is her mantra.

The journalist, who declared as a young girl that she would never want to become prime minister because she doesn't belong to any party, has maintained her independence. If things are not going well for her in Norway, she simply takes off—and might end up riding on a tank with the Northern Alliance on their way to Kabul.

 

 

 

 

From the May 2002 issue of World Press Review

Ayse Nur Zarakolu:
Battling Bigotry with Books

By Tekla Szymanski

For 25 years, Turkish publisher Ayse Nur Zarakolu went head-to-head with the forces of repression in her country.

It was a Sisyphean task—but Zarakolu did not give in. "The place to debate our history is in books, not in the courts," was her goal. Not an easy undertaking: Over the years, her publishing house, Belge (The Document), repeatedly inspired official wrath, because Zarakolu and her husband, Ragip, published books dealing with subjects and taboos better left untouched in Turkey: the Kurds' plight, Turkey's leftist movement, and the Armenian genocide.

Following the military coup in 1980, Zarakolu was arrested more than 30 times and imprisoned four times for a total of 15 months. In fact, she was the first person imprisoned under martial law intended to gag Turkey's intellectuals and political dissidents with a flurry of state-sponsored harassments, backed by an avalanche of 300 laws.

Her life was repeatedly threatened, she was fined, and her passport was confiscated (which prevented her from attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1998 to pick up an award). Her publishing company was firebombed, her books banned.

After each ordeal she rebounded and resumed printing books—until cancer struck: Zarakolu died in January at the age of 55.

"Like writers, publishers are preparing their suitcases—not for new studies and works, but for prison," she wrote in 1993 after yet another arrest. "Thought has been deemed a crime. Indeed, a 'terrorist crime.' "

Zarakolu—the first Turkish woman to direct a book-publishing company—knew how to work in challenging conditions; she even managed to run her company from a prison cell. She worked for Turkey's Human Rights Association and prepared reports about the country's notorious prison conditions. She received numerous prestigious humanitarian and freedom-of-thought awards, and she was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

The Internet publication Kurdish Media News praised her in an obituary as "a courageous fighter [and] brave defender of human rights." "We lost an honorable woman," wrote Istanbul's Turkish Daily News, "a self-confident person who gave importance to friendships and who loved people. A person who kept her word. A real human...a brave, gentle woman behind her tough appearance."

Aydin Engin wrote in her farewell in Istanbul's Cumhuriyet: "She smiled like a rabbit ["rabbit" is a Turkish metaphor for a very competent person] when she went to jail, when she was released, when she learned that she was one of the 50 bravest women in the world. I did not see her inside the coffin—but I am sure she is smiling like a rabbit."

 

 

 

 

From the June 2002 issue of World Press Review

Madeleine Mukamabano:
Out of Africa

By Tekla Szymanski


Madeleine MukamabanoIn her weekly program on Radio France Internationale (RFI), she provides a unique glimpse into Africa.

Mukamabano, 55, is an early riser. She likes the idea of "existing only through her voice." "My days are never the same. I organize as I go; I improvise," she says. But her improvisations have one consistent goal: to host RFI's "Le débat africain," as she has done every Sunday since 1990. Her sharp and uncompromising interviews with Africa's political movers and shakers and her sonorous voice have gained her a solid reputation among her listeners.

"She is the only person who manages to get African prime ministers and their opponents together on the air," writes Paris' Le Monde. "Only she can wake up political dinosaurs." Each week, "La Dame de RFI," as she is approvingly called, seeks out strikingly different points of view, avoiding, as she emphasizes in Jeune Afrique-L'Intelligent, "that horrible stereotyped language so common in debates."

But when the debate dies down, she dreams of the other face of Africa, "the face of the ordinary people." Originally from Rwanda, she studied in Uganda and worked in Togo, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ethiopia before arriving in France in 1973 to pursue studies in social sciences at Paris' Sorbonne.

With "one foot in France and the other in Africa" (Le Monde), she thinks of herself as a farmer at heart. "I was born in the country and dropped into the city by accident. I experience a very particular kind of joy as I listen to the peasants talking about the rain, the growing cycles, the seasons that pass. Even though I'm quite independent in my job, I still do not have the real freedom that only the country can provide."

She was the winner of the 2000 Bayeux Award for war reporting for her program "Rwanda 1999" on the radio station France Culture, and her collection of interviews, Rwanda: "Extinct Stars, published September 1999 in the international literary magazine Autodafe, were praised for their "horrifying simplicity and frankness" by Margaret Drabble in a review in London's The Guardian.

Mukamabano's haunting stories are also deeply personal: She has heard of countless atrocities firsthand, has spoken to many survivors. But she refuses to talk about herself. "All those wounds have helped me appreciate life," is all she says. And yes, she is quite optimistic about Africa's future.

"[My] pleasure is in walking around with a mask on," says Mukamabano of her radio persona. "That's the whole magic of radio. It is a lonely profession."

 

 

 

 

From the July 2002 issue of World Press Review

Fatima Jibrell:
Nursing Nature

By Tekla Szymanski


Fatima JibrellSomali environmentalist Fatima Jibrell is waging a tireless battle to protect her tiny, arid, and war-ravaged country.

Somalia, a desert country the size of Texas, has only 2 percent arable land. With the ever-present threat of devastating droughts, protecting the environment is a must. This is where Fatima Jama Jibrell, 54, the founder and executive director of Horn of Africa Relief and Development Organization of Somalia, steps in.

For her efforts, she is now a winner of the San Francisco—based 2002 Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest award for grass-roots environmentalists.

For Jibrell, stability in Somalia is primarily undermined by ordinary Somalis, who—during a decade without stable government—have hastily stripped their country of its few resources in pursuit of fast profits. "Because African political leaders have delegated their economic planning to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank," Jibrell explains, "they no longer have the power to protect their citizens or environment from being exploited by the First World."

Jibrell alerts Somalis to lucrative alternative markets, like solar energy. She is fighting against unrestricted charcoal production—Somalia's main export to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States—and the massive desertification of acacia trees, which are being harvested for charcoal. Her efforts have brought results: She has pushed through a ban on the export of charcoal, and thus brought an end to the massive logging of these old-growth trees.

"We will go slowly [but] we will get there someday," she promises, and reaches out across clans and regions to nomadic women and pastoralists in her awareness campaigns on how to make careful use of Somalia's natural resources. "By promoting the connections between peace, women's empowerment, and resource protection, we have been able to provide communities with needed skills and sustainable economic activities," Jibrell declares.

It is also a battle that shows just how much Somalia has changed over the years. For Jibrell, the lions that prowled her childhood in a nomadic family have been replaced by a more ferocious threat: the global economy. "It is important to know that we are all human world citizens and belong to this fragile, limited space. If we go too far, we can't repair it."

But her vision reaches beyond the trees and the water and the land. She is the creator of the Women's Coalition for Peace and believes that "women cannot remain detached [from politics]. We can be pillars of peace in Somalia."

Jibrell will actively take part—a child of a country where women were confined to their huts, never seen or heard.

 

 

 

 

From the October 2002 issue of World Press Review

María Adela Gard de Antokoletz:
Mother in Arms

By Tekla Szymanski

Every Thursday at 3:30 p.m., she led grieving mothers on their protest march on Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, just outside the president's offices. The vigils became a symbol of civil resistance in remembrance of all those who disappeared during the infamous years of Argentina's "dirty war" (1976-83).

The group's oldest member, she was 90 when she died on July 23. For more than 20 years, Antokoletz marched, clutching a picture of her son Daniel, a lawyer and university professor who defended political prisoners and vanished in 1976.

The mothers began their marches in April 1977. Antokoletz, who frantically sought information about her son, together with 13 other women took up a vigil on the plaza. This simple act drew international attention to the estimated 30,000 people who had been abducted, tortured, and killed under Argentina's military dictatorship.

After democracy returned, the mothers continued their protests, demanding justice and accountability. Some succeeded in tracking down grandchildren who had been kidnapped with their parents, or who had been born in captivity and illegally adopted.

In 1989, former President Carlos Menem issued a pardon for all those convicted of crimes committed during the dictatorship. The mothers, however, vowed not to forget. But as late as 1994, Antokoletz was still labeled the "mother of a terrorist" and received death threats.

She withstood it all "with nothing but her dignity and firmness of conviction," one of her companions told Buenos Aires' Página 12. "[She will be remembered] for her stamina,...her good humor, her happiness, and her refusal to give way to anguish."

"[The drugged prisoners] were unconscious.We...threw them out [of the plane], naked, one by one," recalled Capt. Adolfo Francisco Scilingo, an Argentine navy captain during Argentina's "dirty war," in his book The Flight—Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior (New Press, 1996). His confession was a bittersweet vindication for Antokoletz. "[Now] they can no longer say that this is just a cry of a suffering mother," she said.

But after her death, Buenos Aires' conservative La Nación refused to publish the notice of her death prepared by her family because it listed Daniel among the mourners as "detained and missing." "Ads are by living persons for the dead," a spokesperson for the paper argued.

Daniel is presumed to have been thrown into Buenos Aires' Río de la Plata. His mother's last wish was for her own remains to be scattered into the river as well. Hers were accompanied by flowers.

 

For further reading:

Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo

 

 

 

 

From the November 2002 issue of World Press Review.
In 2004, worldpress.org named Barakzai Dawi "International Editor of the Year".

Shukria Barakzai Dawi:
Out from Under

By Tekla Szymanski

Shukria Barakzai DawiShukria Barakzai Dawi, 31, has devoted her life to safeguarding women's rights in Afghanistan.

She always hated the burqah. So much so that she immediately gave her baby-blue cover to charity when the Taliban relinquished control of Kabul in November 2001. "My house is probably the only one in Kabul where you don't find a burqah," she told Andrea Exler of Berlin's Tagesspiegel. "But [most women] don't change their views overnight."

Dawi didn't need to change her views overnight: She loathed the restrictions all along. After the Taliban came to power, Dawi's parents and her six siblings fled the country. Dawi and her husband, a wealthy businessman, decided to stay. Forced to abandon her studies in geophysics at the University of Kabul, she vowed to defy the newly imposed rigid restrictions on women, and from the confinement of her home, she headed several underground schools.

“Most Afghan men are brutes, so we have to change their mentality; and we have to educate the women.”

—Shukria Barakzai Dawi

Then, in early 2002, she founded an aid society for women called "Asia Women Organization." In the group's three learning centers, two teachers give 210 young girls and 70 women a basic education. A trade school teaches women sewing, and Asia's medical center has become the only health-care resource for hundreds of female patients. Now, Dawi has begun to provide for their intellectual stimulation as well.

On Feb. 5, she launched Afghanistan's first women's magazine, Aina-e-Zan (Women's Mirror), which she also edits. With an initial run of 1,000 copies, the four-page magazine is distributed free. Written in Dari and Pushtu, it gives women an unbiased, gender-equal forum to air their views. Dawi's husband provides funding.

"There is still much work to be done, and this is only the start," she told Yvonne Ridley of London's Sunday Express. "I have been overwhelmed with stories submitted from women who want to publish." No one has objected to the new publication—yet. The Northern Alliance, however, keeps a watchful eye, because Aina-e-Zan's declared mission is to increase women's awareness of political, social, and cultural issues: still an audacious undertaking in the country.

Women in Afghanistan are slowly adjusting to the post-Taliban environment. Men, however, seem to have a harder time adapting. Dawi's driver is embarrassed by her conduct and urges her to cover up. "I am ashamed to work for a woman," he admits. But Dawi just chuckles at his remarks. They don't discourage her.