As the year draws to a close, I want to pay tribute to a few brave men and women who have been fighting in 2012 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 have been privileged to meet or have 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 Malala, 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.
I also want to pay tribute to the nine female Pakistani vaccination workers (one only 17 years old) who were murdered by extremists last week. 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.
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 already is sending out warning signals. This 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, and Maria Bashir is the only provincial chief prosecutor in the country. Both receive frequent death threats, but they refuse to go into hiding.
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.
Finally, let me pay tribute to Alexei Navalny, a 30ish Russian blogger, anticorruption 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 mafia-like criminal behavior of the regime.
Navalny is fearless. But the regime has struck back, leveling ludicrous corruption charges against Navalny and his brother, a common tactic to silence dissidents.
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.
In some cases, U.S. officials can help (by not abandoning Afghan women or with smarter policy on Syria). 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.