Lonely crusaders

Last week, I read an article about the torture of Mau Mau suspects during the Kenyan freedom struggle. People like us, from the former colonies, who remember colonial history, are not seriously surprised. All that stuff about the British, fair play and cricket was a bit of a joke with us anyway. We knew what really went on.

What stuck in my mind however, was the Brit who objected and protested the brutality. In 1952, Colonel Arthur Young, an officer sent from London, brought this to the notice of Kenya’s governor Sir Evelyn Baring. Young complained that not enough was being done to stop it. ‘I do not consider that in the present circumstances government have taken all the necessary steps to ensure that in its screening camps the elementary principles of justice and humanity are observed,’ he wrote. Yet the abuses continued.

In reply, the Attorney-General of Kenya’s colonial administration, the man responsible for the government’s PR job, the cover up, observed almost predictably and in wonderful English-speak: ‘If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.’

When I read that, there was a sense of déjà vu. And then I realized why. Of course, Guantanamo Bay! The Bush Administration.

My thoughts flitted back to the sole voice of protest. I think it’s really important to remember the people who, throughout history, had the courage to protest and to fight injustice in a hostile climate where they were dubbed traitors for pointing out the truth. To be anti-colonial then was to be anti-national, despicable. Post-9/11, questioning the Bush administration’s attack on Iraq was treason.

But it was the same always for anyone who had the guts to protest injustice and voice a criticism which went against the nationalistic, jingoistic majority. Everyone goes ballistic during a war. And to question the generals is to let down the boys on the battle fields. Our soldiers, fighting and dying for our freedom, for our country. It’s tantamount to burning the flag. So, it takes tremendous courage to go against the flow and say what has to be said.

I read about the tragic tale of Alyssa Peterson. Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that probably involved brutality and torture, she revolted against authority, refused to be part of injustice, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003.

Rachel Corrie, an American member of the International Solidarity Movement, was crushed to death in Gaza Strip by an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bulldozer when she was kneeling in front of a local Palestinian’s home, acting as a human shield, attempting to prevent IDF forces from demolishing the home.

The first commissioned officer of the US armed forces to refuse deployment to Iraq, Lieutenant Ehren Watada created a furor with his objection and public denunciation of the war in January 2006. After reading the background to the Iraq war, Watada declared it was unjust and that he could not in conscience be part of it. He requested permission to be posted in Afghanistan to fight for US safety there. When his request was denied, he simply refused to board the plane to Iraq.

I particularly admire Arundhati Roy, who has had the guts to highlight the atrocities – the killings, rape, torture and eviction of adivasi communities in central India. She has been reviled and abused by all kinds of people. Her Delhi home was attacked and vandalized by right wing Hindu nationalists, self-professed patriots. A handful of journalists defended her. But very few people in high places condemned the act. Even people who know better prefer to keep their heads down and say nothing. They are afraid of repercussions.

History is replete with the horrors of war, torture and barbaric brutality. And often we are numbed by the endless accounts of the daily doses of violence meted out to the vulnerable. Our only hope lies in our heroes, sung and unsung. Which is why we need to read about Rachel Corrie and Ehren Watada. It is why Aung San Suu Kyi has the whole world supporting her fight for freedom. And Arundhati Roy who gives a voice to the voiceless moves us, immensely.

I often wonder what gives them this inner strength to go on alone. I give thanks for their presence in our lives, the inspiration they provide us, both those who are alive and the people who have passed on.

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