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When I had settled down in my job and the town I had been sent to (I didn’t know of its existence before I was, Germany is a large country, you know!) and didn’t have to think about myself all the time any longer, I thought it would be a good idea to do something for other people.
There are many possibilities even in a small town, clubs, organisations and the like; the reasons why I chose to become a member of amnesty international (ai) were two sides of the same medal: I didn’t want to be in too close contact with the locals as I couldn’t understand their dialect very well at that time - I can now - and that the internationality of ai appealed to me. I knew that I would be able to use my knowledge of English, I liked the idea of being in contact with the big world outside the boundaries of the dump I had landed in.
What IS ai? I’m quoting the official definition: „Amnesty International is a worldwide campaigning movement that works to promote all the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international standards. In particular, Amnesty International campaigns to free all prisoners of conscience; ensure fair and prompt trials for political prisoners; abolish the death penalty, torture and other cruel treatment of prisoners; end political killings and "disappearances"; and oppose human rights abuses by opposition groups.
Amnesty International has around one million members and supporters in 162 countries and territories. Activities range from public demonstrations to letter-writing, from human rights education to fundraising concerts, from individual appeals on a particular case to global campaigns on a particular issue. Amnesty International is impartial and independent of any government, political persuasion or religious creed. Amnesty International is financed largely by subscriptions and donations from its worldwide membership.
ai was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a lawyer, who had read about two Portuguese students sentenced to seven years in prison for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom. Since then Amnesty International has campaigned on behalf of 47,000 individuals all over the world - those that have been tortured, convicted in an unfair trial or sent to prison for voicing a peacefully held opinion. More than 45,000 of these have been closed.“
Enough of official speak. What can a group of mainly young people in a small town in Germany do to further the great cause?
The headquarters in London sends the name of a prisoner of conscience to each group which then 'adopts' him or her. While I was an active member, our group had a prisoner from (then) Rhodesia who was imprisoned because of political reasons and later one from the (then) Soviet Union, a Baptist, who was imprisoned because of religious reasons.
We contacted the families and asked them what they needed, how we could help them. The man from Rhodesia had a large family, three wives and 13 children, of course they needed a lot! We couldn‘t send them money, but we sent several parcels with clothes. I remember that I blocked the post office for nearly an hour to get these parcels on the way, the man behind the counter had never heard of a country named Rhodesia and certainly never sent parcels to that part of the world!
The family of the Russian Baptist informed us about the work camp the man was in, and we sent him lots of warm clothes for the winter. Surprise, surprise, all our parcels arrived! Besides that, we wrote letters to the families and the prisoners assuring them that we were thinking of them and doing everything possible to help them, meaning we were also bombarding the respective governments with letters asking to reconsider the case of the prisoner and to act according to the above mentioned Declaration of Human Rights.
Parallel to this the group went public. We put our stall in the pedestrian precinct, we went to Church groups (only the Protestants responded when we asked them if we could come, never the Catholics, don‘t ask me why!), to old peoples‘ homes, to schools, to physicians and psychologists, we wrote articles for the local newspaper. We informed whoever wanted to be informed about ai in general and the work of our group in particular, collected signatures when there were campaigns for special countries or against the death penalty and collected money for our group and for the headquarters in London, from where researchers are sent to all corners of the world.
And we wrote letters. Not only for 'our' prisoners, but also for the prisoners about whom we learnt in the so-called Urgent Actions. These Urgent Actions come from London, are then sent to the head offices in the respective countries where they are translated and from where they reach the groups. It was my job to send them to the people who wrote for us. I 'exploited' my position as a teacher, I had an underground network of postboys and -girls from my school who got the letters from me and put them into letterboxes. Each saved stamp meant money for the group! When a new sympathizer came to us, I used to ask them, "Do you know a boy or a girl in your neighbourhood who attends my school and who could bring you the letters?"
Only people with strong nerves and who aren‘t frustrated easily can work for ai. Firstly, you must always, always write the most polite letters, even if you know that the addressee is the most horrible torturer. Secondly, you must persist with your work even if you never get a response. What‘s the meaning of all this then? Well, it‘s odd, when it comes to diplomacy, governments are sensitive and care for their reputation and it‘s *not a good thing* to be accused of violating human rights. Urgent Actions can result in up to 7 000 letters for one prisoner from all over the world and even if they aren‘t all read (but some are and because of that all letters must be perfectly worded), the sheer number is (mostly) effective.
And it must not be forgotten how important it is for the prisoners to know that the outside world cares for them. I‘m one of the very few ai members who‘s had a feedback. Once when I was in London a friend of mine who‘s from South Africa introduced me to a friend who had just arrived from SA and who‘d been a prisoner of conscience. He had been in solitary confinement for one year and he told me that a group from Germany had written to him, to his family and to the SA government on his behalf, all that had helped him to keep sane. He didn‘t know where that group was located, but I got his name and contacted the group via ai Germany. That was a happy day for all ai members concerned!
Why did I leave? Maybe you‘re expecting to hear that I was disappointed about something, discovered that the organization was dishonest or rotten, no, nothing of the kind, I‘m still fully behind ai and wish them well; I wish them to be so successful in their work that they can stop doing it. No more torture, no more people disappearing - wishful thinking, I know.
The reason why I left is that I couldn‘t stand the horrors any more. I was a member for 15 years which is an enormously long time, only very few members can top that. The fluctuation is great, people come and go, partly because they move away - pupils to uni, students to a job - partly because what they deal with gets to them too much.
When I distributed the Urgent Actions I used to read the cases described there in the beginning, later I only glanced at them superficially before I sent them to the people who wanted to write for them. I was active in the high time of terror in South America, nearly all cases dealt with people who had disappeared. I didn‘t dare ponder about what I read, I began to erect a mental block. I left, because I couldn‘t stay.
What about a very special Christmas prezzie for yourself and others? Helping is SO easy! You don‘t have to become a member of a group, you can subscribe to the action 'Prisoners of the Month', then you are sent three cases each month from different parts of the world for which you write letters to the authorities. You are told the addresses, the cases are described in a way that you can use the description to formulate the letter, it‘s all very easy.
Now that we live in the age of the computer and the internet, it‘s even ridiculously easy. Torturers aren‘t very inventive or original, that means that the cases resemble each other, you can write one letter, store it and use it again and again, just change the important dates. In my time no member of our group had a computer, it was mechanical (or is it manual?) typewriter and carbon paper! Then we had to take the letters to the post office and buy stamps for countries we had hardly ever heard of; I can tell you we learnt a lot about geography.
Talk of coincidence! I wrote most of the op yesterday, today I only wanted to write the end. This afternoon a woman asked me if I was still a member of ai! I don‘t remember when exactly I stopped being one, I think it was about 15 years ago! I have to live with the fact that many people in this town associate me with ai, have done so and will go on doing so. But it‘s not the worst thing I can be associated with, is it?
Helpful, and the prisoners of conscience is a really valuable side of Amnesty's work. However, the other side is one that I come into contact with in my job, where they are taking some extreme and unbalanced policy positions on counter-terrorism measures that they are jeopardising their good name and reputation, as was said in an Economist article earlier this year. I hope they regain their focus. Adam
coleecip 04.01.2005 11:58
I am thinking of doing something for them, but I worry that the information about the prisoners may be biased - the last thing I want to do is help free an actual trouble-making nutter!
magdadh 24.07.2004 23:15
I am very impressed. I joined them once for a year but never did anything. Maybe I will now with e-mail and stuff.