Ahead of the 12th anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder on Sunday 7th October, RAW in WAR honours Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich with the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award for their bravery in speaking out and in defying injustice, violence and extremism in the context of ‘forgotten’ armed conflict in their regions, for which they have suffered death threats and as a result of which Binalakshmi had to go into exile to save her life. She believes that, if she goes back to India, she could suffer the same fate as Gauri Lankesh, the Indian journalist and co-winner of the 2017 Anna Politkovskaya Award, who was assassinated to silence her voice.
The RAW in WAR Nominations Committee for the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award is deeply humbled by the quiet but effective acts of bravery undertaken by Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich in order to raise and support the voices of women from conflict zones in their regions. Binalakshmi co-founded India’s first civil society organisation to work on disarmament and to oppose growing militarisation, the Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI). In 2007, she launched the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, which has helped more than 20,000 women survivors of gun violence in the 70-year-long armed conflict in Manipur to rebuild their lives and obtain justice.
Svetlana Alexievich who, in 2015, received the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been, for many years, bravely speaking out about injustices in the post-Soviet space and giving voice to those trapped in conflict, past and present. She has repeatedly criticised the Russian annexation of Crimea and the human rights violations in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the growing nationalism and the oligarchy in Ukraine, which brought threats against her from both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists.
On Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich receiving the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, as well as the special tribute to “Shanti Mohila”, Lord Frank Judd, a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“Anna Politkovskaya will forever remain a lodestar and inspiration for all who are struggling for the cause of the highest standards in journalism and freedom. Binalakshmi and Svetlana are outstanding examples of the courage and bravery of so many like them standing firmly in the frontline against the forces of oppression, the abuse of human rights and tyranny. I am glad that we are celebrating their determination. We should take this opportunity of remembering all the others who are fighting as well.”
Today, RAW in WAR honours Binalakshmi Nepram, a courageous human rights defender from the war-torn Indian state of Manipur. Binalakshmi grew up in Manipur, where day-to-day life is fragile with crossfire and violence on a daily basis, and lost her very young niece and nearly her parents. This became a turning point for her to mobilize women for the first ever ‘Women Gun Survivors Network’ in the country and to advocate for arms control. Binalakshmi is currently outside India, following threats against her by the Indian government. From there, and despite the danger she faces, Binalakshmi continues to campaign publicly for arms and gun control, the victims of the armed conflict in Manipur, and the rights of indigenous women.
On accepting the award, Binalakshmi Nepram said:
“I thank the organisation, Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) and the distinguished jury for choosing to give us/me this honour, along with the noted writer and journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus, who was also the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner in Literature. I receive this honour wholeheartedly, on behalf of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace.
Manipur is in the Northeast Region of India, home to 45 million people, belonging to 272 indigenous communities and home also to South Asia’s longest-running armed conflict, where over 50,000 lives have been lost, 400,000 people displaced and where - since 1958 - many have been living under martial law, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), sanctioned by the Indian Parliament. For many of us, our world of seven decades of war was something India and its policy makers hid from the rest of the world as an entrenched conflict.
This isn’t fair in the world’s largest democracy and we want the immediate repeal of AFSPA, and an end to the weaponisation, militarization, racial-sexual-environmental violence, trafficking, distortion of our indigenous histories and cultures, population engineering and corporatization of our lives.
Our efforts are humanitarian, in order to deepen democracy and to ensure the rule of law. This award is a recognition that we will not be silenced anymore by what we stand for. I dedicate the Anna Politkovskaya Award 2018 to all women survivors of Manipur, Northeast and the world, to my family and to all whose resilience, strength and belief in our work and courage made us rise, speak up, advocate and take action to bring the change we wish to see in this world.”
We also celebrate today Svetlana Alexievich and her fearless journalism. For her first book War’s Unwomanly Face Svetlana Alexievich began to seek out female war veterans of the Second World War across the Soviet Union. A million Soviet women served at the front, but they were almost absent from the official war narrative. The book touches on topics that were taboo during the Soviet period, including the executions of deserters and the psychological effects of war. In October 2015, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature for works that the prize judges called “a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
On nominating Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich to receive the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Ella Polyakova, chair of the “Organization of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg”, a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“I think that the nomination of human rights activist Binalakshmi Nepram, her outspoken opposition to the conflict/war in Manipuri is important for all of us. We will be taking another step towards the realization that any war is a crime against humanity.
I am especially glad about Svetlana Alexievich’s nomination, who showed us the truth about the war in Afghanistan back in Soviet times. In my opinion, her books, especially “Zinc Boys”, helped turn public opinion in favour of peace. For example, we in the human rights organization “Soldiers’ Mothers of St. Petersburg” consider Svetlana Alexievich to be our inspirational forebear. At the current time, when the human rights movement in Russia finds itself in such a hard place with murders, “political prisoners”, “prisoners of conscience”, “foreign agents” and against a background of wars in Ukraine and Syria, Svetlana Alexievich’s nomination is very important to us. For us, she is a voice for morality, peace and love.”
Svetlana Alexievich did not stop speaking truth to power, despite the threats and intimidation, just like Anna Politkovskaya did. She returned to her native Belarus in 2011, after 11 years in exile, following threats and persecution under the regime of President Lukashenko and for the publication of her book about the war in Afghanistan. Svetlana Alexievich remains under a government “ban” - her books have not been published in Belarus, and she is de facto banned from making public appearances.
On accepting the award, Svetlana Alexievich said:
“Thank you for your letter and for awarding me this prize, it is so important to me today. My friends and I, we are all trying to resist the all-consuming grey gloom that surrounds us today, but our efforts are not visible!! But in order to remain true to ourselves, we continue to do our little bit all the same. Thank you for your support. We are strong for one another by the very fact we exist.
I knew Anna. I remember meeting her once in Oslo. We only had a little time and she and I went for a coffee, we sat in that cafe for two hours in all and she talked about Chechnya, it was a raw nerve. I told her I was terrified for her, how could a person withstand such an ordeal? And she said: “I couldn’t live any other way. A friend once told me that I even talk about it in my sleep.” To live a peaceful life seemed to her a betrayal of those who remained in Chechnya, she was always dying to get back there. Her soul was always there.
Anna loved life but was fearless. She said that there are many more people on the side of Good than we think. Not everyone has the courage to admit it, but it was they who helped her in Chechnya. And they often paid for it with their lives. Here, it was her belief in people that made the strongest impression.”
Last year, RAW paid special tribute to Jamalida Begum, a brave Rohingya survivor of rape by Myanmar security forces, currently a refugee in Bangladesh, who, in 2016, spoke out about her own rape and that of three other women in her village and continued to denounce their treatment publicly, at severe personal risk. In so doing, Jamalida Begum played a significant role in drawing the world’s attention to the grave human rights violations being inflicted on the Rohingya population, including sexual violence committed against Rohingya women and girls, in Myanmar. She is a Brave Voice Refusing To Be Silenced and joined a growing RAW community of women survivors and activists who speak out against atrocities and violations against civilians in conflict zones around the world.
By mid-2018, 400 Rohingya women survivors had joined the voice of Jamalida Begum, organizing themselves in the camps of Bangladesh to form the organization, Shanti Mohila [Peace Women], and to demand justice for themselves and for all survivors of violence from Myanmar. On 30 May 2018, the Shanti Mohila submitted a formal request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation into genocide and persecution. They are Brave Voices Refusing To Be Silenced and we are moved by their courage and their determination to awake the international community and to see justice done.
On announcing the winners of the 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award, Leila Alikarami, 2009 Award winner from Iran and a member of the 2018 Award Nominations Committee, said:
“I am honoured to welcome Binalakshmi and Svetlana to RAW’s family. Despite grave challenges they have faced in their lives as activists, they have refused to be silenced and worked hard to spotlight concerns of women in their communities and around the world. We are living in a world filled with injustice and atrocities and the international community has failed to fully address the suffering of our fellow human beings.
Listening to the stories of Rohingya women, I became ashamed of humanity. In 2018, a woman told me how soldiers grabbed her baby by the leg and threw her onto the fire and how soldiers had executed the men and boys in her village, had made a bonfire of their bodies, had set their homes and villages on fire and then had taken the women to rape them. Unfortunately, it is not only the Rohingya women who are suffering militarism and violence.
Many women from conflict zones, from countries that are in war like Syria, Yemen and Palestine are fighting for peace, human rights and justice. They put their lives at risk. They have lost their loved ones. We cannot even imagine the gravity of their pain. But what we can do for them is to help raise their voice, is to support them by making their stories known, by sharing their pain and by contributing to their cause. We are here, far away from conflict zones, but it is our duty to stand by our sisters in those areas and help them keep their hope. I strongly believe that human rights cannot exist without humanity.”
On receiving the Anna Politkovskaya Award, Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich will join a group of remarkable women human rights defenders who received the Anna Politkovskaya Award in the past, including Gulalai Ismail (2017) and Gauri Lankesh (2017), Jineth Bedoya Lima (2016), Valentina Cherevatenko (2016), Kholoud Waleed (2015), Vian Dakhil (2014), Malala Yousafzai (2013), Marie Colvin (2012), Razan Zaitouneh (2011), Dr. Halima Bashir (2010), Leila Alikarami on behalf of the One Million Signatures Campaign for Equality in Iran (2009), Malalai Joya (2008) and Natalia Estemirova (2007).
The awards will be presented to the winners in March 2019 in London at RAW in WAR’s ‘Refusing to be Silenced’ event, part of the 2019 Women of the World (WOW) Festival at the London’s Southbank Centre.
On the anniversary of Anna’s killing, RAW in WAR once again repeats its calls on the Russian authorities to protect human rights defenders from attacks and violence and bring all those responsible for Anna Politkovskaya’s murder to justice. Today RAW in WAR calls on the government of India to put an end to the persecution, killings and intimidation of women human rights defenders, like Binalakshmi Nepram, and to investigate Gauri Lankesh’s murder fully and impartially and bring her murderers and those who ordered her murder to justice. RAW in WAR also urges the government in Myanmar to end the killing of the Muslim population and the sexual violence against women and girls in Rakhine state immediately. RAW in WAR calls on the government of Bangladesh and the international community to provide the necessary protection to refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, including to Jamalida Begum and her sons and father and all 400 women survivors from “Shanti Mohila”.
RAW in WAR wishes to dedicate this years’ Anna Politkovskaya Award to the memory of our dear friend and RAW colleague, Joy Watkins, who passed away in August 2018 from cancer. At RAW, Joy’s devotion and selfless service in supporting the women human rights defenders from war zones, winners of the Anna Politkovskaya Award, was unprecedented. Joy’s creativity and leadership, her ability for empathy and compassion, helped nurture a score of RAW supporters, staff and volunteers. She continues to inspire us and will always be part of RAW.
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