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Honors for the Unsung Heroes of Human Rights


BOSTON — The people who packed the ballroom of the Park Plaza hotel got to see Joan Baez, Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. They heard Kerry Kennedy Cuomo quote her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy.

But they had come not for celebrities but for Akram Mayi, Sha'Wan Jabarin and David Moya--men few Americans have heard of. The three were honored by Reebok International for fighting on the front lines of the human rights movement.

Mayi, 29, works on behalf of thousands of fellow Kurds held in Turkish detention camps; Jabarin, 30, is a Palestinian human rights worker on the West Bank, and Moya, 24, has advocated reforms in Cuba since he was in high school.

For three years, Reebok has recognized young people who, "against great odds," significantly raised awareness of human rights violations.

The company received a record 60 nominations this year. The top winners, who were selected by a panel of human rights representatives, each received $25,000. Moya was released from prison last month, but was not permitted to attend last week's awards ceremony.

Many Westerners may have been surprised when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But not Akram Mayi and the 25 million other Kurds worldwide.

"Nothing of what Saddam Hussein did in Kuwait could surprise us," said Mayi, named for May, his family's native town in Kurdistan, a mountainous region in northern Iraq that includes border regions of the Soviet Union, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

"For many years we are talking about Saddam Hussein--what he did, how he killed thousands of people daily, burned Kurdistan, destroyed villages, bombed us with chemicals," Mayi said. "But no one listened. No one believed."

Mayi was born in Baghdad in 1961, two months before the people of Kurdistan started a rebellion against Iraq. As a child, Mayi often returned to his family's village, and while studying agriculture at the state-run university in Baghdad, determined he would "spend all of my life in the villages of Kurdistan."

But "before I completed my studies, the Iraqi regime destroyed my village." Saddam Hussein viewed the rebellious Kurds as his enemy, Mayi said. "It was the aim of his regime to remove the geography of Kurdistan from the map." Between 4,000 and 4,500 Kurdish villages were bulldozed at the time that his own village was destroyed, Mayi said.

Mayi completed his university studies in 1983. He moved to an area in Iraq where many of the displaced Kurds had resettled and began teaching agricultural techniques to adults, and reading and writing to children.

Then, in 1988, the Iraqi government used chemical weapons to bomb the remaining villages of Kurdistan. In a single day in March, Mayi said, more than 5,000 civilians were killed and more than 6,000 injured. Additional chemical bombings in August of that year killed thousands more.

"The Iraqi government effectively declared war on its own people," Mayi said.

A day after the bombing stopped in August, Mayi visited three of the villages that had been hit.

"I saw in each village a lot of people who were killed. I saw them as if they were sleeping," he said. "I saw all the animals--the cows, the sheep, the goats--all dead, like stones. I saw the birds. All died. I saw the color of the plants, changed from green to dark blue."

After that, Mayi said, many Kurds began trying to escape Iraq, "traveling to some places near the eastern border of Turkey." Despite government roadblocks, about 80,000-100,000 Kurds reached the Turkish border, "by walking, only by walking," Mayi said.

Others, injured by the chemicals, tried to make the journey, but died along the way. "Nobody could take them," Mayi said.

Half of those who made it into Turkey were sent to Iran, he said. The remainder, including Mayi, were divided into three camps. Mayi, an elected official in one camp, calls them concentration camps.

In Mardin camp, nearly 12,000 people live in tents that fail to block the sun or the rain, Mayi said. Mayi is a council member in Diyarbakir camp, where from 25 to 30 people live in each 40-square-meter flat. Mush camp houses its nearly 5,000 internees in buildings "better than Mardin and worse than Diyarbakir," said Mayi, who in his role as a council member acts as a liaison between the Kurdish refugees and Turkish officials.

Short and compact, wearing a bright cummerbund and a colorful scarf twisted into a turban, Mayi looks older than his 29 years. His large brown eyes seem tired, as if they have seen too much.

He said one reason he has not married or had children is that having a family might keep him from his pro-Kurdish activities. He has been threatened, beaten and isolated, he said. Journalists or government representatives who come to interview him must meet with him outside the camp.

Mayi said he was surprised to be allowed to come to the United States, but welcomed the opportunity to "explain the situation of my people, and to seek a solution for this difficult situation."

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