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Afghan rights leader heartbroken after year of Taliban rule

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, prominent Afghan rights activist Sima Samar is still heartbroken over what happened to her country.

Samar, a former minister of women’s affairs and the first chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, left Kabul in July 2021 for the United States on her first trip after the COVID-19 pandemic, never expecting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and the Taliban to take power for the second time soon after on Aug. 15.

“I think it’s a sad anniversary for the majority of people of my country,” Samar said, particularly for the women “who don’t have enough food, who do not know what is the tomorrow for them.”

A visiting scholar at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School at Harvard, she has written the first draft of an autobiography and is working on a policy paper on customary law relating to Afghan women. She is also trying to get a Green Card, but she said, “I honestly cannot orient myself, where I am, and what I’m doing.”

She wishes she could go home — but she can’t.

In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, she recalled a Taliban news conference a few days after they took power when they said if people apologized for past actions they would be forgiven.

“And I said, I should be apologizing because I started schools for the people?” said Samar, a member of Afghanistan’s long persecuted Hazara minority. “I should apologize because I started hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan? I should apologize because I tried to stop torture of the Taliban? I should apologize to advocate against the death penalty, including (for) the Taliban leadership?”

“All my life I fought for life as a doctor,” she said. “So I cannot change and support the death penalty. I shouldn’t apologize for those principles of human rights and be punished.”

Samar became an activist as a 23-year-old medical student with an infant son. In 1984, the then-communist government arrested her activist husband, and she never saw him again. She fled to Pakistan with her young son and worked as a doctor for Afghan refugees and started several clinics to care for Afghan women and girls.

Samar remembered the Taliban’s previous rule in the late 1990s, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power months after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which al-Qaida orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.

After the Taliban’s ouster, Samar returned to Afghanistan, moving into the top women’s rights and human rights positions, and over the next 20 years schools and universities were opened for girls, women entered the workforce and politics and became judges.

But Samar said in an AP interview in April 2021 — four months before the Taliban’s second takeover of the country — that the gains were fragile and human rights activists had many enemies in Afghanistan, from militants and warlords to those who wanted to stifle criticism or challenge their power.

Samar said the Afghan government and leadership, especially Ghani, were mainly responsible for the Taliban sweeping into Kabul and taking power. But she also put blame on Afghans “because we were very divided.”

In every speech and interview she gave nationally and internationally over the years, she said Afghans had to be united and inclusive, and “we have to have the people’s support. Otherwise, we will lose.”

As chair of the Human Rights Commission, she said she repeatedly faced criticism that she was trying to impose Western values on Afghanistan.

“And I kept saying, human rights is not Western values. As a human being, everyone needs to have a shelter … access to education and health services, to security,” she said.

Since their takeover, the Taliban have limited girls’ public education to just six years, restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home, and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces.

Samar urged international pressure not only to allow all girls to attend secondary school and university, but to ensure all human rights which are interlinked. And she stressed the importance of education for young boys, who without any schooling, job or skill could be at risk to get involved in opium production, weapons smuggling or in violence.

She also urged the international community to continue humanitarian programs which are critical to save lives, but said they should focus on food-for-work or cash-for-work to end peoples’ total dependency and give them “self-confidence and dignity.”

Samar said Afghan society has changed over the past two decades, with more access to technology, rising education levels among the young and some experience with elections, t even if they weren’t free and fair.

She said such achievements leave the possibility of positive change in the future. “Those are the issues that they (the Taliban) cannot control,” she said. “They would like to, but they cannot do it.”

Samar said she hoped for eventual accountability and justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Otherwise, we feel the culture of impunity everywhere, everywhere — and the invasion of Russia to Ukraine is a repetition of Afghanistan’s case,” she said.

Her hope for Afghan women is that they can “live with dignity rather than being a slave of people.”

Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press

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Peru’s protest ‘deactivators’ run toward tear gas to stop it

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By Daniel Politi in Lima

LIMA, Peru (AP) — When police fire tear gas at protesters demanding the resignation of Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, most run away.

A few, though, run toward the gas canisters as quickly as possible — to neutralize them.

These are the “deactivators.” Donning gas masks, safety goggles and thick gloves, these volunteers grab the hot canisters and toss them inside large plastic bottles filled with a mixture of water, baking soda and vinegar.

The deactivators made their debut in Peru street protests in 2020, inspired by protesters in Hong Kong who in 2019 unveiled new strategies to counteract the eye-stinging, breath-stealing effects of tear gas. With protesters in Lima facing a nearly daily fusillade of tear gas, more people have joined the ranks of deactivators trying to shield them and keep the demonstrations going.

Peruvians have been protesting since early December, when former President Pedro Castillo was impeached after a failed attempt to dissolve Congress. His vice president, Boluarte, immediately took over — and has faced strong opposition ever since.

Fifty-eight people have died in connection with the unrest, including one police officer. Forty-six of the deaths occurred during direct clashes between protesters and police.

The protests have exposed deep divisions in the country between the urban elites and the rural poor. Demonstrations were first largely concentrated in the south, a long-neglected region of Peru that felt a particular kinship to Castillo’s humble background as a rural teacher from the Andean highlands. But earlier this month, thousands descended on Peru’s capital, and police met them with tear gas. Lots and lots of tear gas.

On Thursday, as protesters gathered in downtown Lima, Alexander Gutiérrez Padilla, 45, was giving a brief course to anyone who would listen around Plaza San Martín about how to mix vinegar and baking soda into the water and how to grab the tear gas canisters most efficiently.

“If we don’t deactivate, people disperse and the protest breaks,” Gutiérrez said. “That’s why we’re pillars of this demonstration.”

Next to him was Wilfredo Huertas Vidal, 25, who has taken it upon himself to collect donations to buy gloves and other protective equipment and hand them out to those who want to help.

“Who wants gloves? Who wants gloves?” he yelled as he stood next to several large bottles of water, gas masks and eye goggles.

When protesters descended on Lima earlier this month, old networks were reactivated. A tactic first seen in Peru in late 2020 during protests against then-President Manuel Merino resurfaced.

Vladimir Molina, 34, who participated in the 2020 protests, now runs what he calls a “brigade.” It consists of around 60 people, including paramedics, deactivators and “front-line” activists who stand in the middle of protesters and police with shields, in an effort to block any pellets or tear gas police may fire into the crowd.

“Every day more and more people are joining,” Molina said. Interest in his group is so great that he’s made it a requirement for anyone who wants to join to have their own equipment.

By tossing the hot tear gas cartridges into the water solution, “what they do is extinguish the pyrotechnical charge so the tear gas cannot come out anymore,” said Sven Eric Jordt, a professor of anesthesiology at Duke University.

Water alone should achieve what the protesters want, although the carbon dioxide created by mixing vinegar and baking soda could “form a foam bath that suffocates the charge” further, Jordt speculated.

It may be only a matter of time before authorities deploy methods to blunt the deactivators’ effectiveness. Manufacturers are now developing tear gas with plastic cartridges that stick to the road so it “can’t be lifted up anymore,” Jordt said.

Fearful of being targeted by police and prosecutors, many of the deactivators prefer to remain anonymous, keeping their faces covered even when there’s no tear gas around.

Boluarte has given strong backing to law enforcement, and the government recently announced a bonus for police officers. Boluarte has characterized the work of police controlling the Lima protests as “immaculate,” despite their often indiscriminate firing of tear gas and pellets. In contrast, she says the demonstrations are violent and financed by drug-trafficking rings and illegal miners.

Andrea Fernández, 22, is new to deactivating tear gas.

“The truth is I love the adrenaline,” Fernández said shortly after grabbing a pair of gloves from Huertas and listening to the instructions closely.

She said she hadn’t been really interested in the country’s political crisis at first. Then the deaths started piling up.

“There are a lot of farmers who’ve come from lots of parts of Peru and they come here to march, face-to-face, but don’t have the necessary protection,” Fernández said.

Felix Davillo, 37, also says the casualties pushed him to become a deactivator.

“I made this decision for all the death that is going on in Puno right now,” Davillo said, referring to a region in Peru that has experienced some of the deadliest protests.

A general lack of protective equipment has also meant protesters have been injured by the widespread use of less lethal weapons.

From January 19 to 24, Doctors Without Borders treated 73 patients at the Lima protests suffering from exposure to tear gas, pellet wounds, contusions or psychological distress, the non-profit organization said.

The deactivators’ increased chance of injury doesn’t scare Julio Incarocas Beliz, who grabbed one of the big water bottles in the plaza for his first day trying to diffuse tear gas.

“I served in the military and I’ve never been afraid,“ Incarocas, 28, said. “I’m fighting for my homeland.”

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78 years on, Jewish Holocaust rescuers want their story told

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By Alon Bernstein in Kibbutz Hazorea

KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel (AP) — Just before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jewish youth leaders in the eastern European country jumped into action: They formed an underground network that in the coming months would save tens of thousands of fellow Jews from the gas chambers.

This chapter of the Holocaust heroism is scarcely remembered in Israel. Nor is it part of the official curriculum in schools. But the few remaining members of Hungary’s Jewish underground want their story told. Dismayed at the prospect of being forgotten, they are determined to keep memories of their mission alive.

“The story of the struggle to save tens of thousands needs to be a part of the chronicles of the people of Israel,” said David Gur, 97, one of a handful of members still alive. “It is a lighthouse during the period of the Holocaust, a lesson and exemplar for the generations.”

As the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, historians, activists, survivors and their families are all preparing for the time when there will no longer be living witnesses to share first-person accounts of the horrors of the Nazi genocide during World War II. In the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis and their allies.

Israel, which was established as a refuge for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, has gone to great lengths over the years to recognize thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Accounts of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, such as the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, are mainstays in the national narrative but rescue missions by fellow Jews — such as the Hungarian resistance — are less known.

Hungary was home to around 900,000 Jews before the Nazi invasion. Its government was allied with Nazi Germany, but as the Soviet Red Army advanced toward Hungary, the Nazis invaded in March 1944, to prevent its Axis ally from making a separate peace deal with the Allies.

Over the 10 months that followed, as many as 568,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies in Hungary, according to figures from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

Gur said he and his colleagues knew that disaster was looming when three Jewish women arrived at Budapest’s main synagogue in the fall of 1943. They had fled Nazi-occupied Poland and bore disturbing news about people being shipped off to concentration camps.

“They had fairly clear information about what was happening, and saw the many trains, and it was obvious to them what was happening,” said Gur.

Gur oversaw a massive forgery operation that provided false documents for Jews and non-Jewish members of the Hungarian resistance. “I was an 18-year-old adolescent when the heavy responsibility fell upon me,” he said.

There was great personal risk. In December 1944, he was arrested at the forgery workshop and brutally interrogated and imprisoned, according to his memoir, “Brothers for Resistance and Rescue.” The Jewish underground broke him out of the central military prison in a rescue operation later that month.

The forged papers were used by Jewish youth movements to operate a smuggling network and run Red Cross houses that saved thousands from the Nazis and their allies.

According to Gur’s book, at least 7,000 Jews were smuggled out of Hungary, through Romania to ships on the Black Sea that would bring them to British-controlled Palestine. At least 10,000 forged passes offering protection, known as Shutzpasses, were distributed to Budapest’s Jews, and around 6,000 Jewish children and accompanying adults were saved in houses ostensibly under the protection of the International Red Cross.

Robert Rozett, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, said that although it was “the largest rescue operation” of European Jews during the Holocaust, this episode remains off “the main route of the narrative.”

“It’s very significant because these activities helped tens of thousands of Jews stay alive in Budapest,” he said.

In 1984, Gur founded “The Society for Research of the History of the Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary,” a group that has promoted awareness about this effort.

Last month at a kibbutz in northern Israel, Sara Epstein, 97, Dezi Heffner-Reiner, 95, and Betzalel Grosz, 98, three of the remaining survivors who helped save Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary, received the Jewish Rescuers Citation for their role in the Holocaust. The award is given by two Jewish groups — B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.

“There aren’t many of us left, but this is important,” said Heffner-Reiner.

More than 200 other members of the underground were given the award posthumously. Gur received the award in 2011, the year it was created.

Yuval Alpan, a son of one of the rescuers and an activist with the society, said the citations were meant to recognize those who saved lives during the Holocaust.

“This resistance underground youth movement saved tens of thousands of Jews during 1944, and their story is not known,” he said. “It’s the biggest rescue operation in the Holocaust and nobody knows about it.”

International Holocaust day falls on the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz death camp 78 years ago. Israel is home to some 150,600 Holocaust survivors, almost all of them over the age of 80, according to government figures. That is 15,193 less than a year ago.

The United Nations will be holding a memorial ceremony at the General Assembly on Friday, and other memorial events are scheduled around the globe.

Israel marks its own Holocaust Remembrance Day in the spring.

___

Associated Press writers Eleanor Reich and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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