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The Distance Lurks Behind Your Eyes

Remarks delivered by 2009 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Herta Müller, on the occasion of the Human Rights Watch Celebration Dinner at the Jewish Museum Berlin, Friday, May 6, 2011

Whenever Mao traveled through China on business, he would go swimming in the big rivers. His bodyguards had to jump into the deep tearing currents along with him. They were more afraid of his possible drowning than their own. Because that would have meant torture and execution. Compared to that, death by drowning would have seemed almost humane.

Whenever Erich Honecker went hunting, he used the shoulder of the same bodyguard to support his rifle. After this bodyguard went deaf from the constant firing, Honecker gave him a hearing aid from the West... and went on using his shoulder.

Honecker's widow Margot now spends her days as a retiree and grandmother in Chile. Recently she went to Cuba to celebrate the revolution with the Castro brothers. From the tribune she waved her withered fist. She will go on dogmatically declaring victory until her dying day. She is responsible for all the forced adoptions of children whose parents landed in East German prisons as enemies of the state. Twenty years after the downfall of that regime, she still views her crime as an eternal victory.

I recently saw a photograph of Mubarak wearing a pinstripe suit. Except the pinstripes were tiny white letters spelling "Hosny Mubarak." His name was woven into the material thousands of times. That alone is reason enough to think: It takes a truly tiny person with a hugely inflated opinion of himself to wear his name a thousand times over, from head to toe.

At the polling place in Belarus, Lukashenko shoved his small son ahead of him. His gaze was piercing, his moustache black and brushy, his large white hands rested on the shoulders of his son. Knowing the blood that is on these hands is enough to make you shudder. What does he tell his son about these rigged elections? Does he mention the people who didn't vote for him, who were cudgeled and arrested that same night? Or the terror attack in the subway, which couldn't have come at a better moment to serve as pretext for repression? You have to wonder if it's better not to know your father at all than have those white hands on your shoulders. Can a child like that ever grow into a humane person? A child who lives every day as one of the chosen, who is the product of a constant gentle brainwash?  After all, we know the sons of Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Kim Il Sung and now of Kim Jong Il - Kim Jong Un, this chubby-cheeked young man with the hamster-like gaze. Each is as brutal and infantile as the next. They all received the same education, the same mix of great privilege and gentle brainwashing.

But at what crucial point does a person choose to reject such a model of education? We always look to childhood when attempting to understand someone's biography. Do those early years really explain their later errant behavior? Can't a child decide he doesn't want to be like his parents, can't he choose to break the mold instead of repeating it? To make a break like that requires the ability to think independently, and the acceptance of an uncomfortable, lonely isolation. The children of dictators, however, have been gently brainwashed and groomed to feel they are special. They never encounter the discomforts of lonely isolation because they never step off their heights into normal life, they never fit in, and they never compare themselves to other human beings. The privilege of being chosen is a golden trap, a bankruptcy of the soul.

It's uncanny but logical that dictators throughout the world all do the same thing when their people grow restless. As if they knew one another and were communicating across time, distance, and cultural divides, making pacts that are automatically renewed in a consistent pattern. They say nothing for the first few days, and then they get wind of some Western conspiracy and curse their own people as vermin. Afterwards they dismiss a few loyal lieutenants, assuming these haven't left of their own accord to join the winning side as quickly as possible. Instead of abdicating, the dictators act in blind fury. They are accustomed to treating the lives of others as their personal spoils, to squandering every object in the country as though it were their personal property.

Contempt for human rights and theft are a matter of course. Their feelings have been removed from all reality; all they care about is their own power and the well-being of their clan. The greater their fear of downfall, the more they consider it an impossibility. And the more impossible it seems to them, the more violent they react. They have no capacity for sensing when people have had enough. Enamored of themselves, they mistake the forced homage of their citizens for love, and misconstrue their own extortive practices for welfare. All manner of cruelty is performed in the name of patriotism. The dictators are every bit as insane as the insanity they have set up in their country. They catch their breath by suffocating thought. When that doesn't work they turn to persecution. Whoever thinks and doesn't keep his thoughts to himself is thrown in prison or straightaway put six feet under the ground.

Dictators divide every nation into those who serve them, because they are rewarded, and those they persecute for refusing to accept their own disenfranchisement as though it were a natural law. This split remains after the dictators are gone, and lasts for decades, because it has to be resolved how the group that was rewarded violated the rights of those who were persecuted.

A human rights activist from China reports that when he was arrested the members of the secret police said: "Why should we even speak with you? We could just as well dig a hole in the ground and toss you in without wasting any words." More and more often we hear of Chinese citizens being taken away to unknown places and placed in "black jails." Ai Weiwei is not the first person to be abducted by the state. And it's been a long time since we've heard from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Kidnapping people and causing them to disappear is the activity of terrorists, outlaws, and the mafia -- and lately the Chinese Communist Party.

And the ones who are persecuted?

After being released from a year in prison, a friend in Romania described the soup he was fed every day. The thin broth was poured into the dog bowls they used as dishes, often with three or four cow eyes bobbing up and down. My friend called them ox eyes. I immediately thought about the zinnias we had in the country, which we call ox eyes in our Banat-Swabian dialect. I always liked the name because it accurately describes the blossom in a single word: the flower has a heart that sticks out and is as dark as the pupil of an eye. The zinnias come in all colors, from white to eggplant-purple. I always enjoyed seeing these flowers from the country growing in town in people's front gardens, or presented in bouquets. Up to the day I heard about the prison soup. Since then I can no longer look at the flower without thinking of a dog bowl full of clear broth and bobbing ox eyes. The innocent beauty is gone. Our natural, uninhibited impulse can never be regained when something has been taken away with such malevolence. Countless objects acquire a double meaning: the first is the thing itself, and the second is what they become, what terror imposes on us when we look at them.  And this second thing is the damage caused by fear, the injury that lingers inside us. Our minds fall into a twilight zone between normal and deranged: on the one hand we continue to see things exactly as they are in real life, but superimposed on this is the image from the mental disturbance. Against my will, my perception is drawn to the false magnet. This is a masochistic inclination, but inflicted from outside. Naturally it works on its own, just like a clock, even if the fear comes from long ago. Because I know to this day that there were moments when I couldn't contain my fear. I was driven by an aimless sense of ease; the dread changed into euphoria. Those were dangerous days because I no longer took the danger I was in seriously. The needle of my inner compass was wobbling as if blown by the wind. I was enticed away from myself-even the thought of suicide was temptingly beautiful. In this state, however, some small thing would always happen to bring me back to myself. And I would once more find myself in my accustomed state of permanent sadness. Until I again became so stressed that the overload of dread placed me in another trance.

People who have suffered persecution are injured, traumatized by the ongoing fear. Emigrants are often victims who managed to flee, by luck, chance, or making arrangements, and thereby escaped the clutches of the police. Some are apolitical people whose thinking is skewed, or who lay claim to the suffering of others as a way to be heard in a foreign country, to counteract their anonymity. These different emigrants not only know one another, they know too much about each other, and they are often given to rivalries as well as envy, resentment, and animosity. That's why it's so important that other neutral parties organize on behalf of human rights. People who can think independently because they are not injured, who act without bias because they have no interest in distorting facts, and who are not intimately entangled in misfortune. They act out of human decency and selfless respect for humanity. And they maintain the balance between tactics and feelings.

Human rights organizations are composed of such helping hands. Through their efforts, persecuted people become our personal acquaintances. Moreover, the advocates and activists that comprise these groups have free minds, and that is very important. They are able to assess and intervene with objective open-mindedness as well as subjective attachment.

By knowing even one persecuted individual, persecution itself becomes a personal matter, no matter how far away it may occur. A single photo or a name is enough to make the persecution tangible, and lead us to take interest in that person's life story.

You, ladies and gentlemen, who belong to human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, make these persecuted individuals our personal friends. You adopt unknown strangers like unknown children. You overcome the distance that lurks behind their eyes and behind our own. No matter how great the numbers of the afflicted, you measure the misfortune of the individual person. Because we cannot change the causes of persecution and wish away entire systems, you focus on each separate case, gathering whatever information is needed to raise a public outcry. You allow your own lives to be troubled by the misfortune of others. And when your intervention, whether quiet or loud, manages to save a human life, then the misfortune you have adopted is transformed into your own happiness.

To help someone out of misfortune is a real gem. When our efforts succeed we can feel it sparkle. This sparkle sustains us and gives us the heart to help the next unlucky soul find better fortune. 

Translated by Philip Boehm

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