Remembering two human rights giants

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa -- As I stepped onto this island seven miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, I tried to imagine what it was like to be held a political prisoner, as Nelson Mandela was, for 18 years here. He spent those years alone, in a cell that was 8 feet by 8 feet. The thought defies imagination.

Even more unimaginable, he emerged preaching forgiveness and reconciliation with those who had imprisoned him for more than 27 years. We know he went on to become the first elected president in 1994 of the new post-apartheid South Africa, and remains a towering international figure to this day.

As I walked the edge of the island’s shoreline to one of several buses that would tour the island, an eerily similar memory unexpectedly jumped to my mind. I began to think about a visit I made to Con Son Island off the coast of Vietnam to examine another prison holding political prisoners arrested for alleged communist sympathies, but who often were simply picked up and locked up for advocating an end to the war.

It was on a similarly hot summer day in 1969 I accompanied the late Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan, then a congressman from Boston, and another young congressman, John Conyers from Detroit. The men were investigating brutalities at the prison, including reports that "Tiger cages," underground cells for the political dissidents left over from the French colonial penal system, were still in place. Both the South Vietnamese government and our own government vehemently denied these charges, though I had personally spoken to Vietnamese students who had told me terrifying stories about the cages in which some said they had been held.

That day, I interpreted for the congressmen and listened carefully to the dozens of prisoners we interviewed, just a handful out of the thousands who were on the island at the time. In their responses to our questions about their incarcerations, some spoke out about of the injustice of their lockups. But all those we spoke with were muted in what they had to say, knowing full well, as we did, that once we left they were at the mercy of the local authorities.

We saw the brutality in their eyes.

That was now nearly 43 years ago. Although we were armed with maps that had been smuggled out of the prison, we did not find the Tiger cages that day. But our visit helped others draw an even more detailed map, and over the next years, my colleague assisting another congressional delegation at International Voluntary Services, Don Luce, managed to open the right prison door and expose those underground pits of horror.

There was no way U.S. government officials, "advisers" to the Saigon regime, did not know about those brutalities. I learned in no uncertain terms our government lies to us -- even, when necessary, to our own elected officials. With a photo of one of Tiger cages on the cover of Life magazine, international pressure forced their closures. By then, the United States had long been defeated militarily and morally, and a few years later, the last American soldiers scrambled from Vietnam on April 30, 1975.

Drinan was told by Pope John Paul II to leave Congress. He obliged, but his human rights advocacy continued, as author, speaker, law professor at Georgetown University Law School, and as a columnist for NCR. During those years, he was sought after to serve on the boards of countless human rights organizations, including the International League for Human Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the International Labor Rights Fund and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to name a few.

Mandela’s stage was also global as president of a nation, example for a continent and a voice for freedom and human rights throughout the world.

With those memories of my trip to Con Son Island so many years back newly fresh in my head, I boarded a bus and began to look at the island, starting with a visit to a lime quarry where prisoners were forced to work in the heat of the day without protective gear. We saw a cave the prisoners declared to be a university, a small shelter from the noonday sun, where the educated taught the illiterate to read. Eventually we stopped at the prison.

There were about 40 of us as we entered the cell block C, too many for my personal purposes. So my wife and I set off on our own. I began wandering through empty rooms until I came across three men sitting at a table. They were security guards and were surprised to see us. Before they could say anything, I made a straightforward request, asking if any among them could lead us to Mandela’s old cell.

One man, who eventually identified himself as Patrick, said he would lead us there. We left the building, crossed a couple of sandy courtyards, passed through some long, narrow corridors, and then he abruptly stopped. "Fourth on the left," he said. Aside from its unique notoriety, it looked like all the others on the long hall. Inside the cell, a pillow and blanket rested in the corner along with a red bucket, for human waste.

I felt a reverence in the silence, imagining for a few seconds what it must have sounded like full of hapless prisoners. At first, Patrick said no one was allowed in the cell; then he handed me a large iron key, and I unlocked and opened the iron-barred gate. It was a sacramental moment. My wife held a small camera and I recorded a short video to share the moment. I was breathless.

Fittingly, I met Mandela once -- and it was during a luncheon in a restaurant in Washington in the late 1990s. Drinan, who wrote for NCR for a quarter century before his death, had invited me to lunch. As we waited to sit down, Mandela came through the front door and my Jesuit friend, big smile on his face, walked over to greet him. It seem they were old friends -- and they probably were. Drinan introduced me to this South African hero and I shook his hand. He looked tall and stately, offering warm greetings to those who approached him.

Mandela and Drinan: two men who have taught us one can make a difference with one’s life. Maybe not in the public ways these two human rights giants have, but in smaller and more personal ways, by standing up for conviction and reaching out to those less fortunate by circumstance.

Departing Robben Island for Cape Town, I felt gratitude that the Vietnam and South African prisons had been mercifully closed, but only following massive pressures by people who reject torture and political imprisonment. Sadly, anyone reading this knows only too well far too many similar prisons continue to operate throughout the world. And so many more Mandelas and Drinans are needed. Many more.

[Tom Fox is NCR's publisher and is traveling through Africa.]

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