NEW YORK -- The stories that were told at the 11th annual Reebok
Human Rights Awards ceremony Wednesday revolved around death, rape, torture and the loss
of basic human rights. But they were also "inspiring," said R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe,
one of the well-known activists who was there to hear them.
Stipe and Peter Gabriel, who are on the awards program's board of advisers, were
among the speakers at the ceremony at Columbia University's Miller Theatre. Punk-poet
Patti Smith read a poem.
Reebok, the Massachusetts-based sneaker company, gives its annual Human Rights
Awards to people under the age of 30 who have advocated social change in their
countries and whose stories are inspiring, heart-rending or relevant to the news of the
day, according to Angel Martinez, the company's marketing director and master of
ceremonies at the awards.
Wednesday's recipients were Julie Dogbadzi, a 24-year-old Ghanaian who by national
custom was sent to a prison camp by her family at age 7 and who is now free and
fighting the practice; Ka Hsaw Wa, a 28-year-old originally from Burma who is fighting
ethnic violence and economic cruelty in that country; Tanya Greene, a 28-year-old
Atlanta lawyer who has helped overturn 77 death sentences; and Suba Meshack, 26, of
Kenya, who is fighting government violence against student leaders.
Despite the harrowing stories they told, the night was filled with hope.
"I had no idea what I was in for [when I first became involved]," said Stipe, who joined the
board in 1992. "The awards are really very inspiring."
Stipe introduced Smith, the veteran rock singer/songwriter, who recited a poem she
wrote in honor of Phuntsok Nyidron, a Buddhist and past award winner who is serving a
17-year prison sentence in Tibet for singing during a nonviolent protest.
"And of what shall she sing?/ Of the things she's seen, of her voice within?/ Of the deep,
silent cell where all light is barred?/ Of kindness, of dark, of light no longer light?" Smith
read from the poem, "Sing of Us, Gentle Sister."
Gabriel, who presented Wa's award, founded the human-rights watchdog organization
Witness with Reebok's help. He said the 1988 Human Rights Now tour -- which took him
and Bruce Springsteen, along with Sting and other artists, to war-torn and oppressed
areas of the world on behalf of Amnesty International -- "really educated me" about
"I had never seen anything like that before," Gabriel said. "Then the issues really caught
Witness distributes videotapes and equipment to activists to help them document
human-rights violations and alert outsiders. It also works with other organizations to help
identify dire situations and people in need of help, Gabriel said.
Talking afterward about the stories the award winners told, Stipe said, "It's experience.
I'm not really faced with that too much in my life. These people are."
A lot of people apparently are.
"The book we receive every year with potential candidates is about the size of the New
York Yellow Pages -- not as many pages but it's that thick," Stipe said of the nomination
The awards were handed out only hours after U.S.-led NATO forces began a series of air
strikes against Yugoslavia in an effort to stop a Serbian offensive against ethnic
Albanians in the province of Kosovo. The Serbians have been accused of various
atrocities in the year-old offensive.
"It's ridiculous to go in and bomb a country," Stipe said. "But that particular situation is
Stipe said the Witness program received several faxes from Kosovo natives late last
week requesting videotapes to document the alleged atrocities. "Everything is
completely shut down," he said. "It's that bad."
Each award recipient receives a $25,000 grant from Reebok to donate to the charity of
his or her choice.