A Liberating Flood Of Letters

WHEN Bruce, a soft-spoken economist, and I met in 1988, I don't think either of us knew why we had come to the Detroit-area Amnesty International meeting. I think we both just felt the need to do something to help others. Why we didn't volunteer our time at a local soup kitchen, I don't know.

When our group gets together, we talk about the mayhem in Bosnia or Rwanda, or address the issue of human rights abuses worldwide. Sure, the subject of movies and music comes up, too, but we try to remain focused on writing letters. And we do write letters -- stacks of them -- asking heads of governments to stop killing, torturing, and detaining people because of their nonviolent beliefs.

For me, there was something about the power of the pen that was intriguing. A way of saying: ''I know you're a big government, but I'm watching, and I'm not afraid to write and tell you about it.'' And a way of saying to the citizens: ''Hang in there, the world knows what you are going through.''

Writing letters allowed me to do something for people that nobody else was helping. I had read about the Mothers of the Disappeared in South America and heard about death squads, but what could I do from here? Working in health care, I was used to being able to help people. These people I could not help. But at the very least, I could write a letter. And I did.

''I have something for you,'' Bruce said as he handed me a bright blue envelope the night of our group's annual New Year's party. ''Put your glass down and open it.''

Something was different about his usually calm, gentle voice, but I dutifully opened the envelope. Inside, the card read: ''Good things happen to those who wait. Great things happen.''

I didn't finish reading it because something else caught my eye. Bruce, our group's case coordinator, had written, ''Abd al-Qahhar Saray arrested February 1982, released December 1994. Free at Last!''

''What?'' I asked in disbelief. ''Is this for real?''

''I got the call yesterday from the national office,'' he responded in a voice that revealed the excitement he earlier had tried to suppress. ''There are no details, only that he was released after 12 years.''

At first I thought, ''My gosh, it really does work.'' I must admit that, although I wrote letters, I was always a bit skeptical about whether the letters really made a difference. I imagined a huge abyss where thousands of letters were discarded. That may not be far from the truth in some cases, but still I wrote.

And I wrote on behalf of Saray, who for nearly 13 years was imprisoned, without being charged, without a trial, and without being convicted of a crime. For all intents and purposes, his only crime was belonging to a group his government opposed. He was a prisoner of conscience -- detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression -- and now he was free.

What would the world be like for him? Would his family be at the gates joyously celebrating his release? Did he expect a gentle nation awaiting him? Or would he step out onto the harsh streets realizing that little had changed?

Our group had adopted him as ''our prisoner,'' and we wrote letters, sent postcards, and signed petitions. We got others to care, too.

Once at Alvin's, a popular eatery in an otherwise desolate part of Detroit, our group sponsored a benefit concert. Several local bands volunteered their time, and several hundred people came.

I got up on stage and told Saray's story, which wasn't much. He was 49, an oil worker, married with two children. But in the 12 years he was detained, there was no word as to whether he was even alive, so at times the work we did seemed futile.

When people would ask, ''Why do you keep writing?'' The reply was simply, ''If we don't, who will?''

But others did, in part because we made them care. On another occasion, our group sponsored a write-a-thon at a local library. ''Strike a pencil blow,'' wrote one local columnist, encouraging people to come and write letters for prisoners of conscience. ''All are helpless, all are desperate, and there are plenty, alas, to go around.''

The response was overwhelming, and more than 300 letters were generated that day.

But the reaction to our efforts wasn't, and isn't, always positive. Last summer at the Lollapalooza concert, a group of young men surrounded our booth.

''Oh, they're in cahoots with the American Civil Liberties Union,'' said a burly teenager to the rest of his buddies. ''They're collaborating with the blue hats to take away our sovereignty.''

I wasn't quite sure where he was coming from. Somehow, he figured the activists' groups invited to the show were mouthpieces for the United Nations.

Here was a group of young people with all the freedom in the world -- freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, even freedom to listen to any kind of music -- yet they couldn't see how freedom extended beyond the length of their arm.

We welcomed them to read the petition, which simply asked the Syrian president to look into Saray's case. We wanted them to see that, just maybe, signing this was a good and decent thing to do. But they walked away without the slightest knowledge of what we cared about.

''How sad,'' my husband, Jim, said after they left. ''These young reactionaries have no perception of how governments can really take away rights.''

I thought about all those events -- the good and the bad -- as I read the message on the card again: ''Free at Last!''

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