The Oslo Freedom Forum: “Like Comicon, only the heroes are real.”
This summer, a few of our teammates attended the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), a series of global conferences run by the Human Rights Foundation that provides a global platform for human rights defenders to share their stories.
Uncharted teammate Quinn Middleton reflects on her time below in a unique setting: a dance floor.
Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, was holding his phone out to me, smiling.
He was showing me the windowless shack that was his prison after a dictatorial coup had overthrown him at gunpoint. For 18 months, he’d lived in solitary confinement, writing books in his head to pass the time. He’s published six of them.
We were in a dimly lit bar in Oslo, at an after-hours party for the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual gathering put on by the Human Rights Foundation that celebrates and connects the most influential human rights activists from around the globe. Teju, Uncharted’s Co-Founder, and I were there to lead a workshop on how to mentor activists. A band comprised of three diplomats (fittingly named Diplomatic Immunity) was playing rock music in the background; next to us, scores of global dissidents, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, artists, and world leaders were dancing like it was New Year’s.
Mohamed put his phone back on the table, and explained that he was now living in the UK. I asked if he planned on ever returning to the Maldives, and he immediately responded, “Yes. They’ll throw me right back in jail though.” Again, he was smiling. “I’d rather be in prison in my home country than in exile anywhere else.” Aside from being a jovial and welcoming person, Mohamed — like the other OFF speakers and attendees — had endless love and dedication for the country he’d sacrificed so much for.
And then the smiling made sense.
The conversation lulled and I looked around the room, entirely humbled. I was surrounded by the most heroic and incredible people on the planet — people who were fighting tyranny and injustice in intensely costly ways. The co-founder of the White Helmets. A woman using the game of squash to undermine the Taliban. North Korean defectors. A man using citizen journalism to undermine ISIS. Refugee activists from countless nations. A Somali anti-FGM activist. A man whose day job is teaching people how to lead nonviolent revolutions. (Think of virtually any revolution that’s happened in the last 20 years, and you can bet his organization has been involved in some way.)
As VICE puts it, the Oslo Freedom Forum is “Like Comicon, only the heroes are real.” It’s a not-so-secret ring of the world’s greatest badasses, nonviolently toppling the most corrupt dictators and regimes of our time.
There’s a lot happening in the world right now that I don’t understand. Politically and socially, a lot feels unhinged. But the Oslo Freedom Forum is unbelievable evidence that no matter what’s happening, good people will not let injustice win. And even when division appears to be at an all-time high, there’s a lot of power in dancing together.
Eventually Diplomatic Immunity cleared the stage, and a DJ took over. I joined the crowd dancing. And for the next few hours, we brought the house down. At some point when DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” was playing, I realized that in the face of terrorism, racial division, and injustice of every sort, this moment was proof that we were winning. We were dancing together to celebrate the incredible people and progress that was being made. We were dancing for the little and not-so-little victories along the path to freedom that are worth celebrating. And we were dancing because Mohamed hadn’t “had a night out like that since the coup.”
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