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This event was the highlight of the festival for me: three intelligent, strong, compassionate women all speaking eloquently and movingly on subjects close to their hearts. It's another long post, because almost everything they said felt important to me.

Maxine McKew kicked off proceedings by asking all three panellists to give their reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Ingrid Betancourt said that she did not feel Bin Laden's death should be celebrated, with which the other panellists agreed. Aminatta Forna contrasted this case with that of Charles Taylor, who in 2006 was flown into Sierra Leone to face war crimes charges in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The people came out onto the streets to watch, Forna said, because this was a time when you could literally see that justice was being done. That court was funded by the US, and yet it seems the US did not want to take the justice route with Bin Laden.

Fatima Bhutto agreed with Betancourt and Forna, and observed that she is more concerned about the current violence in Pakistan than with Bin Laden's death. People are shot every day, and the situation is exacerbated by US drone strikes - she alleged that these have killed over two thousand people in Pakistan, largely civilians, since 2006.

The conversation moved onto the personal tragedies that the three women have experienced. In captivity, Betancourt felt that she had a responsibility as well as a right to be free. Even though she knew that any rescue attempt might mean her death, she preferred to die in the struggle for freedom rather than remaining a captive for, say, another twenty years.

She also praised the courage of her rescuers, who pretended they were working with the FARQ in order to gain access to her, and were completely unarmed when they executed their plan. They are the true heroes, she said.

From the personal to the universal, Forna said that Sierra Leone has suffered because an entire generation failed to stand up to oppression, and failed to foresee what it could become. Her father was part of the continent of Africa's "renaissance generation", people who were educated abroad and expected to return home to rule and develop their countries. In reality the renaissance never happened, because most of them were killed or imprisoned when they stood up to the regimes that were in power - including Forna's father, who was hanged as a traitor for starting a democratic party.

She told the moving story of her father's letter to the nation, concealed by a journalist for twenty-five years, in which he said Sierra Leone had let democracy slip through its fingers. When the letter was finally published, it was a turning point in Forna's life - the moment when she realised, she said, that we must be "eternally vigilant" about freedom.

Bhutto spoke of the violence inherent in the Pakistani political system. Pakistan, she said, has killed three heads of state, as well as countless journalists, activists and women who tried to speak out. Her own father was assassinated during his sister's term as prime minister after he began to criticise human rights abuses and corruption in the government. Bhutto says she holds Benazir Bhutto morally culpable for his death - but she felt no satisfaction when her aunt was assassinated. "If what you're interested in is justice," she said, "you don't get that from death."

Betancourt described her final meeting with her father, just before she headed off on the trip that would result in her six-year imprisonment. It's clear that they were very close; he also expressed doubts about her trip, but when she suggested she stay behind, he told her to do what she felt she had to do. He was already frail, and she described that last goodbye very movingly.

He died just over a month after she was kidnapped; she learned the news from a photo caption on a newspaper page that was wrapped around some provisions. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person in the audience who was weeping by this point.

As she talked about the FARQ in the context of Colombia, it became clear that whatever hopes she had for the organisation before her kidnapping were quickly dashed once she saw them up close. Just like the rest of Colombian politics, she found they were all about money, and even their purported gender equality was a sham; women might be trained and armed by the guerillas, but they are also forced into relationships with male commanders.

Betancourt survived because of love; because, surrounded by people who hated her and denied her identity, she thought about moments of love, and that gave her the strength to keep fighting for her dignity. It is difficult to imagine just how much strength she must have needed.

The talk turned to personal responsibility. Forna's novel The Memory of Love (which incidentally won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize a few hours after this event) is about "a good man who does nothing". Her father tried to do something and was killed for his efforts - and yet some people imply to her that he was stupid to do so. Forna will have none of that; he did what he had to do. She quoted Alexander Pope: "Honour and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honour lies." Her father wrote this in her autograph book when she was eleven, but only later did she realise how this quotation has shaped her life as it did her father's.

Many of us in the West like to say that we don't know what we would do, how we would behave, if we were caught up in war and oppression. But don't we? asked Forna. Shouldn't we?

Betancourt picked up on this topic, talking about a certain "complicity of silence" that has developed in Colombia. Officially freedom of speech is universal, but subtle group dynamics mean that there is great pressure to conform - so people don't ask questions, and there is a kind of "virtual reality" of disinformation that is then reproduced by the media. Corruption is poisonous, she said, "because it gets into your heart, not just your pocket." Colombians have lost their capacity to say no, and to stand up to wrongdoing.

What to do about this? "Everything happens first in our hearts." We need to change what is inside ourselves and then stand up to what is happening - but she also stressed the need for compassion, and the need to reach out to people rather than condemn them.

Bhutto wrapped things up by saying that the same problems exist in Pakistan, but that good men and women triumph every day. Ten thousand people have disappeared over the past few years, but the only reason we know about this is because their families and friends have braved reprisals and got the story out there.

Hope, she said, comes from ordinary people. And in these three extraordinary women, ordinary people like me can certainly find plenty of inspiration and hope.

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June 2014

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