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“It’s so important to make the prisoners understand that they’re not forgotten”

Interview with Eugene Schoulgin

By Ginevra Avalle

Pune, 28th September 2018

Eugene Schoulgin is a Norwegian writer and scholar. He is the son of the painter Alexander Schultz, and grew up in Norway, Italy and France. He has studied Classical Archaeology and History of Art at the Universities of Uppsala and Stockholm. He has long been working actively for PEN International for the release of imprisoned writers all over the world. He became a member of Swedish PEN in 1992. Since 1994, Eugene has divided his time between writing and working for the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International which he chaired from 2000 to 2004.  From 2004 until 2006, he was a member of the Board of PEN International, and between 2006 and 2010 he served as International Secretary. In 2010 he became a Vice-President.

G. A. How did you first hear about PEN?

E.S. The first time I was approached by PEN was in Norway. Norwegian PEN asked me if I wanted to become a member. At the time you couldn’t ask for membership yourself, you had to be invited. In my opinion, at the time they were good for nothing, only dinners, cocktails etc. So I wasn’t interested. Then in 1991, I was asked by two Swedish writers if I was interested, and since Swedish PEN at the time was more active, I accepted. Very soon I was elected chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) in the Centre.

The second half of the 90s were years of conflict and transformation, both in Swedish PEN and in PEN International. Difficult decisions had to be made, and painful situations occurred. But at the same time, WiPC developed and I was given the privilege of taking an active part in their activities.

In Kathmandu in 2000, I was elected Chair of WiPC. And the next four years were filled with visits to the office in London, as well as numerous missions to different parts of the world to meet with imprisoned writers and try to convince the authorities to let them go.

During the Congress in Tromsø (Norway) in 2004 I chose to leave my post due to health problems. At the same time, I was elected to the Board of PEN International.  However, my interest in the WiPC work never faded.

At the Congress in Dakar in 2007, I was elected International Secretary and remained in that office until 2010. They then asked me to go on for another three years, but I decided to quit, and Hori Takeaki from PEN Japan took over my job. That’s the short version.

During my time in Swedish PEN, I also worked with several other PEN Centres. It was then that I came to the conclusion that all these resolutions and all these letters of  protest, although important, were not enough.  So, together with like-minded activists, we took the initiative to go out on missions. We went to Turkey, South Korea, Yemen, Mexico and Peru, just to mention some. I travelled to Peru three times. The first trip was with Carles Torner, Jens Lohman from Danish PEN, and Marian Botsford Fraser from Canadian PEN.  We went there to try and meet with the historian and poet Yehude Simon Munaro, who had been given a 20-year prison sentence for alleged ties with the illegal organisation Sendero Luminoso . First we were denied entry to the prison, but Carles, who had once been in charge of the World Young Catholics Organisation, had some contacts with the Jesuits in Lima, and through a priest who happened to be the father confessor of both Yehude and President Fujimori, we managed to see the poet for one day in the Castro-Castro High Security Prison.  And we guessed for the same reason president Fujimori agreed in the end to receive us. The President gave us a half promise to release Yehude, but this promise was dashed by his dark shadow Montesinos, the Minister many claimed was the real conductor of affairs in the country.

During our time in the prison, we got a pretty good idea of how sterile and inhumane a modern prison can be. And in this ice-box, Yehude had the strength to act as a comforter of his fellow prisoners, while also taking care of the tiny prison library he had been allowed to create.

There were a total of ten writers and journalists jailed for their peaceful exercise of opinion in Lima at the time, but we thought it more tactical to start with one. It took us years to get all of them out, and of course this was not our success alone. These kinds of effort have always to be done as team-work. I feel missions are still crucial, but at the same time, writing letters, sending books, showing sympathy with the relatives, even writing New Year cards, is valuable and helpful in other ways.

G.A. Was that the first time that you went to a prison to meet a writer?

E.S. No, it wasn’t the first time. The first time was when I took part in a mission by the Norwegian Writer’s Union in 1996. When the Union celebrated its 100th anniversary, we received NOK 2 million from the Minister of Culture minister as a gift. The Union decided to spend the money on an annual Freedom of Expression Conference, so they looked for Norwegian cities to host such a conference. The city of Stavanger volunteered.

In connection with the first conference, we invited seven imprisoned writers from different countries, and only two of them were able to come. So, we decided we had to visit the others. I became one of the members from Norway, Sweden and Denmark who went to Turkey to see the prisoner Ismail Besikçi. This sociologist wrote books while in prison and every time a book was published, he got additional years on top of his sentence. When we arrived, he had accumulated 104 years. During the visit, one of us asked him how he felt, knowing he would most likely spend the rest of his life in prison. He answered, “As long as people like you don’t forget me, my life is not in vain.” I would say that sentence changed my life.

In the years which followed, you might say Turkey became one of my major occupations. And among numerous prison visits, I will pick another, rather peculiar one. Together with the leader of the Human Rights Association at the time, Akin Birdal, I went to se the writer and columnist Haluk Gerger. As most other political prisoners in Turkey, he had engaged himself in the Kurdish question. He was incarcerated in one of the small prisons south of Ankara. It was an old, worn-down place, but the Director happened to be a school mate of Akin, so after being searched top to toe by the guard on arrival, we soon found ourselves in the Director’s office, which was crowded with prisoners, including Haluk and his visiting mother and wife. They were all drinking the raki we had brought with us as a gift, and which had been confiscated at the gate! It all ended with the opening of all cells, and us visiting one after the other.

I can assure you this was a unique event among my many sad and difficult experiences from that period.

G.A. What did you talk about?

E.S. The political situation in Turkey and his hopes for a better future for the Kurds. We talked about his family, his youth and his years at the University.  It was a very shabby prison, yet it’s better for prisoners to be in a shabby old prison than a modern one. Modern prisons are so sterile, and people can’t hear any sounds from the other cells. In Turkey they have invented the new F-type prisons, where the prisoners sit in solitary confinement, thus the guards and the police can torture them without any witnesses. Since Turkey became one of my main occupations, I moved to Istanbul in 2006, and stayed for eight years. During this time, I was part of a rich community of writers, journalists, artists, lawyers, human rights activists and people from other concerned groups, including Turks and Kurds, as well as Alevites, Muslims and Armenian Christians, and among them I found so many friends for life. This gave me the unique opportunity of gaining insight into the way civil society and the political system functions in Turkey.

I have to mention one mission especially. It was a large delegation, led by the historian Kari Vogt and the author Kirsti Blom, with members from Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Palestine and Moroccan PEN in addition to the Norwegians.   We went to Yemen to visit the poet Mansur Rajih. He had been sentenced to 20 years for murder, but the real reason for his sentence was a poem that had given offence to Saleh, the dictator at the time.

 In the middle of the mountains, we reached the city Taiz where his prison was situated. The place was arid and hot, and the prison was truly hell on earth. We gathered around Mansur, a skinny man, his eyes burning with fever, who read his poems to us and told  his story. The first two years he had spend in a cell underground with no window and no light. He was chained to the wall, and there were rats.  Then he was moved up to a cell with no roof. There were so many prisoners in the cell that when half of them were sleeping, the other half had to stand or sit. Daytime heat could reach 50º Centigrade, at night it was freezing.

When we looked around, we noticed that many prisoners seemed to have been beaten up recently, and guards with long wooden poles were observing us all the time.

In a conversation with the Director of the prison, he claimed that Mansur was his personal friend, but the day after we left, Mansur was forced to witness the hanging of his best friend, and we got the message that if we came back, Mansur would most likely be the next to hang. Through our contact in the city, we asked Mansur if he preferred us to go no further. He answered: “If I stay here much longer, I will die anyway. Please continue.”

The Swedish ambassador to Riyadh, accredited to Yemen, who had observed our efforts during our stay in the country, contacted me that summer by phone, saying: “Listen, I happen to know that Yemen has asked for a huge loan in London, where they are expecting Yemen’s Minister of Finance to collect the money. However, I actually have the documents here and I have discovered a clause whereby the loan cannot be given to a country that violates human rights.” PEN got into action, and after what I assume was a heated discussion, the Yemenis transferred Mansur from Taiz to a military hospital in Sana´a for 14 days, after which he arrived in Stavanger with his wife Afrah. Today he still lives there with her and their son Muhammed. His poems have been published in Norwegian, and Afrah works at the library.

G.A. Do you have some special methods when you try to get prisoners out of jail?

E.S. One method I have often used, is to try and convince representatives from the Ministries of Justice that the person we want them to release is not at all important as a  political figure, that there will be plenty of undesirable noise and fuss once PEN begins a campaign in this prisoner’s favour, given all our journalists and writers all over the world. At the same time, we are not Amnesty International: if he is released, nobody will know we have visited you. Sometimes that works, even if we have to wait for months and even years.

G.A. What do you think PEN will be like in 100 years?

E.S. Let’s say, what will it be in 20 years? Firstly, take into consideration the kind of world we will live in 20 years from now. At this moment, I am afraid I am deeply pessimistic. Unfortunately, I think PEN is needed even more today than it was when I joined PEN. In an increasing number of countries, the oppression of freedom of expression and human rights is common. Democracies are weakening. Violence wins. I fear we will be silenced in different ways much more frequently than today. However, I am an incurable optimist, and so I want to believe that this situation will change. There is no doubt that PEN will always be a mirror of society. Thus, those who are interested in PEN values will only grow more dedicated.

G.A. Can you talk about of how it all began?

E.S. It began with the fact that after the First World War, England had lost such a big percentage of its artists and writers. Those who were left were exhausted by their experience, and lacked communication with the rest of the world; they found themselves isolated. In 1921, John Galsworthy and Catharine Scott decided to create an organisation for writers, where colleagues from other countries would have a place to meet English writers when they came to London. This desire was equally strong in a lot of other countries, especially those who had been not neutral during the War.

These writers also felt sidelined.

So, after PEN became a reality, Sweden and Norway, for instance, created their own PEN Centres as early as the year after. Writers felt a common need to unite. You had the Russian Revolution, the First World War, the fight between fascists and communists which was especially intense during the late 20’s in Germany. Thousands of people lost their lives. So, the thinking was pacifism, no more war. In this landscape, many PEN members held such views.

First of all, they were writers who were pacifists, anti-fascists, liberals in the good sense, but at the same time, they wanted exclusivity. They came together to feel special. Some were frightened in confrontation with the political ideological movements, others were carried away by their idealism, but all were inspired by the Club thinking, and the feeling of being an elite. So in a way you might say they isolated themselves in the clubs where they could concentrate more on literature. But at the same time they helped a lot of writers in difficult situations.

The Centres were of course conducted in different ways. As an example, in Sweden there was a prince called Wilhelm. He was actually a good poet. But when you are  royalty and a poet, there is a problem, you’re not taken seriously. He regarded poetry seriously though, and when he died, he left a substantial amount of money to Swedish PEN. With this money they created a fund which made them financially much stronger than most Centres.

In 1966 Michael Scammell from American PEN took the initiative to create the Writers in Prison Committee. From the 30s until after World War II, PEN had flagged a clear anti-fascist profile. During and after Stalin, we concentrated mainly on the Soviet Union´s persecution of its writers. However, through the WiPC, PEN began its work for writer colleagues facing threats, imprisonment or assassination worldwide.

We in PEN have always claimed we are acting apolitically. In my opinion however, this is highly problematic. When you are fighting for freedom of expression, that in itself is practically a political stand!

G.A. Did they want to be called apolitical because they’d just experienced a war and wanted to forget about politics and focus on literature?

E.S. Yes, of course. Norwegian PEN is a good example of how PEN slid into a position which, after the war, became a problem. Some of our members were then regarded as unpatriotic, to put it mildly. I regard these writers, in a way, as victims of traditions. And this is also part of PEN’s history, this lack of political understanding. We didn’t want to dirty our hands with politicians, we wanted to be free and independent.

G.A. What happened in the 60s with the supposed infiltration of the CIA in PEN America?

E.S. I am not sure, but I am almost convinced CIA has been at least as active as KGB and…I can give you a more up-to-date example: when America attacked Kuwait in the first Iraqi war, my brother, who is a physician, was sent to assist at a local hospital. On CNN an American nurse he had met there, claimed Saddam Hussain´s soldiers had entered the hospital and killed the patients in their beds, and even the babies.  After some years it was revealed that it was a story constructed by the CIA, that the nurse had been an American CIA agent, and there was not a single word of truth in it. CIA did try to sneak into organisations. I would not be surprised if they tried to sneak into PEN.

G.A. At the beginning there was only PEN. When did English PEN separate from PEN International? 

E.S. It’s complex. I would not call it a separation, rather a division. I am sure English PEN found it too complicated to serve the new Centres popping up on all continents, and we needed a neutral office. Lets face it, there has been quite a few internal conflicts inside PEN, anything else would have been remarkable. Writers from so many different countries and with so many inherited views on each other´s cultures and writing traditions are not that easy to handle.

For French PEN and the Francophonie for instance, their main reason was not that they were against English PEN, they were against the Anglo-American dominance. They themselves wanted to be dominant. These conflicts of interest arose from time to time even between Centres which should feel close, like the Scandinavians. Not to mention the conflicts inside each Centre! To solve many of these problems, we needed a stronger Headquarter, an office which could offer support by offering advice and remaing neutral. For years, our dear Jane Spender had to take care of all these problems more or less on her own. What she achieved can not be overestimated, but we needed updated structures, and more helping hands, and we needed a real international Board.

G.A. So there was no Board at that time?

E.S. The Board came along because a member from Danish PEN, a member from Slovenian PEN, Japanese PEN, and two from American PEN had outlined the plans for a new structure, and I joined them. Soon more and more Centres took part. We decided that not only did we need a new International Secretary, we could not have an International Secretary who stayed on and on, and we wanted a Board. So that Board, under the name of Executive Committee, was created in 1999. 

Until 1999 there were only a President, a Secretary, an International Secretary, and a Treasurer.

G.A. Did you have volunteers to work on cases?

E.S. Yes, in addition to Jane Spender, we got a Program Director in connection with Michael Scammell’s Writers in Prison Committee, Mandy Gardiner. Soon she also got an assistant, Sara Whyatt. During the next years, WiPC employed a number of young researchers. The volunteers you find in the Centres, members who spend a substantial part of their time working on cases, writing letters of protest, visiting embassies and addressing authorities.

G.A. Is PEN then all about human relations, communication, friendship and love?

E.S. Of course not, but at the same time yes. I think caring for others makes life worth living. You can enjoy the success of your books, etc. but you see, for me that is not the most important aspect.

I remember I was awarded a Norwegian prize for my first novel, and of course I was celebrated, not least by my own family. Still, I have never forgotten what my father said during these celebrations: “Remember Eugene, it is great you have written a good book, but the most important thing is that somebody is creating great literature.”

 It’s the way you care for others, the empathy you receive, and the love you witness, that remain your reward. For instance, Mansur, in a prison in Yemen, sharing with us the love poems to his wife. Yehude comforting his fellow inmates. All the letters we receive from former prisoners, in Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Latin America, Iran and African countries,  telling us how grateful they are for the support we offered during their time of suffering. In  the end, this is what makes us feel our work has a meaning, despite the distress we all  feel thinking of the colleagues we simply can´t help.

G.A. Do you think this is also because it’s all volunteer-based?

E.S. Partly perhaps, but we must never forget that without all the good research and expertise we get from our office in London, all the material they feed us with all the time, we would never be able to do even 20% of what we can achieve today. That’s why we must rely on our Centres to pay their dues, too. To provide us with the means we need to pay our helpers.

Just before Christmas one year, I had accepted an invitation to an event hosted by one of our Centres. They were extremely friendly and helpful. Afterwards, we had a delicious meal together at a nice restaurant, with plenty to drink. Then they started to complain. They claimed they had no money to pay their PEN dues. I thought to myself: “If you had donated the money we spent for this meal to PEN International WiPC, this problem had been solved.” It is always a matter of priorities, isn’t it.

G.A. Do you see a positive future for PEN International? What are the challenges?

E.S. Yes, I do. The challenges are first of all money, focus and communication. I think the Secretariat and the Board should be better at telling the members what they’re up to. They should have a newsletter at least four times a year. I am sure I am only one of many who can see a lot of things we could do even better, but I am afraid it would be too ambitious here to go into details. Having been connected to the WiPC all these years, I feel that part of our work is closest to my heart.  We had this Writers in Prison diary of all the cases we worked on, and of all the cases we had nobody to look after. This was a good tool whereby all our fellow activists in the Centres were able choose cases to follow up. Today we have excellent researchers dealing with all the Continents. What is needed, first of all, is a solid financial base, not least to able going on recruiting the best people.

G.A. I know you have been very involved with Afghan PEN. Could you tell me about it?

E.S. It all started in 2003 when the Norwegian journalist and writer Elisabeth Eide and I went to Kabul to find out whether there were any writers left, or if they had all emigrated, like Attic Rahimi who now lives in France. Already on the second day of our visit we met with more than 40 writers, mostly poets, and among them 7 women. The enthusiasm and will was there from the first moment, and during the 18 years which followed, they built an organization which covered a large part of the country! They founded their own publishing house, where the writers got paid, they arranged poetry events and concerts in their own house and garden. Also, they became active in all fields of cultural activity in Afghanistan, all concentrated on Afghan creative art and tradition.

Let me entertain you with a story about how the Centre was accepted by PEN International during a Congress in Mexico in 2006.

 They sent two delegates. They were the poets Safia Seddiqi and Partaw Naderi. The opening show took place in the great Opera House of Ciudad de Mexico, but the complicated journey had delayed the two. I was responsible for introducing them, and went to the airport to make sure they would arrive safe and sound. It soon became clear that their arrival had been well prepared. Through a window, I saw them crossing directly from the aircraft with two officials, one of them stamping their travel documents. We met, and the Airport Director welcomed them, all hurriedly. Then into a limo, and with two flashing police motorcycles in the front and two behind, we were rushed at full speed through the heavy traffic of Ciudad de Mexico. At the Opera House, they let us in through the stage entrance. So, coming from backstage, the three of us suddenly found ourselves in front of a packed Opera House. The entire audience plus our PEN officials on the stage rose from their seats and applauded! Our President Homero Aridjis hugged Safia, which is unheard of in Afghanistan! But she just laughed, and then she took the floor and delivered a memorable speech about the terrible situation for women in her country.

G.A. You have met the Mujahideen, can you tell me about them?

E.S. Yes, I have met some. I believe the Americans and their allies made a huge mistake when they helped Mujahideen’s warlords back to power in 2001. Well, so many mistakes have been committed. Of course the Soviets made a criminal and awful mistake when they went to war, but during the Russian period, and even under Najibullah, the educational system developed, conditions for women began to improve, the different ethnic groups were better integrated.

G.A. What an adventurous life you’ve had!

E.S. Yes, I actually tend to look at it that way myself. Perhaps that’s the reason I involved myself with PEN. I regard myself as a doer, not a talker. Good intentions are nothing unless followed up by actions.

G.A. What is the episode of your life you will never forget?

E.S. Too many, it’s impossible to pick one. I remember all the love I have received. All the friendship with people from PEN has enriched my life.

G.A. Do you think that this project of the Exhibition can help and support Centres?

E.S. Yes, if you are able to make it an event which creates real attention in 2021, because as always, it is about raising awareness in society. In that respect, PEN has potential for improvement. Until recently, our skill when it comes to promoting ourselves has not been the best. In the old days, that was regarded as being in bad taste, I guess. It was against the idea of exclusivity.