17 Jan The Lives They Lived
Above: Carlos Falconí Aramburú, photo courtesy Falconí family
As we begin 2024 with the world in turmoil, let’s pause to remember and honor human rights defenders and filmmakers who passed in 2022 and 2023, those who have had a profound impact on us and our work, and will forever be an inspiration.
We share the following remembrances:
- Carlos Falconí Aramburú by Pamela Yates
- Benjamin Ferencz by Luis Moreno-Ocampo
- Lucrecia Hernández Mack by Marcie Mersky
- Jess Search by Vinay Shukla
- Francisco (Pancho) Soberón Garrido by Eduardo González Cueva
CARLOS FALCONÍ ARAMBURÚ
1937 – 2022, Perú
By Pamela Yates
The Ayacucho Human Rights Ambassador
He gave me a deep understanding of the Andes, of the Quechua speaking culture, the music, the spiritual energy that emanated from the majesty of the mountains, and how it was that Sendero Luminoso took root here in the 1980s, sparking a civil war so brutal that between the military and Shining Path, tens of thousands of civilians were killed, the majority Quechua speaking Andeans. This knowledge in turn helped me understand the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s uncovering of what really happened during the war and create the film State of Fear which has been translated into 47 languages and shown in 154 countries.
Carlos Falconí was many things: a talented singer-songwriter, a poet, he played guitar and was a leading light of writing and performing testimonial huaynos, somewhat analogous to American folksongs of the Great Depression and the 1960s anti-war movement. He gathered and archived Andean music so that it would be valued and preserved for generations to come. He rose to prominence as part of the renowned music group Trio Ayacuchano who performed for more than 50 years, from 1950 to 2004. Listen to his emblematic “Viva La Patria” here, an overview of the crisis in Ayacucho, full of suffering and the impotence he felt as an artist, yet a call for people to join forces.
Carlos was also our Line Producer during the filming of State of Fear in Ayacucho and the surrounding Andes as we went into the heart of the conflict that roiled Peru from 1980-2000. You know how it is during filming, you’re rolling the camera 5% of the time and the rest of the day, you’re talking, debating, inquiring, experiencing, telling stories and immersing yourself, getting to know people, the place, the history, the rich culture. Carlos and his boundless knowledge and experience was our guide into it all. He also led the team that translated and voiced the Quechua version of State of Fear, making sure that the film would be shown far and wide in the Quechua speaking parts of Peru, to the people most affected by the violence.
Carlos’ childhood was difficult and he was considered to be a sensitive child. His family lived in La Mar, 100 kilometers through the Andes from Ayacucho. His mother was a Quechua speaking campesina, his father was mestizo. Carlos spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother growing up in a Quechua speaking household.
In the 1980s, even after he became a well known musician, when the fighting between Sendero and the Peruvian military swept the highlands and Ayachucho became ground zero in the fight, Carlos would work with international delegations who arrived to investigate the conflict. Among the most notable was Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel’s visit in 1980 to investigate the disappeared. The harrowing stories Carlos heard gathering testimonies, he then poured into writing and performing testimonial huaynos.
As a human rights defender, his activism knew no bounds. He was always available to sing and perform at meetings, demonstrations and other events, evolving a heightened sense of how art could contribute to the strength of the growing human rights movement. He began a local newspaper “La Resistencia”.
After his death the government of Dina Boluarte awarded him a national medal for meritorious contribution to the arts. But in the face of the attacks on demonstrations across the country in late 2023, causing civilian deaths in Ayacucho and other cities, Carlos’ family publicly refused the government’s honor.
Never having received any government support for his art, Carlos’ family is now raising funds to publish his unfinished work – his autobiography, a new and final album, a book of Quechua stories for children, written with his grandson, and a book of poems in Quechua. Anyone willing to contribute to these efforts to continue his memory through his unpublished works, please contact me at email@example.com.
Pamela Yates’ feature length documentary film Borderland | The Line Within will be released this year.
By Luis Moreno-Ocampo
A Giant in a Small Body
Benjamin Ferencz dedicated his life to replacing war with justice. His website highlighted his personal goal: A strong supporter of the International Criminal Court, Mr. Ferencz dedicated much of his inspirational life to efforts to replace the “rule of force with the rule of law.”
Ben had an incredible experience fighting in Normandy during WWII, and liberating different camps, including Buchenwald and Dachau. Then he worked during the Nuremberg trials first as supervising investigations, counsel in the Krupp trial, and, when he was 27 years old, the Prosecutor of the “Einsatzgruppen,” the biggest murder trial in human history as rightly he liked to present it. He stayed in Germany, working as the Director of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization obtaining reparations for the Holocaust victims. He worked as a lawyer in New York, and since 1970 he focused on creating an International Criminal Court and working to establish the crime of aggression.
Ben was exceptionally charismatic, exceptionally smart, and exceptionally gentle. He was admired, but his main ideas have not taken hold. The US’s main policy is to rely on military force as a method to establish global order, and it refuses to be submitted to any international court.
I met Ben for the first time at Benjamin Cardozo Law School in 1988. We were on the same panel. His comments impressed me, but even more so because he was a former Nuremberg prosecutor and was still in great shape. So, at the end of the meeting, I approached him:
-Mr Ferencz, you have an incredible experience, and your comments were very smart, but I’m particularly impressed that you are in such good physical form at your age.
I was expecting a courteous thank you, and Ben, being Ben, did the opposite.
-How can you say that!!- Ben started to shout very loudly to me, raising his hands and moving them in front of my face– how can you say that!! You don’t know me. I was 6,3 feet tall and look at me now; I am 5,3.
I met him many times in my life. I asked him to talk at my swearing-in ceremony as the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and received his visits many times in my office.
He was involved at the Rome Conference in 1998 and the only person from the NGO community advocating for the criminalization of aggression at the Rome Statute Review Conference in Kampala in 2010. He gave the speech during the main dinner before the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and 85 ambassadors. As usual, he was brilliant and funny.
The Conference adopted a historical definition of the crime of aggression but created a jurisdictional request that would make it impossible to open an investigation for the crime. Moreover, it delayed the implementation of these changes for seven years. Ben was already 92, and I imagined he would be very frustrated. But Ben was unstoppable.
I met him again in New York at the Assembly of States parties a few months later. He said to me:
-Luis, they closed the door. Then we will go through the window. Whoever launches a war will commit war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ben foresaw what happened with Putin in 2023, who was indicted for a war crime. In 2011 he accepted to be a special counsel at our office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and was responsible for closing our arguments in our first trial. He prepared his words carefully for three days, discussed them with us, and presented the Office position brilliantly. I was thrilled that he was the living bridge between Nuremberg and the International Criminal Court.
Ben was clear and firm when no one was supporting him. In January 2020, he criticized the killing of the Iranian General Soleimani: “The administration recently announced that, on orders of the president, the United States had “taken out” (which really means “murdered”) an important military leader of a country with which we were not at war. As a Harvard Law School graduate who has written extensively on the subject, I view such immoral action as a clear violation of national and international law.”
In June 2020, Ben was already 100 years old. Still, he opposed President Trump’s executive order targeting the International Criminal Court. He said: “On behalf of the countless victims of atrocity crimes around the world who look to the United States for moral leadership and to the International Criminal Court for help in the fight against impunity, I respectfully urge President Trump to reconsider the matter and to rescind his recent executive order and its sanctions.”
On the 17th of December 2020, Ben was decorated with the title of ‘Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the International Criminal Court’.
In expressing his appreciation to the Court, Ben stated: “Now approaching my 102nd year, I have cherished the goals for which the ICC stands throughout my entire adult life and I give thanks for the torch-bearers who will carry the dream of a more humane world under the rule of law forward, lest we perish from the folly of our failure to do so.”
The New York Times obituary is a good example of the US audience’s difficulties in grasping Ben’s ideals: “Although Mr. Ferencz supported the International Criminal Court, it fell short of his hopes. Some 40 countries, including the United States, Russia, China, Israel and Iraq, did not sign or ratify the treaty that created it. Critics say the court has focused on prosecutions in Africa while American wars have not even been investigated.”
Ben Ferencz was a giant, and this is the time to follow him and to replace war with justice.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo was the first Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court from 2003 to 2012. He was the Deputy Prosecutor of the Argentine “Trial of the Juntas” and featured in the recent films El Juicio and Argentina, 1985 as well as Skylight’s The Reckoning.
LUCRECIA HERNÁNDEZ MACK
1973 – 2023, Guatemala
By Marcie Mersky
“The loves of my life are my two sons and Guatemala”
Lucrecia Hernández Mack was just two months shy of her 50th birthday when she succumbed to ovarian cancer on September 6, 2023. Until she was no longer able, she lived to the very fullest, spending as much time as possible with her two sons and other beloved family members and friends. And she continued to contribute to Movimiento Semilla, an emerging political project for change, which she helped to found with a strong social justice and anti-corruption agenda. Semilla won the presidential elections just a short month before she died. Her legacy will hopefully help guide this young political party in its exercise of government and its efforts to construct a truly democratic State.
Lucrecia was one of the country’s few great statespersons, with so much more to give to Guatemala. She led with deep analytical clarity, an unflagging belief in the possibility of progressive change in Guatemala and, when in doubt, guided always by what she valued most, preached to others, and called a “moral compass.” And she was an unflagging advocate for women’s rights and women’s participation as equals in politics.
Trained as a physician at Guatemala’s national university, she later completed doctoral studies at Mexico’s Metropolitan University in social medicine. Developing health policy and programs to address Guatemala’s deep-rooted social, cultural and economic inequities and provide access to quality primary care especially in marginalized rural communities was one of her greatest passions. And it is one very important element of her legacy. Working with a team – another passion – she developed a community-focused model for primary care attention, first with local non-governmental health projects and later implemented nationwide while serving as the country’s first woman Minister of Health from July 2016 to August 2017. During her year leading the Ministry she was also sharply focused on implementing internal structural changes aimed at rooting out endemic corruption especially in the Ministry’s personnel and procurement practices. It was her moral compass that led her (and three of her vice-ministers) to resign over the gross corruption throughout the government and the President’s decision to oust the head of the prestigious and effective International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, CICIG. But even today, local health workers in various parts of the country praise the model her team implemented and remember with great respect her understanding of their challenges and her clear leadership.
When Movimiento Semilla participated in elections for the first time in 2019, Lucrecia ran for Congress and won a four-year term. Even after her cancer diagnosis in 2020 and absences during her debilitating treatment, she continued to carry a full load both in Congress and with her party. She was a tireless advocate for equitable health care legislation and in her final year, led a large-scale consultative process – including patients – to inform and shape a bill she developed to create a National Cancer Policy to guide research, prevention, treatment and support. While the bill has yet to be passed, hopefully in the next Congress that takes office in January 2024, with a much larger number of Movimiento Semilla members, this policy will become law and a fitting tribute to Lucrecia’s passionate commitment to health and health care as a fundamental human right.
Lucrecia was a guiding light within Movimiento Semilla, contributing to its political strategy from the beginning and campaigning side-by-side, crisscrossing the country, with Bernardo Arévalo, now Guatemala’s President-Elect, even as her cancer flared and her body weakened. What never weakened, however, was her commitment to Guatemala, her intellectual acumen, her political and moral clarity, her ever-present sense of humor and her indomitable spirit. These all live on in those who accompanied her at different times in her much too brief life and provide an example for so many others.
Lucrecia was the daughter of Myrna Mack, a social anthropologist who was murdered by the Guatemalan military in 1990 for her brave and ground-breaking research and advocacy for the communities that had been internally displaced by the Army’s scorched earth campaigns during the internal armed conflict. Lucrecia was only 16 at the time. Her aunt, Helen Mack, became a prominent human rights activist as she worked to bring Myrna’s assassins to justice, as well as becoming Lucrecia’s “second mother.” Lucrecia’s father, Victor Hugo Hernández, was a political activist and is a practicing physician and surgeon. Lucrecia liked to say, with her inimitable laugh, that her decision to work in social medicine was a cross between her parents’ two professions.
Perhaps burdened in some ways early on by this family legacy, it was into her 40s that Lucrecia became a star in her own right, on her own terms, now leaving us with a legacy of a vision and program for health rights, equality and broader social justice. She was beautiful and passionate, loyal and loving. The light of her star lives on for all who wish to see it.
 Title of the interview published with Lucrecia Hernández Mack in Prensa Comunitaria, November 21, 2019
Marcie Mersky worked in Guatemala for 25 years on environmental and human rights issues. She was the coordinator of the final report of the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth commission.
1969 – 2023, England
By Vinay Shukla
On 14th July 2023, Jess Search made her last public appearance. She came out to the premiere of my film While We Watched in London. She was an Executive Producer on the project and naturally we were all really excited to see her. It had been a couple of weeks since her diagnosis and we knew that every second we spent with her now was precious. A lot of people were there that night – Doc Society crew, friends, family, filmmakers who she had worked with, important people of London, etc. Besides these, there were also about 200 other people in the audiences who had no idea who Jess was. They were just regular cinema going people who bought tickets to a documentary premiere. There was a small after party planned and we were all looking forward to it. Anyways, the film gets over, Carole Callwadur does the Q&A, everyone is quite emotional, I call the film crew to come onstage. One by one everyone comes down and then, at the end, I invite Jess and Beadie [Finzi] on stage and everyone absolutely erupts. There are lots of cheers from the 50 emotional people who knew them and because of that the 200 people who don’t know them also start cheering like crazy. It was all quite sweet. I invite Jess to the mic and she comes forward and takes the stage from me. And within 5 mins, she charms the entire theatre. Everyone is literally holding onto every word she is saying. And then, out of the blue, Jess announces to the entire theatre that there is going to be an after party and that everyone is invited. This wasn’t supposed to happen. So I leaned over to Beadie and I asked her “Is everyone coming to the party?”. And Beadie laughs and replies “Well, they are now”. I look back at Jess and she is giving out the address to the party over the mic and people are writing it down on their phones. And then she goes “Fuck it, let’s all walk together to the party”. So then, you have 250 people marching together through the streets of London – old people, young people, artists, friends, lovers, children, board members, people who run events – it was like a festival! And that was Jess, you know. She wasn’t a gatekeeper. She was fiercely democratic. On her last night out amongst the people, she didn’t just retire to a room of selected people. No, she threw the door open and invited everybody in. We got to the party and it was too hot. The food and drinks kept getting over and there were multiple rounds of everything ordered. Of course this was going to happen because there were 250 people in a room meant for 50. But not one person complained. Everyone spoke to everyone. People sang songs in the corner and introduced themselves to new strangers. They took photos. And I looked around this room of complete strangers and randos and I remembered that till a couple of years ago, I was a complete rando too. Nobody knew me or cared about the fact that I wanted to make films. And I chuckled to myself. But what I remember the most about that night was how graciously Beadie and Jess moved around that room. They held hands, made promises and accepted prayers. Since Jess’s passing a couple of months ago, we have all been asked if we miss her. I have been asked too. And there is no satisfying answer to that. I miss Jess like I miss the sun during a cold long winter. I missed Jess when I was in the midst of a production crisis last week. I missed her this morning when I walked into this DocSociety event and didn’t see her around. I call out to her in my head but don’t hear anything back. And then, out of the blue, I’ll be listening to a banger of a song and I’ll see her dancing in my head. Or I’ll be watching an Instagram reel about kindness and I’ll remember Jess. Sometimes I tear up, sometimes I laugh. And that’s true for a lot of us in this room. We miss Jess and we text each other about how much we miss her. She was wholly present in our lives. When nobody was there, she was there. It didn’t matter if you were a well-known filmmaker like Laura Poitras and Kimberley Reed or a not so well known filmmaker like Vinay Shukla. I mean, the fact that I’m here is a reflection of the spirit of DocSociety – of opening the door for new randos and letting people come in and giving them a chance. Once upon a time, you, me and a lot of people present in this room were a complete rando. And then someone gave us a shot – maybe they answered your email, or they gave you a grant, or they invited you to an afterparty. And Jess didn’t just invite you in, she’d take you around and introduce you to everyone at the party. She was fierce. She fought for us and protected us while we tried to become artists. At one point, I was betrayed by one of my production partners on While We Watched. I immediately called Maxyne [Franklin] and Jess. The first thing that Maxyne promised me were love, community and support. The first thing that Jess promised me was cold revenge. “We are going to get these bastards, Vinay. There’s no way they are going to get away with this”. I laughed out loud! She was such a badass. It’s for moments like that I miss Jess. I’m not going to say that I’m eternally grateful to her because what does an eternity even mean anymore. Every second of injustice feels like an eternity for someone who is in the midst of a war that they did nothing to deserve. So I’m going to leave here today with a desire to Jess again. I’m not sure how it’s going to happen. Like I said, she doesn’t answer my mental calls. But I know that I see glimpses of her when I do things that reflect her spirit – when I dance like no one’s watching, when I stand up against injustices, when I watch dumb reels on Instagram and when I open the door for a random stranger to walk in and have a shot. Good things can be hard to come by but Jess always made it easy. She was resolutely funny. I once asked her “What would you do if I switched over to fiction films instead of documentaries?” And she replied “I’d forgive you, of course”. I remember how wildly her eyes would shine. I miss you, Jess. This is really hard. I wish you were here with me. All of us yearn for you. I’ll see you soon.
Vinay Shukla is the director of the documentary film While We Watched which was awarded the DOC NYC Short List Features Awards for both Directing and Producing.
FRANCISCO PANCHO SOBERÓN GARRIDO
By Eduardo González-Cueva
The Memoir He Wouldn’t Write
In our last conversation, I asked Pancho whether he had thought of writing his memoirs. It was a not very subtle way to broach the subject of his growing physical fragility, but it came enveloped in the kind of practical thinking that he appreciated: after all, I noted, he was the first to say that, as he aged, his main role was to transmit knowledge to new generations of human rights defenders. He wasn’t prepared to do that, just yet, he said, it was not the moment. I took note, to think of a different approach to put Pancho in front of a recording device and capture a few moments of his extraordinary life.
I knew Pancho first as a young activist in the 1990s in Peru. In those years, it was difficult to find any points of light in the country’s public life. The legacy of economic collapse, the trauma of the Shining Path and state terror, the populist authoritarianism of Alberto Fujimori painted these years in tonalities of gray. The once powerful social movements of previous decades were in shambles: leaders killed, rank and file demoralized by the neoliberal destruction of organized labor. The cause of social justice was demonized, its activists reduced to a threatened minority, as Fujimori and his allies led the country with an effective combination of economic free-for-all and military repression.
In that landscape of despair, human rights defenders all over the country were among the few groups capable to both resist state power and assail it, questioning its legitimacy. As director of the Pro Human Rights Association (Aprodeh), he provided legal services to families of those executed, disappeared, tortured, raped or arbitrarily imprisoned during Peru’s internal conflict. He was one of the key public faces in the La Cantuta case, supporting the relatives of the disappeared students, participating in the exhumations, taking the case to national and international courts. He also provided the space of Aprodeh as a platform for any creative, artistic, innovative form of disrupting the passivity and fear of those years.
I found Pancho again, when I was studying abroad. He needed someone with organizing experience to reach out to Latin American human rights defenders to support the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The ICC was then seen as an eccentric initiative, the product of Quixotic idealists whose treaty would never be successfully negotiated, let alone ratified by the international community. Yet, with the support of people like Pancho, the Rome Statute entered into force only four years after its passage, including the ratifications of many countries in Latin America.
And then, as I came back to Peru, just in time to see the collapse of the Fujimori regime, it was Pancho, together with the leaders of the National Coordination for Human Rights, who imbued the transition to democracy with a commitment to fight against impunity. Aprodeh put together the first international consultation in Lima on a truth commission and transitional justice, when the concept “transitional justice” was barely a speculative academic construct, and the later famous International Center for Transitional Justice was in its infancy.
And as the truth commission ended its work, Pancho didn’t stop. He was the moving force behind the magnificent “Eye That Cries” memorial in Lima, the fight to have a national Memory Site, the struggle for fair reparations to the victims of violence… All those initiatives were, before he started them, considered highly unlikely to succeed. Perhaps the most notable of his victories as a human rights defender was the multi-year campaign for the extradition of Fujimori, first from Japan, where he had escaped after losing power in Peru, and then from Chile. In a country, like Peru, where no President had ever faced justice for crimes committed in office, few ever thought that Fujimori would someday sit in front of a court of law. And yet, it happened, and, as I was in the visitors’ gallery of the trial once, I could see Pancho, joining in an embrace with the relatives of the victims of La Cantuta, who were at the trial session after session.
I’m not saying that Pancho was some kind of super hero, but I would be remiss if I omitted the fact that all of his friends referred to him as “Super Pancho”! Put simply, he had all the characteristics of an effective activist: he knew all the relevant information by heart, he was convincing and charismatic, he was passionate and stubborn, and he was a generous mentor to hundreds of young people who crossed his paths in Aprodeh or, frankly, anywhere. Which is why, when he was forced by illness to retire, he continued to receive friends, day after day, at his small apartment, to chat over tea, catch up with each visitor’s family life, ask about the loved ones, share stories about his daughters and wife, and delve into discussion on the political environment in the world, in Peru, in this or that province or district.
In the last years, he could hardly see. So, he had to rely, partly, on reading applications or bold fonts. Mostly, though, he heard of the world through the testimonies of his friends, who gave him a faithful report of the victories and setbacks of the human rights world. Perhaps, it was because of this never ending activity that he didn’t think he was in any urgency to put together the story of his life. Perhaps, it was also because, in spite of his charisma, he was never overwhelming or egotistic and he never thought of his life as particularly extraordinary, next to the trajectories and moral convictions of his generation.
Pancho Soberón was, as many others in his generation, convinced of the need of radical revolution in the oligarchic Peru of the 1960s and, following the ideas of Freire, Gutiérrez, and the intellectual climate of those formative years, he left his privileged upbringing to go live in agrarian cooperatives and help organize campesino federations. Faced with the brutality of the 1980s, in order to protect the peasant leaders that he had known as a young activist, he launched Aprodeh, establishing links of solidarity and common work with the associations of victims, lawyers, churches, MPs, journalists, artists, international organizations, and every person who could be a potential ally for campaigning.
He never abandoned his political ideals. He considered himself an independent leftist, one that had partaken in the tradition of his generation across Latin America, but also one who rebuked and openly criticized the betrayal of ideals of justice when Left-wing governments entered into an authoritarian spiral or when, closer to home, Left-wing leaders chose alliances of convenience with persons credibly accused of human rights violations. In the last few years, he received Venezuelan and Nicaraguan activists and human rights defenders in Lima, and organized events for them, and he used the space of his house to criticize, firmly but warmly, those friends of his who, he thought were taking shortcuts to what had to be a long, complicated but ultimately authentic journey toward emancipation and rights.
He spent a few weeks in intensive care as the end of his life approached. So many weeks, in fact, that it became easy for friends in conversation to start using the past tense to refer to him. I remember a gathering of friends, where we realized this and decided that, even after what appeared to be an inevitable conclusion, we would somehow continue to refer to him in present tense. After all, Pancho is a presence in the lives of all Peruvian human rights defenders, he is an example, he lives, friendly, and warm as ever, in our hearts and, more importantly, in our daily practice. That was probably another reason he could have not become a memoirist, he knew that his time was the constant present tense of the struggle.
Eduardo González-Cueva is a globally recognized transitional justice expert. He has provided technical advice to truth commission processes in over twenty countries. He is currently a special advisor to the Global Survivors Fund.