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When writing saves lives

Mahendra Kusuma Wardhana - a former prisoner of conscience - has a personal experience of how much d

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – the document that led to the foundation of Amnesty International. To mark the anniversary, Amnesty is calling on everyone to send a greetings card to show solidarity and support to a prisoner of conscience or a human rights activist or organisation.

But how much can writing one card make a difference? How much can such a tiny gesture really change things? The answer is far greater than you can ever imagine.

I should know. I was a prisoner of conscience in my native Indonesia and received more than 4,000 cards of support during my time in custody.

That simple act of solidarity had a real impact for me.

My crime had been to take part in an anti-government demonstration to complain about their decision to dramatically raise fuel prices. As part of the protest, photographs of the president and vice-president were burnt. I was jailed for three years for this “offence” and was tortured.

Shortly afterwards, Amnesty International labelled me a Prisoner of Conscience and featured me in their Greetings Card Campaign.

Once the cards started to arrive, the prison guards were more careful in dealing with me. It also helped me to know that I had lots of support. I was convinced that what I did was not criminal and it was important to me to know that other people believed that too.

That message of solidarity meant so much, and made me realise how writing a simple card can make a difference. I was inspired. When I was in jail, I wrote to other people featured in the campaign. And I hope that those small acts of solidarity had as big an impact on them as it did on me.

I was released in 2005, but there are many things that still need to be changed and my duty to struggle for human rights is not over, which is why I believe the 60th anniversary should not go unnoticed.

Sixty years ago humankind was in the middle of a disaster. The Second World War had just ended with all the cruelty humankind could muster. Millions of people died. And of course there were the concentration camps, which showed how destructive humans can be when fed on the hate and ignorance of prejudice.

Out of that chaos emerged the UDHR. Published on 10 December 1948, it tried to unite humanity under the banner of equal rights – whether male or female, black or white, communist or capitalist, victor or vanquished, rich or poor, for members of a majority or a minority in the community.

After sixty years, humankind has achieved a lot: The abolition of apartheid, progress towards the end of the death penalty, equal rights for coloured people, equal rights for women and the freedom to form a trade union. But we are still surrounded by wars, crises and poverty. Especially after 9/11 when the world once again divided. And we should not hide from reality. We should speak about the truth, no matter how bad it is.

One Indonesian poet and activist said: “Silence is extending the slavery.” He is still missing – the military regime kidnapped him in the 90s.

My plea to you all – as the 60th anniversary of the UDHR nears – is to realise how much of a difference you can make. At the very least, send a card – log onto to find a list of individuals and organisations. I for one know how powerful that can be.