“When old people speak it is not because of the sweetness of words in our mouths; it is because we see something which you do not see.”
– Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist
When populist governments rise, or when free speech is threatened, it so often falls to the steely wisdom of older generations to fight for justice.
Every age group has its heroes and, so often, older generations are the champions of the young.
Index has covered a range of groups since its inception in 1972 and elderly protesters have often featured. Here is a look at some of the most significant.
Across the country, Belarusians are mass protesting current president Aleksander Lukashenko after elections in August appeared to be rigged.
At the forefront of the ongoing protests is 73-year-old Nina Bahinskaya.
The former geologist has certainly become identifiable with the demonstrations. Index’s Mark Frary spoke to her.
“I decided they [the authorities] would not be so harsh to an old lady, that’s why I decided to organise some activities myself,” said Nina.
Bahinskaya began her protesting after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, distributing leaflets critical of the Soviet regime, so has experience demonstrating against oppressive governments.
“I don’t want it to continue because I have children, grandchildren and even a great-grandchild.”
President Lukashenko recently met with Vladimir Putin. In a showing of support, Putin agreed to give the Lukashenko government a sizeable loan. It has furthered concern in the country about the increase of Russian influence.
Bahinskaya echoed this worry, she said: “This is quite obvious that some kind of new annexation is happening.”
See Index’s most recent coverage and Bahinskaya’s interview with Mark Frary here.
In 1976 the National Reorganization Process seized control of Argentina. The military junta were responsible for a number of atrocities. Backed by the United States as part of a ‘dirty war’, the Argentinian government committed acts of state terrorism upon its own citizens, including the forced disappearances of close to 30,000 people.
A higher value was placed upon young children and babies due to a waiting list for trafficked children. Those hopeful of adopting the trafficked children were military families and supporters of the new regime.
Lucia He spoke to one of Argentina’s ‘famous grandmothers’ for Index in 2017. Buscarita Roa, part of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has campaigned since 1977 for disappeared victims to be identified.
She told Index: “Even if you’ve found your own grandchild, you stay because you think of the grandmother who is sick in bed and still hasn’t found hers. To us, the grandchildren we are searching for are all ours.”
The group began protesting at the height of the fear spread by the junta. One of the two founding members of the organisation was disappeared. Its high profile led to infiltration. In 1986, an extract from the book Mothers and Shadows by Marta Traba was published in Index. It spoke of the ‘notorious’ Captain Alfredo Astiz, whose access to the group led to 13 further disappearances.
Despite its reputation, Roa insisted there was little glory in being part of the organisation.
“Being a Grandmother of Plaza de Mayo is not something to be proud of, because having a disappeared grandchild is not something to be proud of.”
In 2018, Annemarie Luck covered one of Japan’s forgotten scandals: the South Korean ‘comfort women’ or, more accurately, sex slaves.
It took until 1992 for survivors to tell their story
Luck reported that some members of the survivors’ group still meet at the same spot every Wednesday outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
They were first issued with a signed apology in 1994 by then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama and in 2015, an agreement was reached between Japan and South Korea for the equivalent of $9 million.
Victims, as well as South Korean state officials, viewed the agreement as inadequate and protests have since continued.
239 women had registered with the South Korean government by 2016 as survivors of sexual slavery.
The House of Sharing in the city of Gwanju is home to many of the survivors. Team leader at the facility, Ho-Cheol Jeong, told Index of the impact the women he calls the ‘grandmothers’ have had.
Ho-Cheol said: “In a way, these women could be thought of as the original pioneers of the movement against sexual abuse and harassment that’s spreading throughout the world right now.”
Ukraine & Russia
In 2014, Index reported on the Russian government covering up its own soldiers’ deaths from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Bereaved families were ‘discouraged’ from talking to media organisations.
Since the conflict broke out in February 2014, an estimated 5,665 soldiers have been killed
73-year-old activist and grandmother Lyudmila Bogatenkova faced a retributive accusation of fraud in response to drawing up a list of military casualties.
Bogatenkova was at the time head of a Soldiers’ Mothers branch in the city of Stavropol. The organisation provides legal advice to soldiers, as well as education programmes.
The allegation threatened Bogatenkova with up to six years in jail, before Russia’s human rights council intervened.
At the time, the BBC reported that local journalists were unable to meet the families of perished soldiers due to threats from ‘groups of aggressive men’.
Not all grannies are equally ready to stand up in the face of repression.
In 2013, after Chinese media frequently drew attention to stories of neglected pensioners, a new law was introduced.
The legislation stipulates that adults can face jail time or be sued if they do not visit their parents regularly.
Though brought in to Chinese law, it faced derision from across China and the globe and was not expected to be widely enforced. Many believed it was introduced to serve as an ‘educational message’.
However shortly after it was introduced a 77-year-old woman sued her daughter, who was subsequently ordered to provide financial support as well as bi-monthly visits.
The country struggles with the problem of an ageing population that, as numbers continue to reduce could cause economic growth in the region to fall.