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Agnes Fallah Kamara

2020 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar

Fainting Robin Foundation is proud to announce Agnes Fallah Kamara as our 2020 Distinguished Scholar. Among other things, Kamara is the author of the remarkable and heartfelt memoir And Still Peace Did Not Come. In it, she describes the psychological and emotional triage that comes in the wake of a brutal civil war. Liberia’s two civil wars (1989-1997 and 1999-2003) left 300,000 dead and 75% of the country’s women victims of rape. Although the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2003 brought about a ceasefire and a United Nations occupation, it was little more than a power sharing agreement between the warring factions that committed the atrocities. Like previous civil wars in Cambodia and Rwanda, after Liberia’s wars ended, victims and perpetrators often found themselves living side by side. Many wondered if the nation could ever reintegrate the thousands of child soldiers who carried out such unspeakable acts against their fellow countrymen (rape, human sacrifice and cannibalism).

Agnes Fallah Kamara
Agnes Fallah Kamara

Agnes Fallah Kamara fled Liberia in 1989, spent the next fourteen years as a displaced person, and returned in 2004 to launch a United Nation’s radio program called “Straight From The Heart.” Amazingly, victims, child soldiers, war lords, and witnesses, all voluntarily called in and shared their stories. After winning the trust of both the victims and perpetrators, Fallah Kamara established herself as one of Liberia’s postwar civic leaders. “She specializes in persuading former child soldiers — men with every reason to keep silent—to give oral histories, sometimes confessing acts of bewildering violence on her radio program there,” wrote The New York Times in a profile about her. Fallah Kamara believes that getting over the past does not mean forgetting it, but instead, acknowledging as a way to break the cycle of vengeance. When Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission fell short of expectations, Agnes Fallah Kamara established the Straight From the Heart Center in Monrovia to provide victims and perpetrators counseling, career guidance, and workshops on everything from Ebola awareness to journalism.

On a 2014 Vital Voices Fellowship trip to South Africa, Jaki Mathaga from Kenya told Fallah Kamara that her son had autism, “I felt a lot of sympathy for my friend, but I was also eager to do my best to support her and the autistic children in my country, Liberia. By coincidence, during my studies in the United States, my program offered a course on Autism Spectrum Disorder, which I happily took to further enrich my knowledge about the disorder.” When she returned to Liberia, it became clear to her that most Liberians were ignorant about autism and that most of her countrymen associated it with witchcraft, curses, spells, and demons. Once again, Fallah Kamara took to the airways to debunk misconceptions and explain autism’s actual causes. Her radio program “Autism Conversation with Parents” aired once a week and featured parents of autistic children as guests. They attempted to educate people about how to manage autistic children and spot early signs of the disorder. “Autism Conversation with Parents” quickly gained the interest of families with autistic children, many were relieved to learn that it had nothing to do with witchcraft or curses. Next, Agnes Fallah Kamara began to meet with some of these families and observe their children. “The meetings with these families were some of the most heart-wrenching experiences I have had in my life,” wrote Fallah Kamara, “Some parents told me they had been insulted and kept at arm’s length by other families, that their children were constantly mocked and not allowed to play with other children, that they had suffered the pain of managing an autistic child in a society with strong cultural beliefs about the disorder.”

Agnes Fallah Kamara and her sister, Regina Fallah-Hausman, a special needs teacher in New York, devised a plan for Liberia’s first school for autistic children, which opened in the fall of 2018 in Monrovia. They are presently training more teachers, social workers, and therapists in order to expand. Recently, they launched a collaboration with A Friendly Face Academy, a New York-based provider of therapy to autistic children. Her biggest significant support to set up the first autistic classroom in Liberia is from Eden II & Genesis Foundation, in Staten Island, New York.

Today, many in the human rights world talk about reconciliation after a civil war as if there is an accepted cross cultural formula for “truth and reconciliation.” Not only is there no precise formula, Fallah Kamara shows us that the process is often more art than science. With great compassion and humility, Agnes Fallah Kamara has helped to rebuild her society.

Update on Agnes Fallah Kamara:

After Fallah Kamara opened Liberia’s first school for autistic children in 2018, she enrolled in a master’s program in disability studies at the City University of New York. “Fainting Robin’s award helped me to pay my tuition so I was able to study instead of working two jobs to pay for my education,” she wrote, “I was able to take 9 credits instead of 6 and maintained a 3.7 GPA.” Because of Fallah Kamara’s strong track record as a civic leader and high GPA, she was inducted into The National Society of Leadership and Success in 2020. After Agnes Fallah Kamara receives her degree in 2021, she will return to Liberia to work with autistic children and their families.

Ed Vulliamy

2019 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar

It is a great pleasure to award Ed Vulliamy Fainting Robin Foundation’s 2019 Distinguished Scholar Prize. The board selected Vulliamy for his remarkable career as a frontline journalist. While covering the Balkan wars for The Guardian, Ed was awarded most of the major prizes in British journalism (Granada Television’s Foreign Correspondent of the Year Award, International Reporter of the Year, the Amnesty International Media Award, the James Cameron Award, Foreign Reporter of the Year).

Vulliamy was the first journalist since the Nuremberg trials to testify at an international war crimes tribunal. He went on to testify in ten Hague trials, including those of Bosnian Serb leaders Dr. Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic. Vulliamy covered the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath from his apartment in lower Manhattan. He covered both Iraq wars and was among the first to recognize the growing Iraqi insurgency. Since 2003, Ed has worked along the U.S.-Mexican border, reporting on migration, drug wars, cartels, and money laundering. His groundbreaking book Amexica: War Along the Borderline won the 2013 Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage. After a horrific accident that almost cost Ed his leg, he retired from The Guardian and Observer newspapers in October 2016 and became a full-time freelancer. In 2018 Vulliamy published his memoir, When Words Fail: A Life with Music, War and Peace.

Ed Vulliamy with the Mexican government burning 26,000 tons of heroin, cocaine, meth and other drugs in the background
Ed Vulliamy with the Mexican government burning 26,000 tons of heroin, cocaine, meth and other drugs in the background

Peter Maguire’s introduction of Ed Vulliamy at Bard College’s "New Frontiers in Human Rights Law" conference October 15, 2011

"It is a pleasure to share the same stage that I did 11 years ago with Ed Vulliamy at Bard College’s first accounting for atrocities conference in 1998. At the time I asked the conference participants to respond to a very difficult set of questions: Is it possible to enforce the Nuremberg Principles and laws of war without an unconditional surrender and monopoly on military power? Will the U.S. ever be willing to observe legal standards that inhibit America’s strategic options? If attacking civilian targets is a war crime, what does one make of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo? Finally, were the Nuremberg trials an anomaly in international affairs rather than a new paradigm? The responses from the participants were ground-breaking: South African judge Richard Goldstone, Nuremberg expert Jon Bush, former Nuremberg prosecutor William Caming, journalist Phillip Gourevich, professional soldier Lt. Col Conrad Crane, Reverend Alex Borraine, novelist Chinua Achebe, and Bard’s own Leon Botstein wrestled earnestly and honestly with these difficult and complex questions. However, there was one exception, one person refused to answer these questions. To this human rights industry luminary, these questions bordered on heresy. As far as he was concerned the post-Cold-War world would be governed by an international criminal court with "universal jurisdiction." At the time, many of us who were actively involved in war crimes investigations in the field and believed whole heartedly in war crimes accountability were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the evangelical tone that David Rieff would later describe as "the international legal internationale."

At the 1998 conference, one man stood out from all the others. Not only did he speak honestly and from his heart, he had been touched by fire. Ed Vulliamy came fresh from former Yugoslavia where he had discovered and exposed the Serb atrocities and concentration camps. While the United Nation’s Sergio DeMillo was enabling the Khmer Rouge during the UN’s occupation of Cambodia, Vulliamy was the one truly chasing the flame. For his efforts, Ed was denounced by some of his journalistic peers for testifying in the Hague and even accused of fabricating the story by Noam Chomsky and his acolytes.

My how the world has changed since the heady days of 1998. At that time National Security Advisor Samantha Power was a cub reporter writing open letters calling for a UN investigation of Senator John Kerry’s actions during the Vietnam War, She and her Harvard mentor Michael Ignatieff were the toast of the human rights world. Then came 9/11 and everything changed. Overnight, everyone became a tough guy or a tough girl—academics who had never been in a fist fight much less a fire fight competed to see who could strike the most macho pose against "Islamo-fascism." After 9/11 Michael Ignatieff endorsed torture and began to plot his run for Canadian PM. Samantha Power’s doctrine of humanitarian intervention was hijacked by the neocons and provided the intellectual underpinnings for our ongoing Crusade in the "Greater Middle East." Ed Vulliamy however, continued to chase the flame at a great personal price and ran risks that few outside of the Spec Ops community can imagine.

Above all, Ed Vulliamy has devoted his life to helping those who were too powerless to help themselves. Just as we had previously been viewed as heretics for pointing out uncomfortable truths about the ICC and “universal jurisdiction,” after 9/11 we were considered apostates for raising questions about the U.S. using star chamber courts and evidence obtained by torture. During my decade of field work in Cambodia, there was one person I constantly turned to for advice both before and after especially difficult trips—Ed Vulliamy. Like Sherman said of Grant after the Civil War, "He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other always." No flattering book review or polite applause from the masters of the universe at the Council on Foreign Relations can match the satisfaction that comes with the heartfelt thanks and opprobrium we have both received from both the victims and perpetrators of the atrocities we have investigated and exposed.

At the 1998 conference, Ed compared himself to the Coleridge’s "Ancient Mariner" and added that he now sympathized with the wedding guest. Ed said, "Poor sod, he just wanted to enjoy himself and got pinned to the wall by this man." For the next two days you, like Colerridge’s wedding guest, will be pinned to the wall by Ancient Mariners like Ed Vulliamy, Khmer Rouge survivor Sophal Ear, Professor Jonathan Bush, Col. Morris Davis and myself. It is my great honor to introduce my colleague and friend, Ed Vulliamy."

Update on Ed Vulliamy:

Vulliamy just completed an updated tenth anniversary edition of the book that includes new material on recent events along the U.S.-Mexican borderline: a humanitarian crisis of migration, the shifting sands of cartel power, the rise of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, and the fentanyl trade. The new book needed extensive reporting from Mexico City, Veracruz, Sinaloa, the dangerous frontier cities, in New York on the trial of Guzmán, and deeper investigation of the laundering of his profits by the Wachovia and HSBC banks. “The new edition had no publisher’s advance,” wrote Vulliamy, “So that my independent scholar’s grant from Fainting Robin provided an essential contribution to the realization of the work. It was spent frugally but constructively — every dollar accounted for – on travel and lodging along the border during the years 2018-2020, in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros — all scenes of hyper-violent contestation of the narco-trafficking plazas, and crises of migration.” After his 2020 trip to Mexico, Vulliamy traveled to Los Angeles and delivered a speech entitled, “From the Border to the Bank: Migration and Misery, Drugs and Dollars” at the law firm Munger, Tolls, and Olson.

Dr. Sylvain Vogel

2018 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar

"For more than twenty years, on his own time and at his own expense, Sylvain Vogel has traveled to Cambodia’s most remote and malarial forests to document the language, culture, and folklore of Cambodia’s Bunong hilltribe," said FRF founder and chairman Dr. Peter Maguire in his announcement of the award, "Vogel is exactly the type of prolific, under supported, and independent scholar that our foundation looks to help." FRF will bring Vogel to Wilmington in 2017 where he and Maguire will translate his latest work into English and interview some of the Cambodian Bunong who have resettled here.

Dr. Sylvain Vogel
Dr. Sylvain Vogel
Vogel and his Bunong teacher and collaborator, Nchööp.
Vogel and his Bunong teacher and collaborator, Nchööp.
Vogel and Nchööp traveling to a Bunong village in Mondulkiri.
Vogel and Nchööp traveling to a Bunong village in Mondulkiri.
Crossing a bridge on the way to Mondulkiri.
Crossing a bridge on the way to Mondulkiri.
A Bunong village in Mondulkiri.
A Bunong village.
Vogel and Nchööp interviewing one of the last surviving elephant tamers.
Vogel and Nchööp interviewing one of the last surviving elephant tamers.
Bunong elephant tamer with his lasso.
Bunong elephant tamer with his lasso.

Southeast Asia’s hill tribes (Montagnards) have been dying a slow, agonizing death since their American allies withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975. Prior to the Vietnam War, one million people inhabited the highlands of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where the thirty-three tribes spoke their own languages, worshipped their own Gods, and lived according to their own rules. Because the surviving 30,000 Bunong remain largely unilingual, their language is one of the last authentic examples of the old base of Mon-Khmer languages.

This research is both important and time sensitive because hill tribe languages and cultures are vanishing due to deforestation and the encroachment of the exogenous populations of Cambodia and Vietnam. Vogel’s discoveries about the phonetic and syntactic features of Bunong have invalidated many linguistic theories and helped to refine others. After studying their language and immersing himself in their culture, Sylvain Vogel learned of a vast body of unwritten literature that was passed down from generation to generation. These philosophical stories of causation explain everything from the mysterious construction of temples at Angkor Wat to the Vietnam War. Vogel believes that the structure of these aetiologic tales proves that the Bunong live self sufficiently in the forest by choice, they "rejected the coercion of the nation state or any other outside ruler." Not only is this hill tribe conscious of having both a literature and orature, their language has specific terms for each literary genre (epic tale, mythical story, etc.). For many Western researchers these genres are difficult to define. Vogel, however, has shown that the defining criterion is the sound of the recitation in this monosyllabic language: singing, repetition within a single stanza (theme/rhyme) or grammatical structure (subject/predicate), assonance, or a rupture marking a conclusion. The linguist identified examples of phonetic reduction, the neutralization of sequences, the use of deictic particles, and enunciation. Sylvain Vogel’s two books and three journal articles on the Bunong have clarified and resolved a number of linguistic debates.

As the Cambodian forest vanishes so does the hill tribe’s means of sustaining their traditional way of life. The changing economics of globalism, the imposition of the sovereign state system, and ethics of the outside world have forced many to abandon their traditional, egalitarian values and the freedom they once enjoyed as independent farmers and hunters. "I was only a witness who watched, with great sadness and a feeling of helplessness, the disappearance of a culture,” said Vogel, “No wishful thinking, no culturally sensitive language, no crying, or bleeding of hearts, can change a thing."

"What Sylvain Vogel accomplished is astonishing, his latest book, published by UNESCO, Voix du Mondolkiri historique, is a tribute to the oral literature of the Bunong, which the linguist compares to The Iliad. Given that Vogel is also a master of ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, he knows what he is talking about"

—Professor Mathieu Guérin of the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO)

"The story of Mr. Vogel is quite curious. A recognized specialist of Persian and Pashto, he was ranked 1st in the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (the largest governmental research organization in France) entrance examination in 1992….He learned Khmer, founded a department of linguistics where he taught Khmer, and studied Phnong, to which he had already devoted three books and two articles to the Asian Journal (2000 and 2007). The reasons why no French scientific institute has chosen to recruit this very brilliant and productive linguist would undoubtedly be the subject of an interesting article in academic sociology"

—Professor Gérard Fussman Collège de France.

Biography

Sylvain Vogel received his undergraduate degree from Strasbourg University in 1976 and spent most of 1977-1991 in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fieldwork he conducted in Baluchistan on the Wanetsi dialect of Pashto became his dissertation, “Aspects of the Pashto Verb.” After receiving his doctorate from the Sorbonne, Vogel moved to Cambodia where he reestablished the linguistics department at Phnom Penh University and began to document the language, culture and folklore of the Cambodian hilltribes. Vogel is the author of: "Conflits ethniques au Balouchistan pakistanais : deux récits en wanetsi," Journal Asiatique, 1988; "Syntagme verbal et aspect en Pashto," Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, 1991; "Oppositions aspectuelles et injonction en Pashto," Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique, 1994; "Impératif, sémantique modale et personne en Pashto," Studia Iranica, 1989; "Pronoms et particules énonciatives en phnong," Journal Asiatique, 2000; "Classificateurs et quantifieurs en khmer moderne," BEFEO, 2002; "Noms en em- ploi syncatégorématique en khmer et en francique," Bulletin de la Société de la linguistique de Paris, 2003; Introduction à la grammaire de la langue et aux dits traditionnels des Phnong de Mondulkiri, Editions Funan, 2006 (a 260-page book about the grammar and the traditional poetry of the Cambodian province of Mondulkiri; Chants phnong du Mondulkiri, Editions Funan, 2008.

Update on Sylvain Vogel:

After France’s oldest and most distinguished academic institution, Académie des In-scriptions et Belles Lettres, awarded Sylvain Vogel the Prix Santour for his time-sensitive field research on the Cambodian Montagnard’s dying language and culture, Vogel wrote, “Thanks to the generous grant Fainting Robin Foundation awarded me, I was able to spend three months in the highlands interviewing tribal elders to confirm my findings.” In 2020, Vogel broke new scholarly ground with his essay, “Entre lexique et grammaire: intervalles de temps et temporalization en buong, l’unite man ‘nuit’.” In the article’s first footnote, Vogel wrote, “Finally, I am pleased to express my deepest gratitude to the Fainting Robin Foundation which largely funded this research and, in particular, to its founder Peter Maguire for his generous hospitality when, invited to North Carolina by him, he granted me hospitality within his family for a month. Without them this article would never have seen the light of day.” Entre lexique et grammaire will appear in a book on minority languages that Peter Lang Publishing Group will release in 2020.