Héctor Abad’s Oblivion: A Memoir Named 2012 WOLA-Duke Book Award Winner

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Duke University have named Héctor Abad’s book Oblivion: A Memoir as the winner of the 2012 WOLA/Duke Human Rights Book Award. Héctor Abad spoke on November 29 at Duke University. Abad graciously accepted the award of behalf of his father, who is the protagonist of his book. An excerpt from his speech is below, and the entire version is available here.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

My name is Héctor Abad, and my father’s name was Héctor Abad. He was a great advocate for human rights; I am not, nor have I ever been. That’s why I’ve always used a line from Quevado to define myself that goes like this: “Un cobarde con nombre de valiente,” or in English, “A coward, with the name of someone courageous.” I know very well that I don’t deserve this award, and that it is being given posthumously to a man with my same name: my father. I accept the award with this fundamental clarification: the WOLA-Duke Book Award is not for the author of this book but for its protagonist.

So that you understand in fact how much he does deserve this award, I want to begin by telling you all a story from my adolescence that I forgot to tell in Oblivion, but which seems important to share with you now. One day, in the middle of the 1970s, the library in my house was suddenly invaded by a bunch of cardboard boxes. Inside the boxes were paper packages tied up with a string, and inside each of these packages were 100 identical pamphlets. My dad had printed, using his own funds, five thousand little green booklets, all with the same title and the same content: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These small, skinny booklets reproduced this fundamental documentation of the world’s moral progress, and from that day my dad gave them away to visitors of the house, and whenever he could he distributed them on the streets of the city…

Abad’s book begins with the author’s memories of his father, Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, who developed practical public health programs for the poor in Medellín, Colombia. The increasing violence and human rights abuses of the 1970s and 1980s led the author’s father to fight for social justice in his community . As a physician, he recognized the violence as a societal sickness in need of a cure, but his political views put him at odds with those in power, and they labeled his views as sympathetic to Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla groups. In Oblivion, twenty years after his father was killed by a right-wing death squad, Abad memorializes and pays homage to the man who continues to inspire him today, and he shows us the importance of standing up against injustice.

Judges for this year’s competition called Abad’s book “deeply moving”, “beautiful” and “original,” recognizing it for painting a heartfelt picture of how damaging political violence is for victims and their families and for stressing the importance of fighting for social justice and the respect for human rights, despite staggering opposition.

“It kept me up at night and brought me to tears, and will bring, at least in my mind, something like eternal life to the murdered Doctor Héctor Abad Gómez.” says journalist, writer, and award judge, Roger Atwood.

Robin Kirk, Director of the Duke Human Rights Center, explains that she chose this book “because it offers us something new and challenging, something surprising and hard – being an activist and making a difference can sometimes cost your life.”

A video of Héctor Abad’s visit to Duke University can be found here.


Tags: human rightsWOLA-DukeBook AwardColumbia