“Wait, please, we’ll take you home”: Former Michael Kovrig punk band joins campaign for release
It had been over two decades since Michael Kovrig had performed the song live, but as he took the stage in Budapest he still remembered all the words.
“I’m sitting in my room, and I think there is nothing I can do about this gloom,” he sang over the heavy guitars of Bankrupt, the Hungarian punk band he co-founded. in 1996. “It you don’t listen, I’ll go crazy on my own.
It was in 2017, a year before he was arrested in China with fellow Canadian Michael Spavor. Mr Kovrig was in Budapest to visit friends and watch a performance by his old band when they dragged him on stage to perform with them.
“It was really good, like all those years have never passed,” Bankrupt bassist and singer Balazs Sarkadi told The Globe and Mail. “It was a really cool moment. And then a year and a half later, we found out that he had been arrested. “
The arrests of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor in December 2018 came shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was detained in Vancouver following an extradition request from the US Department of Justice.
September 4 marks 1,000 days in jail for the two men, a dark milestone that supporters hoped would never reach. Both have been charged with espionage and tried this year. They risk a life sentence.
Message Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig as they approach 1,000 days of detention in China
Last month, Mr. Kovrig’s former bandmates released a song calling on all relevant governments to work for his and Mr. Spavor’s release.
So far, the negotiations have come to naught. Ottawa – which denounces the imprisonment of the men as political and arbitrary – refused to agree to a prisoner swap against Ms. Meng. Last month, in talks with US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, a senior Chinese official called on Washington to drop its extradition case against the Huawei executive.
Mr Sarkadi first met Mr Kovrig in the mid-1990s, when the then 24-year-old Canadian was working as a reporter for an English-language newspaper.
Foreigners, including Canadians, had flocked to Hungary in the years following his transition to democracy in 1989. Mr. Kovrig had more connections than most: his father was born in the country, so he obtained the Hungarian citizenship through it.
At the time, Mr. Sarkadi and a few friends had decided to start a band but wanted to sing in English, hoping to find an appeal outside of the small Hungarian punk scene of the time. They ran ads in local magazines and started hearing from potential leaders, including Mr. Kovrig.
“He was the best candidate,” Sarkadi said. “He ended up having a big influence on us because he introduced us to a lot of bands that were not very popular in Hungary, like the Pixies. He loaned me a Lester Bangs book – I had no idea who he was.
Mr. Kovrig played with the band for almost three years, playing concerts and recording a handful of demos, one of which, Listen, ended up on a compilation released by Nevada-based label GC Records. He used the stage name “Michael K”, a reference to the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The trial, about a man arbitrarily pursued by a totalitarian state.
In 1999, Mr. Kovrig’s employer went bankrupt. He left Hungary and moved to New York to study international affairs at Columbia University, paving the way for his career in the Canadian foreign service. This job eventually took him to China, where he worked as a diplomat from 2012 to 2016, before joining the International Crisis Group as Senior Advisor for Northeast Asia, the job he held when ‘he was arrested in Beijing.
“When we found out what had happened, we were shocked,” Sarkadi said. “I have searched for his name every day since, hoping the politicians would fix it somehow.”
Last month Bankrupt released a new song to raise awareness about Mr. Kovrig’s plight, Plane to Toronto, all profits being donated to Hostage International, at the request of the Kovrig family.
“The inside is hell, the outside is heaven, and the lights are on 24/7,” Sarkadi sings on the track. “Wait, please, we’ll take you home. It’s been a long time, but you’ve never been alone. You need to know that bad times won’t last forever. In no time, I know, you’ll be on the plane to Toronto.
As grim as Mr Kovrig’s situation is, Mr Sarkadi said he wanted to focus on the future, “when he will be released and fly home”.
“We’re focused on this moment and somehow hope that all the positive energy leads to this finally happening soon.”
The group are currently crowdsourcing a music video for the song, with the idea that people will register by handing each other a sign calling for the release of the two Michaels to each other – a demonstration of global solidarity and a call to action.
Vina Nadjibulla, wife of Mr Kovrig and one of the main advocates for his release, said that “one of the most difficult parts of this experience for Michael has been the overwhelming feeling of isolation – he is so disconnected from reality, from the world “.
“What helps his morale is knowing that people are thinking of him, not just his family.”
Ms. Nadjibulla met Mr. Kovrig in 2000 – “after his punk years” – while studying in New York City, but said music was still an important part of his life at the time and continues to do so. to be.
“Michael loves music. He used to joke that he likes having a soundtrack in his life, and that is still true today, ”Ms. Nadjibulla said. “Songs are an important part of her resilience routine. He remembers the lyrics and sometimes even asks us to send them to him. It is a way to break the monotony of his daily life.
Plane to Toronto was produced with the approval of Mr. Kovrig’s family. This is part of a multi-year campaign to pressure the Canadian government, as well as Chinese and American authorities, to bring the two Michaeles home.
“For almost 1,000 days there have been many such efforts and we will be hosting more events as we get closer to the 1,000 day mark,” Nadjibulla said.
Mr. Kovrig’s sister Ariana Botha said in an email that it was “extremely heartwarming that these guys produced this song.”
“While my brother often performed in plays in high school and university, he was never part of a band, so it was somewhat surprising that while he was working as a journalist in Budapest, he has become the leader, ”she added. “That being said, it was also really part of her character to do something like.”
In a social media post, Ms Botha said the song was “pretty awesome.”
“I hope he hears it soon.”
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