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Innocent civilians caught in war zones

YEREVAN, Armenia — With so much bad news in the world these days, it was invigorating to spend last weekend here celebrating some courageous human-rights activists who reminded me of what's best in the human spirit.

The event was this year's awards ceremony of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. The group was founded several years ago by three Armenians who wanted to give thanks for their people's survival of the 1915 genocide by recognizing heroism and compassion in our time. They called their movement "gratitude in action."

This year's three finalists were so extraordinary that I'll describe each of their stories about struggling to save desperate people at great personal risk. We use the word "hero" so often that its meaning is dulled, but these three are the real thing.

Saving Yazidis

The first nominee was Mirza Dinnayi, a Yazidi activist from Sinjar, Iraq. He has been rescuing fellow members of his persecuted minority and evacuating them to Germany since al-Qaida began attacking the Yazidis in 2007. When the Islamic State began all-out genocide against the Yazidis in 2014, Dinnayi repeatedly risked his life on rescue missions.

In late 2014, a helicopter he was on crashed. Dinnayi was badly injured, but he soon went right back to the struggle. He explained his motivation to the Aurora selection committee: "Wherever the victims are, if you know about them and you say, 'I don't care,' you will forever feel guilty."

Captives freed

A second nominee was Zannah Bukar Mustapha, a lawyer and schoolteacher from Maiduguri, Nigeria. He founded a modern school there that enraged the Boko Haram militants, who abducted 276 girl students from the nearby town of Chibok. At great personal risk, Mustapha went to a secret meeting with Boko Haram representatives in October 2016 and persuaded them to release 21 of the girls. Thirteen months later, he helped gain the release of another 82.

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Mustapha expressed the philosophy of tolerance that guides his school, even amid terror and rage: "Everybody is part of it. Nobody thinks, I'm on my own, I'm not part of this. ... This is a school where every child matters."

Torture stopped

A third nominee was Huda al-Sarari, a lawyer from Aden, Yemen. As civil war ravaged her country, she investigated a network of secret prisons where Yemenis had been tortured. After her reports helped free some of the prisoners, her car windows were smashed and she was personally threatened, but she didn't stop. She told the Aurora committee that her goal was to establish the rule of law in Yemen, so that even al-Qaida suspects could be detained and interrogated legally.

I heard these gripping personal stories while serving as master of ceremonies for the awards presentation. I've performed this role since the awards began in 2016, as a way of supporting Aurora and the vision of its founders, Vartan Gregorian, the head of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; Noubar Afeyan, founder of a life-science company called Flagship Pioneering in Boston; and Ruben Vardanyan, a brilliant Russian-Armenian businessman and philanthropist who had the original vision for Aurora.

One reason the Aurora idea of "gratitude in action" appealed to me is that my father's family is Armenian, and some of my relatives perished in the 1915 genocide. I liked the idea that Aurora would look outward to the world rather than inward, praising modern-day activists who save lives today in the way that Armenians were saved during their persecution.

I don't know how the judges made their decision among these three remarkable finalists. The selection panel included Nobel Peace Prize laureates Oscar Arias from Costa Rica, Shirin Ebadi from Iran and Leymah Gbowee from Liberia, and it was chaired by Lord Ara Darzi, a prominent British physician and humanitarian.

Before a thousand people gathered in Freedom Square here on Saturday night, Aurora announced the selection of Dinnayi, the Yazidi activist. This was partly a recognition by Aurora that genocide continues in our world, even after the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews and the vow "Never again." The previous three winners had also saved lives amid genocides — in Rwanda, Sudan and Myanmar.

On a clear day in Yerevan, you can see the peak of Mount Ararat, where legend has it that Noah's ark came to rest after the flood, and mankind had a second chance to repair the world. We all have small versions of that second chance every day to affirm our common humanity against hatred and injustice. Gratitude in action is a good slogan for a world that's far too burdened with rage and intolerance.

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Contact David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.