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Activist fought for leprosy patients


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POSTED: Friday, February 27, 2009

Bernard Punikaia told his life story to international audiences, at the United Nations in 1984 and at World Leprosy Congress meetings in India, China, Belgium and Brazil, and was recipient of numerous honors for his work as an activist for his people.

But it was not reaching those lofty heights that led people on the street back home in Hawaii to recognize him. Punikaia, with a constant grin and a baseball cap at a rakish angle, played a major role in banishing public fear of leprosy by putting a real face and a rascally personality on the disease, which he contracted at the age of 6.

Punikaia, 78, died Wednesday at Leahi Hospital. He was an advocate for more than 50 years on behalf of patients whose rights were curtailed by government response to the disease - not just the residents of his Kalaupapa home, but Hansen's disease victims in other countries.

“;Bernard was my brother, my hero, a hero to everyone who loves justice, humanity, compassion,”; said U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie. “;He is a giant. No one can ever replace him.”;

He first entered the public spotlight in 1978 when he and other patients began a “;sit-in”; at a Pearl City Hansen's disease hospital in an effort to stop the state from shutting it down. Five years later, after a protracted court case and a siege that drew hundreds of supporters and embarrassed the state administration, Punikaia and 17 others were arrested for “;obstructing government operations.”; They were acquitted.

The old Hale Mohalu was demolished, but the supporters were vindicated. Punikaia was a member of the Coalition for Specialized Housing, which was instrumental in developing the $18 million affordable senior housing at the site.

It is just one facet of Punikaia's legacy, said Wally Inglis, a friend since the Hale Mohalu siege and a leader of the coalition.

“;He was always an inspiration to me, not just on that issue,”; Inglis said. “;He was involved in a host of issues surrounding justice, peace ... any poor-people issues. I always looked to him as my beacon.”;

Punikaia described his efforts as a “;quest for dignity,”; and that expression was adopted for a 1997 exhibition about the accomplishments of Hansen's disease patients around the world that was unveiled at the United Nations and traveled to several countries. He was a founder and former president of the International Advocacy for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement and traveled to several countries as speaker and advocate for the organization.

It was also Punikaia's idea to form an organization to keep the story of the 8,000 people who died at Kalaupapa alive after the last patients are gone. Organized in 2003, “;Ka Ohana o Kalaupapa brings patients, family members, descendants, anyone interested in the legacy,”; said Val Monson.

He composed numerous Hawaiian songs, and “;his music was what he saw as his legacy,”; said friend Carol Murry. “;He wanted it to benefit children.”;

Murry added, “;What I think is his legacy is that he was a hero for so many people, for being courageous and being out there. People would recognize him and tell him how much he meant to them.”;

Punikaia was born in Honolulu. He contracted leprosy when he was 6 years old and lived in Kalaupapa since he was 11.

He is survived by brother Benjamin Kupau and sister Shirley Manicas.

There will be a memorial service on Oahu at a later date.

Burial will be in Kalaupapa.