It had been more than two decades since Michael Kovrig 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’s nothing I can do against 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 2017, a year before he was arrested in China along with fellow Canadian Michael Spavor. Mr. Kovrig was in Budapest to visit friends and watch a show by his old band when they dragged him up on stage to perform with them.
“It was really good, like all those years never passed,” Bankrupt’s bassist and lead singer, Balazs Sarkadi, told The Globe and Mail. “It was this really nice moment. And then fast forward one and a half years, and we got the news that he was arrested.”
Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s arrests in December, 2018, came soon after the detention in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. Justice Department extradition request.
Sept. 4 marks 1,000 days that the two men have been imprisoned, a grim milestone that supporters hoped they would never reach. Both were charged with espionage and put on trial this year. They face a possible life sentence.
Last month, Mr. Kovrig’s former bandmates put out a song calling on all the governments involved to work toward his and Mr. Spavor’s release.
So far, negotiations have gotten nowhere. Ottawa – which denounces the men’s imprisonment as political and arbitrary – has refused to countenance a prisoner swap for Ms. Meng. Last month, during talks with U.S. deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, a top 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 journalist for an English-language newspaper.
Foreigners, including Canadians, had poured into Hungary in the years after its transition to democracy in 1989. Mr. Kovrig had more of a connection than most: His father was born in the country, so he gained Hungarian citizenship through him.
At the time, Mr. Sarkadi and a few friends had decided to start a band but wanted to sing in English, hoping to find appeal outside of the then tiny Hungarian punk scene. They posted ads in local magazines and began auditioning prospective front men, one of whom was Mr. Kovrig.
“He was the best fit,” Mr. Sarkadi said. “He ended up being a pretty big influence on us because he introduced us to lots of bands not that popular in Hungary, like the Pixies. He lent me a book by Lester Bangs – I had no idea who he was.”
Mr. Kovrig performed with the band for almost three years, playing gigs 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 prosecuted by a totalitarian state.
In 1999, Mr. Kovrig’s employer went under. He left Hungary and moved to New York City to study international affairs at Columbia University, setting the stage for his career in the Canadian foreign service. That job eventually brought him to China, where he worked as a diplomat from 2012 to 2016, before leaving to join the International Crisis Group as a senior adviser for Northeast Asia, the job he was doing when he was arrested in Beijing.
“When we heard about what happened, we were shocked,” Mr. Sarkadi said. “I’ve been googling his name every day since, hoping that the politicians would solve it somehow.”
Last month, Bankrupt released a new song to raise awareness of Mr. Kovrig’s plight, The Plane to Toronto, with all proceeds going to Hostage International, at the request of the Kovrig family.
“Inside is hell, outside is heaven, and the lights are on 24/7,” Mr. Sarkadi sings on the track. “Hold on, please, we’re gonna get you home. It’s been a long time, but you’ve never been alone. You’ve gotta know 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, on “the moment he’s set free and getting on the plane home.”
“We’re concentrating on that moment and kind of hoping that all the positive energy would lead to it finally happening soon.”
The band is currently crowdsourcing help to make a music video for the song, with the idea that people will record themselves handing a sign calling for the release of the two Michaels to each other – a show of global solidarity and a call for action.
Vina Nadjibulla, Mr. Kovrig’s wife and one of the primary advocates for his release, said “one of the hardest parts of this experience for Michael has been the crushing sense of isolation – he’s so disconnected from reality, from the world.”
“What helps his morale is to know that people are thinking of him, not just his family.”
Ms. Nadjibulla met Mr. Kovrig in 2000 – “after his punk days” – when he was studying in New York, but she said music was still a major part of his life then and has continued to be.
“Michael loves music. He used to joke he likes to have a soundtrack of his life, and that’s true even today,” Ms. Nadjibulla said. “Songs are an important part of his resilience routine. He remembers lyrics and sometimes even asks us to send them to him. It’s a way to break the monotony of his day-to-day.”
The Plane to Toronto was produced with the approval of Mr. Kovrig’s family. It’s part of a years-long campaign to pressure the Canadian government, as well as authorities in China and the U.S., to bring the two Michaels home.
“For nearly 1,000 days there have been many such efforts, and we will be organizing more events as we get closer to the 1,000-day mark,” Ms. Nadjibulla said.
Mr. Kovrig’s sister, Ariana Botha, said in an e-mail that it was “hugely heartwarming that these guys produced this song.”
“While my brother was often in plays in high school and university, he was never in a band so it was somewhat surprising that while he was working as a journalist in Budapest he became the front man for one,” she added. “That being said it was also truly part of his character to do something like.”
In a post on social media, Ms. Botha said the song was “pretty damn great.”
”I hope he gets to hear it soon.”
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