By NIDHA KHAN and MAY LIN TYE
Every once in a while, you meet a person whose stories are so fascinating that it almost becomes difficult to comprehend that they are someone’s actual life.
On Monday, we met a person who smuggled themselves into Syria, became Human Rights Watch’s Moscow director at 25 years old, and has been chased and interrogated by armed groups. That person was Anna Neistat. She’s now Amnesty International’s senior director of research where she both leads and formulates their global research agenda and oversees their crisis response.
Throughout her years as a human rights activist, Anna has performed more than 60 investigations in areas plagued with genocide, conflict, and crimes against humanity such as Syria, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Yemen, a part of which has been captured in the award-winning documentary E-Team. Most recently, Anna was secretly researching and documenting the human rights abuses on Nauru – one of Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres for asylum seekers and refugees, the findings of which are available in Amnesty International’s report Island of Despair: Australia’s “Processing” of Refugees on Nauru. We sat down with Anna to gain some further insight into her work and life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What did you want to do when you were younger?
I had several projects going on; I wanted to, quite seriously, be along the lines of a design architect or artist. My grandmother was an architect and my father is a sculptor, so it was just in the family. I went to art school for 10 years, it was pretty serious. If you talk to my older sister, she’ll tell you that I’ve always wanted to be a spy or some kind of investigator. So, it probably was somewhere there.
How did you make the switch from arts school to human rights work?
It was really natural because I was born in the Soviet Union. As I was growing up and around your age, the Soviet Union was falling apart. It was this amazing moment in time when the country that seemed completely unshakeable in any form, this totalitarian system that existed for 70 years, was crumbling and crushing. It was very difficult to stay away from being part of this process. It seemed at that time that doing something creative or scientific did not throw you in the midst of political process.
Then I remember when I was in high school in 1991, there was a coup, so there was an attempt to undo the Perestroika (restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system) and all of these changes. At that point, I was listening to Russia’s first ever independent radio station and they were covering the event – it was really exciting. I pretty much decided that I was going to work for them.
Then, a few years after I graduated, I walked into the radio station and basically told them that I want to work for them. Again, it was that kind of time – I was 18 years old and knew nothing about radio journalism or anything in life. But, I had enough guts to walk in and they said, “Okay why don’t we try it?” That was quite typical of my generation, many of my friends jump-started their careers. This was because everything was changing, everything was new, and everything old was not relevant. So, I started on the radio station and then basically got into human rights work through that. I started doing a show on human rights and legal reform and this was a big deal back then because jury trials were being introduced. There was so much happening and there was a lot to talk about. I invited lawyers and human rights defenders to speak about their work and these issues on the show. From that, I eventually went to law school and started doing it myself.
Were you quite politically active when you were younger?
It’s probably different than ‘politically active.’ Some of your readers may be members of Amnesty International here in New Zealand – none of that was a remote possibility in Russia. So, you couldn’t be ‘politically active’ in any organised way. I think when I was younger, we were all very ‘political’ in a sense that we read newspapers. I started reading newspapers when I was 10 or 11, partially because what we read in the newspapers and then in our school history books were two completely different versions of history. That was so fascinating, so we were very much into it.
I also went home a few years back and found a leaflet that I completely forgot about. Apparently, with a friend of mine, we published this handwritten leaflet in colourful paint or markers when they adopted a new law in education when I was 13. It was actually much more progressive, they made student councils or gave some kind of authority and independence to students and schools. So, we basically wrote articles about this law on pieces of paper and put them on the school walls. When I go back to school, which I do sometimes when I’m in Russia, nobody seems to be surprised by what I do now.
We both watched the documentary you were in (E-Team, available on Netflix) and found it fascinating. How did you get into the E-Team (emergencies team) of Human Rights Watch and what drew you to that kind of field work?
When I joined Human Rights Watch in 2001, I was first running their Russia Bureau. In theory, this was not emergency work, but it was in the midst of the war on Chechnya (one of the break-away republics in Russia). At that point, it was full-blown Aleppo-type war. Probably two-thirds of my work was spent on Chechnya. After three years, transitioning into emergency work seemed quite natural. I realised that it was something that I wanted to do and knew how to do because of my background in criminal law and investigation. So, then I joined the emergencies team which was very, very small at that point. It was basically Peter and myself, as you can see in the documentary, and then it grew a little bit bigger.
You’ve done quite a few projects over the years. Was there any story or event that really touched or stayed with you?
There are so many stories. I feel like whenever I tell one story, I don’t do justice to the other ones. What I would tell you is that, surprisingly, the stories that stay with me are not the stories from war zones or active combat. Not something that you would think about as being the most spectacular story, like with bombs falling. Even though I was in Aleppo when hospitals were being bombed, and of course it shocks you. It always shocks you, no matter what, you can’t get used to it.
Then there’s when you see human suffering at a massive scale like on Nauru where there is no war and no natural disaster, but people are still subjected to such horrendous suffering. Or like in Chechnya, where we were working with the camp for internally displaced people and people were fleeing, and they were in these camps for years. Of course, the misery was just striking. But I think what chokes me most is when there is no kind of objective reason for human suffering, [yet] it still happens.
The story I remember really well is back in Russia. We were working on a very non-conflict related issue, it was human rights violations in the Russian Army. Russia has a conscription army and, at that point, a very young man (probably 18 years old) would be recruited for 2 years. They were usually forcibly conscripted and subjected to absolutely horrendous levels of hazing and abuse. So, we travelled all over Russia and documented cases that you just can’t even comprehend. Basically, parents would send their 18-year-old to serve in the army and then he would start writing letters that he’s being abused. They would ignore it and think, “he needs to toughen up and be a man” and, eventually, they would get his body back in a coffin because he would either be killed or forced to commit suicide.
It was travelling to these small towns in Siberia and speaking to these parents who received their son’s body back in a coffin, outside of any conflict or war, are really the ones that stick with me. Maybe it’s because I’m more outraged by them, compared to what I see in wars. I think that people cope with suffering and trauma in war and conflict much better as well. Again with situations like Nauru, and how mentally traumatised these people and children are, partially because their mind cannot find any explanation for the abuse and suffering that is happening to them.
I think for us researchers, it’s the same thing. Your mind handles trauma and abuse better when you can understand why it is happening, compared to situations where there is no objective reason for it.
That must be really upsetting. In those situations, how do you keep hope alive? What motivates you to keep going?
It’s difficult sometimes and, in some ways, you probably need to be cut for this type of work. It’s a very fine balance between not losing compassion and feeling the full range of emotions that you are naturally confronted with in these situations. At the same time, you need to be able to step back and carry on with your work because getting too emotional doesn’t help anybody. So I think it’s a combination of experience and training.
In my case, I worked a lot with my husband and we made a really good team… I avoid sending researchers by themselves to any kind of place because it’s very important to have a team. Most importantly, and what people don’t often see, is that what you bring back from these places is not the trauma and the suffering. It’s this sense of hope and encouragement that you get from the people in the field. You learn such an incredible lesson in courage, resilience, and hope in the most difficult circumstances – those that you don’t really get a chance to see in everyday life. That’s why I feel extremely grateful to be exposed to these extreme circumstances, because you do see people at their worst, but you also see people at their best. This is what gives you hope; if they don’t lose hope, then you just can’t either. You don’t have the right to.
Quite honestly, with both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, you can do quite a lot and this gives you hope. It’s amazing how much organizations like Amnesty International can achieve. We don’t have standing armies, weapons, media, or lobbies that we own. It’s just pens, papers, letters, and screaming loud enough – and we are being heard. When you think about it, for both your generation and my generation, a human rights organisation is something to be listened to or to be taken into account. That had not always been the case and, at this point in time, I find the power of the Human Rights movement mind-blowing.
Just think about it, the thousands or millions of letters that Amnesty International supporters write, just the letters themselves, get people out of jail. In other situations, more complex factors come into play. But these are people that nobody would have known about if Amnesty International didn’t put their case out there and if our members didn’t sit down and write letters demanding to get them out of prison or death row. And that’s powerful.
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