Outside Anna Politkovskaya's apartment block, 2006. John Martens / Wikipedia. Public Domain. Twelve years ago this week, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment block. Politkovskaya reported extensively on Russia’s war in Chechnya, criticising the policies of Vladimir Putin’s government. The people behind Politkovskaya’s killing have never really been found.
RAW in WAR (Reach All Women in WAR), an international human rights NGO, commemorates Politkovskaya’s work every year, presenting awards to leading women human rights defenders from across the world.
This year, RAW in WAR is giving the Politkovskaya Award to Binalakshmi Nepram and Svetlana Alexievich “for their bravery in speaking out and in defying injustice, violence and extremism in the context of ‘forgotten’ armed conflict in their regions”. Binalakshmi Nepram, a human rights defender from Manipur, northeast India, had to flee the country in 2017 following threats in connection with her activities. Her work has included documenting the sources of arms fuelling the conflict in Manipur, and assisting female survivors of gun violence. Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist, has sought to document the cataclysmic and tragic stories affecting the Soviet Union and its successor states. She has repeatedly criticised the Russian annexation of Crimea and the human rights violations in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, as well as the growing nationalism and the oligarchy in Ukraine, which brought threats against her from both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Here, we publish the recipients’ letters to Anna Politkovskaya.
Svetlana Alexievich: We really need you, Anna! [Need] your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity, that will save us
I want to tell you about our lives without you. Where are we now? At what point in history? One thing is clear: not where we ever wanted to be. In the more than 10 years you have not been with us, we could have already been living in another country, turned from the GULAG Empire into a normal European state, as many of our neighbours have done. But as Stolypin famously put it: “In Russia, every ten years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.” I am sick and tired of this quote, but it contains so much despair that is so familiar to us, that I want to repeat it.
Do you remember the 1990s — “wild”, bloody, holy... Do you remember what romantics we were, criminally romantic we were and we must admit it today. It was naive of us to believe that if books by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Grossman appeared in our bookshops, books that had previously meant a prison sentence for those who read them, if we had free newspapers and different parties — not just the Communist Party, this would be the beginning of a normal life. We would be like everyone else. We would join the rest of the world, stop scaring everyone with our Iskander rockets. Rallies, hundred thousand strong, gathered in the squares, we walked about and chanted: “Freedom! Freedom!” It seemed to us that this eternal Russian dream, this wonderful creature so lovingly nurtured in our kitchens, where we used to gather and dream, was about to become reality, that literally tomorrow we will be free. No one at the time could possibly know that a former convict, who spent his whole life in a prison camp, cannot just come out of the camp gates and become free overnight. He cannot be free because all he knows is his prison camp, all he can do is live inside his prison camp.
Svetlana Alexievich. Source: RAW in WAR. How many illusions we had then! We naively believed that as soon as we remove that henchman Dzerzhinsky from his granite pedestal, that would be enough, and the whole country would breathe free. And so they published Solzhenitsyn and Rybakov and everyone read everything. My friends and I, any intelligentsia household did not often own a decent coat but we all had large libraries. Now our children and grandchildren do not know what to do with all these books and thick magazines, they do not need them — they put them in the rubbish.
Yes, we ran around the squares and shouted: “Freedom! Freedom!” Yet no one knew what it meant. And then it began... Plants, factories, research facilities, enterprises were closing down — and what could we do with all that freedom? No one had imagined that we would be free but destitute. Everyone wanted to be a master, not a servant. Even today, if you walk into an expensive shop and ask for a little extra attention it is taken as an offence, a sign of condescension. Yet everyone has only recently emerged from socialism, where everyone was poor, but equal in their poverty.
I think, Anna, you must have already seen those TV images: “new Russians” eating black caviar, boasting gold urinals in personal jets, largest yachts in the world, while people somewhere in Ryazan or on Sakhalin, without any work or money, looked on with hungry eyes. No one thought about the people. Ideas were cherished, not people. Now we are surprised that our people’s heads are a real mish-mash of red-and-white, right-wing and left-wing ideas. Because no-one had ever talked to them, no one on TV took pains to explain anything to them from TV screens. Now it is Putin who talks to them, he has learned from our mistakes. But it is not about Putin alone, Putin says what the people want to hear; I would say that every Russian is a little Putin. I am talking about the collective Putin: we thought that it was the Soviet power that was the problem, but it was all about the people. The “Sovok”, the Soviet mode of thinking, lives on in our minds and our genes. How quickly has the Stalinist machine set to work again... With what knowledge and excitement everyone is once again denouncing each other, catching spies, beating people up for being different, unlike everyone else... Stalin has risen... Throughout Russia they are building monuments to Stalin, putting up Stalin’s portraits, open museums in Stalin’s memory…
You passed away, Anna, with the belief that we had beat the coup. Yet the years that we have lived without you have clearly shown that the coup had only hidden for a while, taken other forms, only to come back victorious. If anyone were to put on a T-shirt with Stalin’s picture or with the words “USSR” in the 1990s, they would be made fun of. Now it is considered OK. There are dozens of books about Stalin lining our bookshops: books about Stalin’s women, about the great generalissimo during the war, about the wine he loved, about the cigarettes he liked to smoke. It is quite incomprehensible how people at the same time grieve for their innocent loved ones murdered by Stalin and express their love for Stalin. Nostalgia for everything Soviet. Russians want to have a Schengen visa, a foreign car, even if a second hand one, and hold on to their faith in Stalin.
The hardest thing you would find to accept is that Russians have learned to kill their brothers, they have learnt to hate. I could tell you how a Moscow taxi driver kicked me out of the car when he found out that I was from Western Ukraine, that my mother was Ukrainian, and that I loved Ukrainians. “Crimea is ours!” he yelled at me. “No, it is not yours, it is Ukrainian.” “Donbass is ours!”. “No, it is Ukrainian.” I am not sure if your heart, Anna, could endure this pain as well. Undoubtedly, you would have gone to the front line in Ukraine, undoubtedly you would have written your honest reports from there... If in the past bodies of soldiers in zinc coffins were brought back from Afghanistan and were buried secretly at night, today they bring back the so-called “Cargo 200” from Ukraine and Syria. But there is also a terrible difference: when I wrote my book Zinky Boys about the war in Afghanistan and would go to meet a mother waiting for a coffin with her son’s remains, she would greet me with the words: “I shall tell you everything! Write the truth.” Today, mothers are silent, they talk in whispers. Only one of them admitted to the newspaper reporter: “I shan’t tell you anything, because they will not pay me compensation for my dead son. I want this money to buy an apartment for my daughter.”
Where did this happen? When? When did we turn back, sink back into the darkness of madness, fear and hatred of the Stalin years. We are still afraid to openly admit it to ourselves. But it is so. There is a war on... In the former Soviet Union, dozens of journalists have been killed, every year new names appear on this blacklist. Life in Russia is still in limbo between chaos and a prison barrack. It is not an accident that I often hear people in my circle talk about reading books on the 1930s Germany or the final years of the Russian Empire, on the eve of the Russian revolution. Ask yourself: why? Well, there are so many terrifying similarities with our life today. Some talk about the Third World War, others about the return of fascism.
Freedom is a long road... This is what we have learnt since your departure. We really need you, Anna! We have learnt from you that there can be no compromises in a war; even the smallest compromise makes you an accomplice. It would be much harder for all of us without everything you had managed to say and do. Without your belief, that it is not hatred, but love for humanity that will save us. Thank you for having been here and still being here.
Binalakshmi Nepram: Not violence but truth, peace and justice will win in the end
I vividly remember hearing the news, on 7 October 2006, of the gunning down of brave woman journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. Even though Manipur, my homeland, is far away from Moscow, when the news of her assassination came, we felt the pain and the immeasurable loss her family and friends may have felt. We knew the killing was so wrong. In wars, true fighters do not do this. Anna was a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a fearless journalist, a seeker of truth. Her killing was an extreme act of cowardice. And violence can never win in the end.
Many more have been felled like Anna since 2006. Seven years later, in 2013, the United Nations passed a historic resolution to protect women human rights defenders. However, this did not stop the killings. To date, most of the efforts to protect women human rights defenders remain mostly on paper. We need to work hard to ensure that we have proper systems in place to make certain that protection and support is there at hand. In 2017, over 312 human rights defenders from 27 countries were killed. We will need to work harder together to ensure that proper support is given whenever anyone is threatened for their vital work.
Binalakshmi Nepram. Source: RAW in WAR.Manipur is in the Northeast Region of India, home to 45 million people, belonging to 272 indigenous communities and home also to South Asia’s longest-running armed conflict, where since 1958 many have been living under martial law, called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), sanctioned by the Indian Parliament. For many of us, our world of seven decades of war was something India and its policy makers hid away from the rest of the world.
The day I was born in Manipur was a day of military curfew. And to date, violence continues unabated each day. My niece died in a bomb blast at the age of 14 and my parents were nearly shot. It was not just my family alone. 20,000 women have been widowed in Manipur due to the ongoing conflict, in India’s Northeast region due to the seven decades long entrenched conflict. Yet, the terrible news of what is happening is not reported by news agencies around the world, as foreign journalists are not allowed to come to our area and there are severe restrictions on access. Even many UN agencies are not allowed to operate and international organisations have been asked not to operate in our region, in spite of a huge humanitarian crisis.
It is not just the violence in our lives. It is the violence in policies and politics that have defined our lives for years. Just think for a moment, how the history of the 45 million people who live in Manipur and Northeast India is blotted out of India’s textbooks. That means, if we all are wiped out, no one in the world will ever know we existed as peoples and as nations. And that our women and girls are subjected to trafficking, abuse and sexual assault every day of their lives.
The violence in our lives and our bodies has been going on for over 70 long years. Our mothers in Manipur, known as the legendary Meira Pabis (Women Torch Bearers), have fought long and bravely for peace and the rule of law. However, the so-called political leaders of our nations, who rule our lives, have risen to power by corrupt practices and by purchasing the votes of innocent citizens. We are ruled by men who have committed human rights violations, who are arms dealers, drug-traffickers and criminals, sanctioned and supported by "powers" in New Delhi.
If there are 300,000 members of the Indian armed forces in Northeast India, there are 72 armed groups that also operate in the region. We, as citizens, have been sandwiched between the guns of state and non-state actors for all these years. In short, it is the sanction of violence that has become the norm in our home states.
It is under these extremely difficult conditions that we set up the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network in 2007 and later, the Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace. When one is pushed back against a wall, two things can happen: either you cower there or you fight back. We decided to fight back, to claim our rights to peace and justice. We started by getting together women widowed due to the armed conflict and then ensuring that we supported them to carry on with their lives. We help them to open bank accounts, get a livelihood and ensure that their children are sent to school. We help them access government schemes that are meant for them. And sometimes we help the survivor families file court cases for the wrongful death of their loved ones.
And for this humanitarian work in Manipur and Northeast India, we have been repeatedly threatened. As early as 2002, as I started my research and writing, I was called to the Indian Mission in Colombo and warned not to speak about the Northeast Region of India outside the four corners of the country. Later in 2014, I was told by a current politician, who claimed to have links with a rebel group, that it would take 30,000 Indian Rupees ($450) to sanction someone to kill me. That is the cost of killing a woman human rights defender in India. Rumours were also spread by men, heading NGOs, who, instead of supporting our work, told rebel groups that our group is working with Indian intelligence to disarm rebels. Later, over social media, I continued receiving threats for standing up for the rights of families who have lost loved ones in this entrenched conflict. In some cases where the families we have helped to fight for justice have lost their relatives due to acts committed by state politicians, rumours have been spread that what we have been doing is attempting to sabotage the ruling government. The ultimate threat came when heavily armed Manipur police commandos, sent by corrupt politicians, came to my house in Manipur, looking for me. That was the time I decided, I will not be a statistic. I will live to fight with others for our peace, our justice and our rights.
In the brave and courageous lives of Anna Politkovskaya herself, Natalia Estemirova, Berta Caceres, Gauri Lankesh, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and countless and nameless others who were felled by the bullet, the awarding each year of the Anna Politkovskaya Award for Women Human Rights Defenders is a fitting reminder that our fight for justice, against militarisation, weaponisation, corporatisation and authoritarianism in our lives will continue strongly each day, every day.
Not violence but truth, peace and justice will win in the end.
A life of seeking truth and activism is not an easy life. We have to strain our bodies and souls. We have to fight a thousand struggles. Our efforts are humanitarian, in order to deepen democracy and to ensure the rule of law. This award is a recognition that we will not be silenced anymore by what we stand for.
I thank the organisation, Reach All Women in War (RAW in WAR) and the distinguished jury for choosing to give me this honour, along with the noted writer and journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, from Belarus, who was also the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize winner for literature. I receive this honour wholeheartedly, on behalf of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, Control Arms Foundation of India and the Northeast India Women Initiative for Peace.
I dedicate the Anna Politkovskaya Award 2018 to all women survivors of Manipur and the world, to my family and to all whose resilience, strength and belief in our work and courage made us rise, speak up, advocate and take action to bring the change we wish to see in this world.