A writer who went through Danish refugee camp. Dina Yafasova: “You have to fight your fears by going through them”.
Book of documentary prose The Darkest Hour is Before the Dawn (Sandholm Diary in Danish version), with which Dina Yafasobe debuted in 2006 in the largest Scandinavian publishing house Gyldendal, overwhelmed society. True story of how imigrants are treated in a Danish refugee camp led to fundamental changes on political level. In her next novel Dont Call Me a Victim! Dina shows a reader into torture chambers, allows having a look into depths of human soul clear and incorrupt and sometines enwraped in the web of pernicious memories. About high-profile incvestigations as well as about difficulties and sometimes dangers of the profession of a journalist Dina Yafasova told in an exclusive interview to OUTLOOK.
Dina, in your life there were 173 days in Danish Sandholm refugee camp that you call over-the-limit experience of metaphysical death. How did this experience change you?
- My family believes that having gone through the camp I hadnt changed by and large. I mean, I came there with a certain set of values and I left with them. As before, Im on the side of those whose rights are violated. As before, put it in the words of Hesse, I consider it an honor to automatically become an adversary of those who are now mighty and rude. As before, Im a naïve creature I try to change world for the better. In this respect my dear ones aren’t wrong.
Still, there are changes, often invisible to an eye of a stranger, such that even my nearest cannot immediately register and comprehend. These changes reveal themselves gradually and one can alter them only after years.
The camp or better yet the experience that I got in those extreme conditions performed a function of an axe: it cut my life into to parts, before and after. My stay there lasted for six months however my internal pendulum ticked probably as much as six years. Six years of metaphysical death. It was dreadful time from point of view of an ordinary mans mind. However it is precious time from point of view of a mind researcher. There soul plunges to a depth where it is separated from the chaff. Assemblage point shifts there. And it changed the world forever. What formerly was perceived as being-a-refugee or as an exile with time manifested itself as a beginning of a great route. The route to the roots of your soul. The way home, to yourself.
But thats a different story it is merely in the stage of coming to display may be one day I will able to tell it.
- After you described terrors of staying at refugee camps in your book, have there been any development in that system?
- Yes, something is happening there. At least the book (Sandholm Diary, it became a bestseller in Denmark and one of the most debated books of the year) managed to carry momentum to the society and trigger discussions on national scale. Direct consequence was that Danish government allocated 37 million krone (5 million euro) for improvement of conditions in the camp for families with children. Dozens of refugees advocacy groups emerged. According to newspapers, time of waiting in camps fell by two thirds authorities could no longer deny that lasting uncertainty and social isolation is pernicious for psychological heath. This is not to mention that debates that the book triggered led to change of government. New government doesnt opt for anti-migrant rhetoric and Danish legislation on foreigners that became the roughest in Europe after 9/11 attacks, acquired human face again in many respects.
Still, no matter what kind of improvement this sphere sees, it is never enough to make a life of a refugee easy enough for him to leave a camp a healthy person. You sure have read two most famous chroniclers of the Gulag. Thus, Solzhenitsyn believed that no matter how hard camp life may be, one can find some grains of positive experience in it. Shalamov, on the other hand, thought camps to be obvious evil and shouldn't exist in any form. You know what, I agree with Shalamov. Refugee camp is no Gulag, of course, and it sure cannot be called evil because there is humane idea in its basis of providing free roof and food to people who are left without own homes while authorities are looking into their applications for asylum. Still, if there is a slightest chance to avoid long-term stay in such governmental facility, that I compare to The House of the Dead by Dostoyevsky, one should go for it. Especially families with children. Unfortunately, time doesnt cure wounds that this prison-like camp inflicts on souls.
Direction in which you work is both dangerous and socially significant. You visited Aral Lake where secret bacteriological weapons were tested on people. Please, tell us what kind of conclusions did you arrive at in the course of your investigation.
To put it shortly, Aral disaster is the largest ecological disaster of twentieth century. It is a calamity of global scale. Aral Lake used to be worlds fourth internal sea in size and now it turned into another venomous desert and caused dramatic climate changes.
As to Vozrozhdenia Island (it is a peninsular now), located in Aral Lake between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, in Soviet times experiments to explore various forms of biological (bacteriological) weapon had been held there for fifty years incitants of plaque, tularemia, brucellosis and encephalitis. They were tested not just on trial monkeys but also on people prisoners were brought there for experiments. After dissolution of the USSR biochemical laboratory was disassembled, hazardous material not grams, tonnes of it! - buried in a hurry, military contingent that was protecting it relocated. The island turned into the largest deposit of anthrax contagious matter. Poorly secured, it became potential source for terrorists over there it is enough to merely dig with a shovel Additionally numerous dust storms as well as gnawing animals that migrate from the isle to the continent may transmit danger.
Should we take into consideration that about 60 million people live in the region of Aral Lake, it turns out that Aral disaster not only became the largest ecologic but also humanitarian disaster.
By the way, in Scandinavian schools it is a textbook example. I recall my children studying in 9th grade of a Danish school: within the framework of Natural Geography course they had a whole week for exploration of Aral issue alone and preparation of essays on the matter. It was then when I learned that my articles on this problem published in Danish press in 2000 are used in Danish schools and gymnasiums as educational material.
There are other blatantly dreadful topics of your works. You visited hospitals where women who had committed self-immolation were dying. In what countries does it occur more often and what are the reasons for such an act?
— True, I met these women in provincial burn specialty hospitals and crisis centers, documented about a dozen stories some of them survived but sustained serious injuries, others died of burns. I call them living torches.
Tragic phenomenon of self-immolation occurs in several Asian countries. But while in India it is a repercussion of an ancient culture code, ritual of a widow, in Uzbekistan it has purely social reasons. This, beyond any doubt, is a form of a suicide. A woman chooses this way when she wants to escape poverty, domestic violence, position of a slave in a family, unsustainable early motherhood with many children and chronic depression. In such a merciless and beyond endurance painful way she revenges her tyrant husband, family unable to protect her and society for her sufferings. But it is also a form of pretest against cruel feudal conditions.
Indian philosopher Swami Vivekananda said that there is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of woman is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.
— Were you threatened in the process of your investigations often? What did you do in such cases?
— Often is probably a wrong word. I first encountered it at the age of 17 as a first year student of journalism faculty when I worked at a city newspaper. Back then an assault was made on me on the stairs of the house I lived in, my right shoulder and arm were seriously smashed form me not to be able to write any more.
Later, when I graduated and got an offer to work for a Danish magazine, threats began coming from the very first day I applied for accreditation as a foreign journalist. There were periods when sprees of intimidation lasted for six months followed by a couple of month of timeout but all in all over four years of work I dont remember a single investigation, a single article during preparation of which incidents of a kind didnt emerge.
I can say that if not all than a lot of methods were applied to me from an attempt to hook me up to an attempt to discredit me, from telephone bugging to filtration and blocking of mails and up to more palpable methods of psychological terror: open and disguised surveillance, pressure on family members, intimidation of sources and physical assaults and unchildish interrogations.
What did I do in such cases? Well, first of all, I always bless those who damn me or harm me in any other way, put a candle to their health in a temple – and existence will figure things out on its own. And if I go into more detail
I realized quickly that the system had both strengths and weaknesses and began studying them. One of the weaknesses was insufficient technical supply. It doesnt allow the system follow a journalist for a long period of time with equal intensity. System needs to opt for certain priorities and I tried to favor decrease in control intensity or secure its absence at all. Another weakness is low payment for labor of average employees which normally leads to lack of professionalism. If you arent investigating The Watergate scandal, it isnt improbable that your observers will be half-lazy ignorant agents.
Well, I made it a rule to avoid publicity, or, as they say, keep low profile. Such behavior liberates you from excessive surveillance. And it wasnt hard I am an autisctic range person by nature: Im bored in company of people but when I work I get filled with the process not with outcome or acknowledgement. They usually call people like me lonely wanderers or lone wolves.
Another rule: I have always traveled with a trustworthy companion – a photographer, a driver, a guide or a family member. When you have a witness, you become less vulnerable.
Here it is important to emphasize that universal methods to secure yourself dont exist. Thing that worked in one case may fail in another. An anti-method emerges to every method sooner or later. Therefore before taking up an investigation it is necessary to assess risks: who may constitute a threat? Who may be threatened? Is it possible that your family or other people become endangered? Approach these questions honestly and if you dont like answers, think a hundred times if you really need such job.
Famous American Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson who was abducted and held hostage for seven years during Lebanon War gave me such an advice: Always, constantly, permanently, every minute weigh correlation of profit vs risk. And soon as you discover that the equation is wrong leave immediately, drop it all. There is no merit in this. And there is no story worth being killed over.
What I usually say to myself is: not scared dont do it.
You have to fight fears by going through them.
Holding investigations where there is no freedom of speech, under conditions of control from state agents is same as playing a detective or a spy. With only one difference. In case of success your information wont get buried in classified files but become available to many thousands of audience and then, may be, this will trigger positive changes in society.