A story of a Russian journalist who had to flee her country, restart her life and career in the U.S., transplanting her family from everything that was familiar, and picking fruit and working as a cashier to survive. She was hardly alone in her exile…
One snowy night in January 2002, journalist Fatima Tlisova was celebrating her 36th birthday along with her friends and colleagues at her apartment in Cherkessk, a small town nestling in the foothills of the North Caucasus, south of Russia.
After the party, as she saw off her last guests at the door, she recalled a hand grabbed her in front of the apartment and dragged her around a corner before two strange men started beating her to the ground and kicking her in the head and stomach.
The incident came just hours after a national newspaper called Obschaya Gazeta published Tlisova’s piece on abusive practices in the Chechen armed forces. She spent days at a hospital with a concussion, and other serious injuries.
Fatima lived most of her adult life in North Caucasus, where she started her career with a paper called The Novaya Gazeta, and then worked for a national and international media, such as Regnum and Associated Press. She had travelled extensively in the region, gathered facts; reported about human rights violations from Circassia to Dagestan.
That birthday night changed her life dramatically, as local authorities started a smear campaign against her due to her article on military. In that piece, she had depicted the soldiers being tortured by their generals at a Caucasus border camp.
Military authorities publicly disgraced her. Persecution against her never stopped since then.
In the meantime, as her fame soared among local community in the North Caucasus, her personal cell phone (+79287001633) became a symbol of hope for many people, who had their stories to share: heartbreaking stories from mysterious murders to kidnapping, to the blacklisting of their children by the government forces — a tactic often used by Russian secret police in roundups of suspected citizens.
Between 2002–2007, while covering human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, Fatima faced continuing harassment due to her job.
One summer morning in 2005, she was stopped on a street and taken to a forest, where several men extinguished cigarettes on her fingertips, telling her they were doing “a favor, so that you can write better.” They threatened her with punishing her children if they had “to meet again.”
Fatima decided not to give up. Until one day in mid-2007, she found out that local authorities were planning to attack her family. This was a warning sign for her: she had no choice but to take her kids out of the country.
“I felt guilty about my children,” Fatima recalls her decision. “They have had enough hard time because of me.”
“I never aimed to be political at any point. Never imagined escaping from the country, if they didn’t target my kids,” she says. “Family pressure is always the worst.”
Life in exile…
Life in exile, initially, came extremely hard for Fatima.
When she arrived in the US, her English was limited to “my name is…” and “I am from…” — that’s all she knew.
She was dreaming about continuing her career, but that, as she puts it, “didn’t seem to be realistic.”
She started her first job working at a farm in Pennsylvania, where she planted strawberries, tomatoes and other crops. After a while she shifted to a factory, working for a department that produces plastic bottles — another hard job. “That was terrifying,” she recalls. “Honestly, never thought that there were still such factories in the U.S.,” she adds with a curious smile in her eyes.
Soon it appeared that Fatima had had more friends in exile, than she expected. “Finding out that amazing reality changed my life.”
A good friend from New York City one day suggested her to apply for a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. She filed her application in Russian, but several volunteers across the country immediately offered their help with translating it into English. Soon, she learned that she got accepted to the program.
At Harvard, her life “seemed much easier,” she says: she organized several conferences; was involved to speak at events, long story short, everything “seemed to be settled.”
After the Carr Center, Boston based writers and journalists — Nick and Ruth Daniloff, helped Fatima to apply for a Nieman Fellowship and she was accepted — another year at Harvard.
After the program ended, she again became jobless and started working as a cashier at a supermarket.
Attempt to return home…
Sometime in the summer 2010, a friend told her about Pulitzer Center, a non-profit sponsoring independent reporting of global affairs. She sent there a project about media freedom situation in Russia, and received a small grant that required visiting her home country, and preparing a report. That was tremendous news for Fatima.
“I was crying, she says. “Finally I was able to buy my own computer, and do something in journalism. So I prepared to return home.”
Returning home wasn’t an easy decision, though. Especially when she knew she was not welcomed there anymore.
Fatima crossed the border from the South to North Caucasus. After Russian government found out about the trip, the security forces were alerted for her search. Her fixer got kidnapped and tortured by local police, Fatima says.
“They were asking about me,” Fatima says. “I initially thought they wouldn’t find out about the trip, because my name wasn’t in any list. But they did, and I had to leave as soon as my friend reappeared. I was so much worried and nervous.”
That was her last attempt to return back. After the project with Pulitzer Center ended, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit National Endowment for Democracy Foundation (NED) invited Fatima to join them with a fellowship project. Her colleagues at NED later helped her to apply for a journalism job at Voice of America’s (VoA) Russian service, where she could be able to write in her own language along with her Russian-American colleagues.
“I was lucky because all of my friends helped me settle, adopt and continue my journalism journey in exile. Writing in Russian was the best optionin my case at that time, given my limited English back then.”
Meeting with Fatima…
We met with Fatima at her office on a February morning. Located downtown Washington, VoA’s Russia service has been “a second home” for Fatima, during all these years. She writes, reports about wider Caucasus region on a daily basis.
Fatima is a little over six feet tall, cheerful with bright blue eyes, and her shoulder-length curly hair is dyed a darker shade of brown than it looked in the pictures.
Her desk lurks in the right corner of the room with a black leather office chair behind it.
The windows on the west side of the building offer a spectacular view towards the U.S Capitol Hill, where Fatima appeared for several time over the years to testify on media freedom situation in Russia.
When asked about her biggest challenges as journalist in exile, she glimpsed at her desk and said, she misses her reporting from the field.
“I was a successful journalist in the North Caucasus. Yes, it was dangerous, but I was happy to be present there, and help many people.”
She describes her transformation from field journalism to desk journalism as below:
“I never was a desk journalist in my life before coming to the US… I never relied on a phone interview, or Internet research. I always was present at the events — witnessing and reporting from the place, no matter how dangerous it was — that’s who I am.”
Learning how to report correctly from a desk on similar topics has been the biggest challenge for her, she says.
Yet she is able to keep in daily contact with her sources in home country, as well as colleagues in exile. At VoA, it took only a few weeks, if not days for Fatima to reunite with her readers in the North Caucasus.
“Many of them started contacting us after they found out about my coverage here.”
VoA had never been popular in the North Caucasus prior to Fatima’s coverage, her colleagues told me.
The Russian government, in its turn, doesn’t seem to be happy with Fatima’s coverage. Moscow punished several local newspapers for reprinting her reports in VoA’s website. Russian government propaganda suggests that Fatima is a “liar,” as she is “paid by the American government.”
Yes, she says, “that part exists, but all I do, is about reporting the truth. Is there a price of the truth?”
For Fatima, it’s important to reunite with her readers and share their stories. When media is exiled, she says, “it sends a wrong message to people. They start implying self-censorship and try to stay on the safe side…. How much can be told so that they don’t get punished.”
In the meantime, she calls herself lucky, as many of her exiled colleagues from North Caucasus had to leave their career behind after fleeing the country. “I know only two of them that were able to keep their reporting in exile. Most of my colleagues ended up doing other jobs. They always tried to return to journalism, but never could. I was lucky.”
Fatima was one of three journalists who last year joined President Barack Obama at the White House on May 1, paying tribute to the work of journalists in dangerous places ahead of World Press Freedom Day.
No place like home…
In 2007, when Fatima was expelled from Russia, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) documented and assisted more than 200 reporters from about 40 countries, who were forced to flee home after being attacked or threatened for doing their job.
Today, according to the organization, hundreds of journalists, an average of six each month, flee their countries of origin for their own safety.
“They pay a high price for speaking out freely,” says Johann Bihr, head of RWB’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Last May, Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media watchdog, listed 452 exiled reporters that they assisted since June 2010. Among them there were three Russian journalists as well.
For RWB’s Johann Bihr, it is “not always easy” for exiled journalists to manage to integrate into new countries, and most of them hope to go home after spending years in exile.
For Fatima, no matter how much successful she can be in desk journalism, there is “no place like home.”
Some day, she hopes, she will return home. “But this time without my kids,” she adds immediately.
She recently found out that her daughter secretly applied for a Journalism Program at the University or Maryland, and got accepted.
“I was all in tears when I learned about it…. She didn’t tell me in advance, of course” Fatima says. “I hope she will never have my life.”