A memorial, according to the dictionaries, is something that keeps remembrance alive. It can be a monument or a commemorating ceremony. It can be a record, a memoir.
“Memorial” is thus a very apt name for a human rights organization which aims to record the Soviet Union’s totalitarian past, to keep alive the memory of its victims and to monitor the present human rights in the area.
Natalia Estemirova worked for “Memorial” in Chechnya , documenting cases of abductions and murders by (allegedly) government backed militias. A friend of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya , she was quite aware of the dangers of seeking to elicit and record the truth in that brutal region. But she stubbornly continued to investigate human rights abuses, not wanting them to be ignored and forgotten . On July 15th Natalia Estemirova was abducted and murdered herself.
Any daily reader or spectator of the world news is continuously exposed to stories of abuse and suffering. Often one would want not to know what one is thus forced to know. Often one feels utterly enraged and powerless. But most often in fact, we just take all those human catastrophes in our stride and get on with our lives.
But some stories hurt and connect, some stories continue to haunt. And one feels that the very least one can do is to remember the story, to commemorate the human suffering and the courage of which it speaks.
Like the story of Natalia Estemirova… How can one not be haunted by it?
With quiet but breathtaking courage she “only” wanted to document, to record, to remember, thus restoring some justice – she didn’t carry any arms, she didn’t pose a physical threat to anyone. On the photo in the paper, against a background of bombed out, bullet-riddled houses you see a woman of calm, unpretentious authority, with sad gentleness smiling a half-smile.
And this gentle courageous woman was murdered. Brutal violence prevailed (“Memorial” said it was compelled to suspend its operations in Chechnya in view of the threats to its collaborators.)
Stories that hurt …. stories that haunt … I shall not recount all of them here. But there’s this one story ( totally unrelated to the Chechnya story) that keeps troubling me. I read it in a NYRB article by Caroline Moorhead about human trafficking and forced prostitution.
The journalist told the story of a young, well-educated African woman, who after having escaped Hutu-killers in Rwanda fell victim to a trafficker and ended up being prostituted in the UK, (almost inevitably) contracting HIV. She eventually did manage to be released and to get hold of a false passport. She was even able to find a job and to get antiretroviral medicine. But upon discovery of her false passport she is sentenced to some time in jail. I now quote these harrowing paragraphs from the article:
“Mary was arrested and sentenced to eight months in jail. What followed she told me, was not so bad; it was something like boarding school. She worked hard, studied computing and information technology and felt secure”
“When she was released [she unsuccessfully applied for asylum, staying in the UK being crucial to continue to have access to the antiretroviral drugs] She had no choice: she went underground, dropped out of sight. Today she has a job, for which she is paid in cash, no questions asked. Desperately anxious to draw no attention to herself, she makes no friends, talks to no one, lives alone. If stopped by the police, she knows that she will be deported.
” I live,” she told me when I met her in July in London, “from day to day.[…] I don’t know any longer what to hope for””
How could one not be haunted by this story? How could one not be haunted by this woman speaking of prison as a place where she felt secure, working and studying. By this woman, living the most solitary of lives, so as to avoid extradition.
And no, I have no answer to the question what to do with those stories. Join Amnesty International? Contribute to human rights organizations? Well maybe, yes , maybe that is indeed the only way a powerless individual can react.