“My hands were shaking. We were all scared. We were working in an adrenaline rush… But now we are just exhausted. It is difficult to work, hard to concentrate.” – Oksana Kovalenko, describing working during the invasion of her country, Ukraine, by Russian troops in February 2022.
“I have seen many attacks…the burning of schools and children being denied an education. I felt powerless, hopeless… For a couple of months I stopped drawing when I saw that my handful of political cartoons were not bringing any perceptible change. But then I realised that doing nothing was not helping, was not preventing the attacks. So I started again.” – Hossein Rezaye.
“To document human rights abuses is extremely perilous in Sudan because the violations are in most cases committed by state security forces or allied militia groups. They can target any journalist or human rights activist who seeks to report them… Punishment ranges from confiscation of licences and closure of offices to arrest, long prison sentences, or even extra-judicial killing.” – Tajeldin Abdalla Adam.
Afghanistan. Sudan. Ukraine. These countries may be separated by thousands of kilometres, located on different continents, but as the journalists narrated their stories at a Hague Talks event at The Hague University of Applied Science in May, 2022, it became clear to their audience that a common thread runs through all of them: the constant threat of violence, danger, and insecurity as they try to report on human rights.
And these are the lucky ones, because some of their colleagues have paid the ultimate price, practically dying to tell the stories of the suffering and devastation in their countries.
Although Oksana Kovalenko, who works for Babel online newspaper, is sometimes overwhelmed by the suffering in the war zone that has become her field of operation, she feels she has no choice but to tell the stories of the people from the frontline, the people who have survived the war, who witness the atrocities of conflict every day. Many journalists are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, but most feel that they cannot stop documenting what is happening in their country
The story of a family trying to escape from a temporarily occupied village near Kyiv reflects the fate of many others caught in the middle of a conflict they have no power to stop. “There was shelling all around the village and there was no safe corridor. But it was very dangerous to stay, so they took their two cars and fled. Nine-year-old Valeria went with her mom and a 15-year-old Arina was with her dad. They came under fire after several kilometres and the parents were killed. Arina was injured on the leg and couldn’t run. The Russians came in their tanks and put the girls in different vehicles. Valeria was handed to a strange family in another village. No one knows where Arina is.”
Kovalenko’s investigation into the fate of the two girls ground to a halt when she ran out of gas. The war has destroyed infrastructure, including oil refineries and storage facilities, as well as railway networks. The odds weigh on her. The pain and suffering she sees every day are a heavy burden to bear. “I work two times slower than before the war,” she confesses. But she does not have the luxury of giving up. If she does, who will tell the story of Valeria and Arina? She still hopes to complete her story; she still intends to find out what happened to the two girls.
And many times her professionalism in reporting on human rights has come into question, many times it has been in direct conflict with her humanity.
She has had to balance being a journalist and being human. During the 2014 Russian attack that led to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, she volunteered to help the Ukrainian army, gathering money and supplies for the soldiers, who were in a pathetic state, with no helmets, protection vests, or proper boots. This was not well received in many quarters. Her editor did not like the idea because she was concerned about her security. Others saw a conflict of interest as she was helping the soldiers while at the same time reporting on them.
For Kovalenko, there was really no choice. “If they fail, Ukraine and Ukrainian journalism would be no more. My journalism, my profession; there won’t be anything important in my life.”
Award-winning Afghan cartoonist Hossein Rezaye, who escaped from Kabul with little more than the clothes on his back and his drawing tablet as the Taliban took control of the country in August 2021, told a similar tale of horror at the Hague Talks.
The attacks on schools and the deliberate campaign to deny girls access to education seem to particularly rankle with him, making him “feel powerless”.
The architect-turned-cartoonist once contemplated giving up drawing, feeling hopeless when he realised that his “handful of cartoons” could not bring change to the world, or stop the attacks, or free girls to seek an education. But the phase soon passed when he realised that doing nothing was even worse.
He remembered the response to some of his creations published on his social media platforms and sometimes in newspapers.
“I see people’s reaction to those who lost their loved ones,” he said.
With his new cartoons came a profound realisation: that although his drawings made only a little change, “sometimes small change can make a big difference”.
For Rezaye, who was born and raised as a refugee in Iran, life has come full circle as he has had to seek refuge in the Netherlands after fleeing the latest round of turmoil in his country.
Five journalists from four African situation countries were among the 13 who attended the Hague Talks as part of the Hague Justice Week, one of the activities to mark 20 years since the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), entered into force.
Taj Abdalla Adam of Internews in Darfur, Sudan, talked about the challenges of reporting about his country’s cases at the ICC.
According to the journalist, the top army generals who served under former president Omar al-Bashir but are now in power after deposing him and staging a coup in October 2021 to remove civilians who had been included in the government, do not want any meaningful cooperation with the ICC because they have been linked to some of the crimes committed in Darfur and elsewhere.
“So, any media organisation reporting about the ICC could be targeted by the state security organs. That is why in most cases we publish reports relating to the ICC in anonymity,” Adam said.
Restrictive laws, many in existence since the time of Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for more than 25 years, contribute to the difficulties that journalists face. These include the cybersecurity law, under which any journalist reporting on a topic considered to be sensitive or to “pose risk to national security or incite hatred” could face arrest and prosecution.
The state-controlled Press and Publication Council, which regulates the media, can refer any journalist to the public prosecutor under any pretext, including the loosely defined “inciting hatred or encouraging sedition”.
“We have colleagues who were forced to go underground and some even fled the country for their own safety,” the journalist said.
Victims rarely speak about the abuses they are subjected to because of fear of retaliation by the powerful security and militia groups responsible for the attacks. Some camps of internally displaced persons have been infiltrated by government spies, who report journalists and human rights activists who try to record victims’ testimonies.
During the Hague Justice Week that lasted from May 30 to June 3, 2022, the journalists from Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), and Kenya got to stand in courtrooms where some of their compatriots have stood, accused of some of the most heinous crimes known to humanity. They also got to interact with some of the personalities in the transitional justice system, including the ICC Prosecutor, defence counsel, judges, and victims’ representatives.
The week was coordinated by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Municipality of The Hague.