Surviving, thriving in exile: Q&A with Dina Yafasova

In September 2001, CPJ received a worrisome call. Uzbek journalist Dina Yafasova had been roughly interrogated by the Uzbek National Security Service, which threatened her with imminent arrest and physical abuse unless she revealed sources and names of articles she wrote for international publications. She left the agency deeply shaken and within days had left the country for Denmark, where she sought asylum. 

Yafasova, a journalist since 1988, had worked as a Central Asian correspondent for Danish and other international media. Her investigative reports (one of which, on state censorship, formed part of a submission to an official hearing before the U.S. Congress in 2001) portrayed the difficulties of daily life in a post-Soviet dictatorship.

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Journalists in exile 2011

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CPJ has stayed in contact with Yafasova since she left Uzbekistan nearly 10 years ago and has followed her difficult transition from living alone in a refugee camp, through her struggles to find housing and work, to her newfound success as a published author in Denmark, where she has now brought her family as well.

EW: You arrived in Denmark after a difficult journey. You had a visa due to your prior work with a Danish publication, and you applied for asylum. What was your experience like in your first year?

DY: At the start of my exile, I found myself in a Danish refugee camp, a place not so different from an open-type prison. Of course nobody expects five-star hotel treatment at such camps, but I was definitely shocked by what I found: small, overcrowded rooms in a series of barracks surrounded by barbed wire, where traumatized people from all over the world sat and waited in group isolation, their mental scars left to fester untreated. By the irony of destiny, my first morning in the camp was September 11, 2001, the day xenophobia exploded and attitudes toward refugees shifted. Some of the establishment forces in Denmark abused the tragedy in the United States and bound the words “refugee” and “terrorist” together. It was a rare opportunity for me as a journalist, but I also had to deal with it as a human being. The hardest thing was fear for the safety of my family who remained in my home country after I had to flee. They were left almost in a position of being held hostage – authorities could go after them at any time. The second hardest thing was the feeling of not knowing. I didn’t know when I’d see my children and my husband, or if I’d ever see them again.

EW: How long were you separated from your husband and children?

DY: I remained in a refugee camp for six months, but under those circumstances it felt like six years. My separation from my children and husband continued for six months. Actually, people stay in such places for years. I have to thank CPJ, which started an international campaign advocating for my case; it helped make my time in the camp and my separation from my children and husband shorter.

EW: What were some of the challenges you faced once you were granted asylum?

DY: Living in exile is a big challenge, but the hardest thing was to deal with the dilemma that my work brought me into. I wanted to keep my journalistic identity, but at the same time I had to think about the safety of my family and friends who remained in my home country. For example, during the first year of my exile I worked for a well-known Danish organization, International Media Support, where I was responsible for media development projects in former Soviet countries, including Uzbekistan, and I was obliged to do this work for the most part anonymously. I chose not to step forward publicly in order not to bring friends and relatives in my homeland in danger.

EW: You have since published two books. Was it difficult to start your career over in a new country?

DY: Of course it was not easy. When I left the refugee camp, I had only three things with me, three things to start a life in a new country. The first was the blanket I had used in the camp. The second were my diaries with my notes about the things I had experienced in the camp. The third was my new status, a citizen of the world. I was lucky, as I received so much support, sometimes even from people I didn’t know. I still feel that it is unrealistic to do qualified journalistic work in a country whose language you started learning in your 30s. But exile also influenced my way of writing.  From mobile, all-knowing but laconic journalism, I shifted to a more lonely way of writing. In the beginning of my exile, I was encouraged by the largest Scandinavian publishing house, Gyldendal, to write a book of documentary prose about my experiences in my home country and the refugee camp. Against all expectations, The Darkest Hour is Before the Dawn (titled Sandholm Diary in Danish) was critically acclaimed and raised a national debate about the prison-like conditions under which refugees were forced to live as they waited for their futures to be sealed. After some years, I’m proud to say that the book was able to make a little bit of a difference. Danish newspapers wrote recently that the waiting time in Danish refugee camps was shortened by three times, as the finally government understood that long stays in such camps damage the psychological health of the refugees. My second book, the documentary novel Don’t Call Me a Victim!, which was published in Denmark in May, is a political and human drama about torture in police custody as an instrument of a war against terrorism, and terrorism as an instrument and reaction to the terror of the state.

EW: Were there repercussions for your other family members in Uzbekistan after your departure?

DY: There were repercussions against my parents; this resulted in them also having to flee.

EW: What advice do you have for journalists going into exile? And for organizations and people who want to help?

DY: When I was forced into exile, and for a long time afterward, I felt very guilty about my family, because my journalistic work destroyed their safety and our home. But I also remembered what my husband said to me when I had to leave the country: “The world is always cruel to journalists who report the truth. Prison or exile are the biggest compliments a journalist can receive for his or her work. But exile is better than a prison.” What I can add to this? If you are not left alone in your exile, if you are lucky enough to get some help from the people around you and international community, there is always a chance that you can rebuild your professional identity, and then you will be able to do your work in, perhaps, an even more qualified way. As Brodsky said: “From tyranny one can only exile to democracy.”

As for organizations and people who want to help, I can only ask not to leave our colleagues and their families alone. There is nothing worse than forgotten victims.

 W: How do you feel about your situation now?

DY: I still receive threats even though I’m in exile. The last threats came on October 7 last year, the day on which Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. The Danish police are investigating it.