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13 December 2016

Survivor's guilt and loneliness: the life of an activist in exile

The Guardian

Originally Published in The Guardian


By Maryam al-Khawaja

The first time I had to leave Bahrain, I was given 24 hours to do so and told not to tell anyone. My father had been informed that my name was coming up during interrogations of political detainees, and that is usually a sign that arrest will follow.

I left for London in September 2010 with a heavy heart, determined to return. And so, after the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East began, I was active in calling for protests in Bahrain, and I returned home to take part in them.

The second time I left Bahrain, my father had convinced me that it was critical to have someone carry the voices of the movement outside the country.

I felt the weight of the entire uprising on my shoulders. I thought my exile was temporary; I had no idea that it would not be.

Being an activist in exile involves many levels of struggle. First and foremost is the struggle of being on your own. Especially for those who have been working on the ground. You have suddenly lost your family, your community, and all your support.

Hardship is easier to endure when you are going through it with others.

This solitude tends to be accompanied by survivor’s guilt. Most activists who survive when others do not, who avoid prison while others are incarcerated, and who can move freely when others cannot know this feeling very well. You feel guilty all the time, and that guilt drives your everyday life. It leaves you unable to take a break or a vacation, because what about the responsibility to all those who did not make it while you did? The feeling of guilt becomes a constant: the message of a friend you didn’t answer who got arrested, the friend request that you never accepted from someone who was then killed. The list goes on.

When working as an activist in exile it’s important to come to terms with both your strengths and weaknesses.

The first step is to confront the fact that you are now in exile, and that you have to re-adjust and re-strategise regarding the role you can play for your cause.

For many activists, being successful in their work isn’t only about self-satisfaction – it is what allows them to justify their exile to themselves and not lose hope. One of the most important first steps is to map out and identify all your allies and supporters. Your ability to influence change increases with your network.

One of the greatest problems I discovered is that the feeling of helplessness is worse than the feeling of fear. I’m not talking about just any fear, but the fear of being chased by police and seeing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fly by your head, knowing you might not be going home that night.

The feeling of being in exile – of knowing that a loved one might be tortured right at that moment, and knowing that you cannot do anything to stop it from happening – that’s helplessness.

There is also the need to understand that being on the outside means you cannot speak for those on the inside.

I like to regard my activism in exile as being more in the form of a loudspeaker: my job is to make sure that people in Bahrain continue to be heard no matter how creative the regime is in trying to silence them. The most important factor is to remain connected – although this comes with its own problems.

The internet means that despite being thousands of miles away I get real-time updates on everything that is happening on the ground in my country. This allows me to remain connected, to be aware of what is happening, and to react when necessary. But this also causes me to feel overwhelmed. There is a constant need to be connected, and I feel an anxiety about losing that connection. It almost becomes as if you are living in two worlds at the same time – and those worlds rarely meet.

The biggest obstacle here is the surveillance and security risks that the internet carries. Connecting with people on the ground may mean placing them in danger, and you must be on high alert and diligent at all times regarding the digital security precautions you take. Activists living abroad tend to become more relaxed about surveillance and digital security because of the unaccustomed feeling of safety. With digital security, however, all those connected are only as secure as their weakest links, and activists in exile have to actively remind themselves about the risks faced by those they communicate with. That is why creating strict rules for oneself as an activist in exile becomes crucial.

One of the first rules I made for myself after I had to leave Bahrain was to never call on people there to do something I would not do myself. I’ll share calls for protests, but I will never call for people to go unless I can be with them. This derives from the ethical position of not asking people to sacrifice themselves when you’re not doing so yourself.

To most activists, exile is and will always be temporary – at least that’s what they believe.

The plan to go back is always present, always in the back of their minds. On the other hand, there is also so much to be learned about the importance of the role of activists in exile from other struggles.

A case in point would be the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The international movement played a critical role in bringing an end to the apartheid system. While the grassroots, local struggle is the essence of the movement, those in exile complement and build on that.

There is a reason why dictators try to isolate movements within their borders from the rest of the world; and why, on the other hand, civil society does its best to go beyond borders and connect to people on an international platform. There is strength in unity and collectivity.

What it comes down to is this: can I make more of a difference working in exile, or sitting in a prison cell in Bahrain?