How I gave a mother a cake because I couldn't get her son out of jail



Lea la versión en español de este blog aquí.


“Kriz, I have just been charged by the government with terrorist propaganda. I don’t think we can meet as scheduled.”  

This was Aytaç’s text message to me, on a Monday morning, a couple of months after we had just met in a café in Istanbul to talk about how our organizations could work together. Aytaç**, a 21-year old diminutive figure for a Turkish woman, is a youth activist in this country which, until a few years ago, was the darling of the world--a modern, liberal Muslim-dominated country undergoing an economic miracle that stood in stark contrast with its neighbors--the Middle East, the Balkans and Central Asia. Aytaç made a few posts on social media that were critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government. Until she was picked up by the police a day earlier, she thought she was just an anonymous voice in her country whom the government would never pay resources to monitor. Now, she has to convince the courts that she is not a terrorism propagandist, or she could be locked up. Her boss had just been released from jail; how could her organization afford losing another member?

Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen on the way to Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 5, 2013. Photo by:  newsonline

Protestors clash with Turkish riot policemen on the way to Taksim Square in Istanbul on June 5, 2013. Photo by: newsonline

I wish I could say that Aytaç’s story was extraordinary. Unfortunately, since Dejusticia has started working on the issue of the crackdown against democratic dissent, particularly of civil society organizations, I have had to confront similar stories regularly. Certainly, we had been undertaking a two-year research on the issue trying to analyze the causes and manifestations of, as well as potential responses to this worrying trend. This has cropped up in countries with governments from both the Left and the Right--from Russia, India, Venezuela, Turkey, Ecuador, Egypt, Azerbaijan to Kenya--an amalgam of regimes some of which are undeniably authoritarian (such as Egypt), but most of which started as arguably democratic but have somehow been in an autocratic freefall. The latter have democratic elections and other trappings of democracy such as courts, electoral commissions, a Constitution, and media, but all of which have been rotting from within, being sapped of their independence and meaning by the very government who trumpet about their existence. In short, some of the most worrying attacks against democratic dissent have now been coming from governments themselves who use democracy to kill it from within.

But researching about an issue is very different from hearing from someone who has become a friend. It is different to do a dispassionate academic analysis of a trend than to receive calls about Venezuelan activists that were needing help to escape their country immediately. The research is an intellectual challenge, but dealing with people--human beings with families, real fears, and questions with no answers--is an exercise in maintaining calm in the midst of siege, and of keeping hope despite the darkness.

It is easy to fall into a sense of helplessness when shocking stories become part of an ongoing pile-up of statistics. And it is easy to feel powerless, when despite the ceaseless efforts to fight unjust situations, governments just would not let up.

Students march in 2012 to demand justice for protesters and activists slain in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad

Students march in 2012 to demand justice for protesters and activists slain in the wake of the 2011 revolution. Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad

A couple of weeks ago, I met again with one of Dejusticia’s partners, who is the father of a Venezuelan 24-year old who has been abducted several months ago by Venezuelan state and paramilitary forces because of the opposition stance of the father. We were walking together watching the rush hour chaos of Bogotá at dusk, trying to talk about “normal” things other than the fact that his wife is becoming ever more depressed, his country is falling into pieces, his son has been languishing in jail, and he could not even get a visa to be able to take any work that would put food into his now refugee-family’s table. At that moment, after months and months of us knocking on every door we could find to try to free his son, I found myself in this awkward region between determination to keep trying, helplessness knowing most of it would not work, and a crushing sadness imagining what he and his family must be going through. In that awkward place, I found myself asking us to stop by a pastry shop. I picked up a cake, and almost looking away, I handed it to the shocked father and said, “Please give this to your wife.”

A cake? Really? Was I trying to erase my guilt for knowing that maybe I had not tried as hard as I could have yet? In fact, it has not been me but my colleagues in our litigation team, our director and our international communications coordinator who have been exerting the most effort of shaming the Colombian and Venezuelan governments about this and thousands of other injustices going on in Venezuela today. All I get to do is coordinate our efforts, and apparently now, buy a cake for the people whose lives we watch unravel.

When I wake up in the morning and buckle down to my geeky academic research work, while I keep my phone within arm’s reach for yet another call, I keep going back to those awkward moments of cakes in Bogotá and coffee conversations in cafés in Istanbul. My activist soul and my academic brain rile up for solutions, but I realize that the part of me that has consistently managed to keep the embers burning in such difficult situations is my human heart. This is a reflection that is hard to come to terms with when it has something to do with “work”, because then one allows the line between the 8 to 5 work hours and one’s preoccupations when getting up in the morning get dangerously blurred.

Russian police arrests a group of activists in Moscow. Photo by:  Daniel Beilinson

Russian police arrests a group of activists in Moscow. Photo by: Daniel Beilinson

But what is human rights other than an act of kindness? What is “civil society” other than an attempt at telling people that, yes, we are free, and that yes, we can claim that freedom--whether through protests, social media posts, blogs like this, or cases we file in court? Human rights activists have come to realize that we have alienated ourselves from most of our communities because we speak in jargon that only we understand. We keep talking about what communications strategies to use to allow us to connect with our “constituencies”, win back our legitimacy, and push back against the “closing of space for civil society”. But what good is all of it if we forget that activism is not a language, a discourse, or a movement, but a strong handshake, a painfully sympathetic nod, and perhaps, a stupid cake to connect with real human beings whose lives we wish to help make better?

Certainly one does not need to be a human rights activist to be able to shake someone’s hand. But it’s only a truly caring and grounded advocate who can write a set of policy recommendations and at the same time keep giving hope to the people s/he works with to make sure that all this does not become pointless in the end. I don’t think I will start sending cakes to our partners from here on (I doubt our organization has budget to turn our office into a pastry shop), but at least I think I’ll start being comfortable that this isn’t blurring a line--it is embracing what we should be.


**The names and distinguishing features have been changed for reasons of security.

Krizna Gomez, a research coordinator at Dejusticia, is co-editor (with César Rodríguez-Garavito) of an upcoming book titled “Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights Actors,” which gathers together innovative responses of human rights actors to fight the tide of crackdown against civil society around the world.

Featured photo: Juanky Pamies Alcubilla