‘The wind of change is something you never forget’

From Sunday Morning, 10:08 am on 4 December 2016

Anna Neistat’s role as senior director of research at Amnesty International has her crossing borders under the cover of night to investigate crises and human rights abuses in conflict zones worldwide.

Anna Neistat

Anna Neistat Photo: supplied

Recently she’s been working in the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and the Australian refugee-detention centre on Nauru, and she told Sunday Morning that before that she spent 14 years investigating the Middle East for Human Rights Watch.

“Pretty much every conflict over the last decade I’ve covered,” she says.

In 2012, she was five months pregnant when she travelled to Syria to research human rights violations happening there - and which continue to happen now.

Dr Neistat is the subject of a feature-length documentary - E-Team - that focuses on her work.

Nauru – ‘an absolutely desperate situation’

She says asylum seekers - men, women and children - have been held by Australia in open-air prisons on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru for three years now, and nothing is being done to settle them permanently.

“About 70 percent of them have been recognised as refugees which means that nobody is questioning their claim for protection … and yet they’re not being settled in Australia or any other country.

“Australia is flouting international law and moreover, Australia is undermining the whole system of international refugee protection.”

Refugees protest on Nauru against offshore processing in defiance of a new law requiring 7 days notice of a protest.

Refugees protesting on Nauru in 2015. Photo: Supplied by Refugee Action Coalition

Dr Neistat went to Nauru and saw “an absolutely desperate situation” which Amnesty International has labelled torture.

“And Amnesty International does not use the word torture lightly.”

For example, on Nauru mental trauma and self-harm is rife, there is regular physical and sexual abuse by the local population and little access to medical care.

The Australian government has intentionally put this system in place to deter people to who might attempt to reach Australia by boat, she says.

“And of course, in order for this deterrent to work it needs be as bad as it possible can.

“And it surely is.”

Syria – ‘from bad to worse’

Smoke rises after a residential area in the Darat Izza neighbourhood of Aleppo was bombed, apparently by Russia.

A residential neighbourhood in Aleppo being bombed in October of this year. Photo: AFP

Dr Neistat says she went to Syria in 2012 when she was five-months pregnant as the first bombs were dropped on the rebels by the Syrian government. Some of those bombs fell on hospitals.

“We were able to generate a lot of attention … that was when the first talk of a no-fly zone started, because it seemed so outrageous that a hospital would be bombed.

“Of course now there are almost no hospitals left in Aleppo so, of course, things have gone from bad to worse.”

Growing up behind the Iron Curtain

Anna Neistat during a press conference in Australia about Amnesty's report on torture on Nauru.

Dr Neistat during a press conference in Australia about Amnesty's report on torture on Nauru. Photo: AFP

Dr Neistat grew up behind the Iron curtain in Moscow and glimpsed totalitarianism before it fell apart - something that shaped her life and career choice.

As a young person, she says, it was compulsory to join the communist-youth movement; she marched, wore the red scarf and sang the songs.

“And seeing all of that - and not just in Russia and the Soviet Union, but also all over Eastern Europe - start falling apart due to peoples’ power. That, I think, affected me more than anything else.

“I look at what’s happening in Russia now and it is extremely depressing, but the wind of change is something you never forget.

“I think that gives me a lot of hope and drive doing what I do now.”