Nigina Beroeva is a freelance photographer and journalist who has had her work published in several international as well as independent Russian and international publications including Meduza and TV channel Dozhd. After spending years reporting on refugees, never did she imagine that she would one day become one herself, as she writes below.
“I dream of going home someday. Home. To see my son. I haven't seen him all his life. To hug him, to tell him that I fought all this time for him and his future. That I couldn't go back to him because I would have been arrested. I miss him so much...” – Dursoltan, a Tajik woman, presses her palms against her crying face and trembles. I look at her through the lens of the video camera.
It was the fall of 2021. I had come to Istanbul to film the Turkmen activists living there as part of a series of documentaries that the famous Russian blogger Ilya Varlamov made for the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. Ilya suggested that I make, among other things, a film about Turkmenistan.
It is every journalist's dream to get into a tightly closed country such as Turkmenistan. Several years before, I managed to go to North Korea together with my friend and colleague Ksenia Bolshakova. We secretly filmed and then released a report on the French TV channel TF1. It seemed that if I could get into North Korea, I could get anywhere. Anywhere but Turkmenistan.
The scale of dictatorship, repression, lies, and poverty in that country cannot be assessed. There is no data. And according to the information, which activists manage to transmit to the wider world, the situation in Turkmenistan seems to be catastrophic. The country was finally and hermetically closed during the pandemic and never opened. It seemed then that there could be no greater dictatorship than in North Korea and Turkmenistan. Many things seemed impossible then, but not now. In the race of dictatorships today there is an absolute leader, and it is neither North Korea nor Turkmenistan.
But let's go back to Istanbul, where my heroine Dursoltan was looking at the sunset sea through her tears. She left Turkmenistan eight years ago, her son was two months old at the time. At first she simply earned money in Turkey and sent it back to Turkmenistan, so her family would have something to eat. Then she realised this was not enough. From faraway Turkey she saw how Turkmens really live. She understood that she could and should live differently. Dusya, as her relatives call her, became an activist. She goes to rallies, runs her own tik-tok channel, defends Turkmens in Turkey. For all these activities in her homeland, the authorities consider her a traitor. If she came back, they would arrest her.
By then I had done a lot of reporting on refugees, on political emigrants, and travelled to the war. All these stories stayed with me. I took them with me from my business trips. And so it was in the fall of 2021. I came home with the story of Dusya, who couldn't go home. But then it was hard for me to feel the depth of her grief.
I could never have imagined that soon I myself would have to experience something similar.
I left Russia at the beginning of March 2022. I found myself back in Istanbul. I felt like I was on a business trip again. The most terrifying business trip I've been on in all the 20 years I've worked in journalism. And this business trip, too, is full of people who have fled their home country and don't know when they'll be able to return home. Only this time I was among them. I found myself in the shoes of my heroine. And next to me are the stories of refugees from Ukraine who are fleeing from a monstrous war and do not know when they will return home, because there may no longer be a home.
The stories of Russian refugees, among whom are many of my colleagues and friends who are against the war or who are fleeing from political repression. And also my correspondence with friends from Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv... Correspondence with complete strangers from Ukraine who read my social networks. Pain, tears, grief, shame and hatred. And a tear-off war calendar, on which it is already the 62nd day of the war.
These are stories I can't take home with me, I don't know when I can go back there myself. I keep repeating that phrase over and over to accept it. Someday I will finally realise that this is not a business trip, this is my life.
In the meantime, I want to tell these stories. Stories about Russians who fled their country because they were against the war. About Ukrainians who are experiencing this war. About how war separates and connects. I want to talk about collective guilt, or the lack thereof, and what people I meet think about it. I will talk about the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians. I will share all that I see and feel.