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2009 Louis Lyons Award

Fatima Tlisova

Freelance journalist, 2009 Nieman Fellow

May 7, 2009
Lippmann House
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Thank you my very dear friends for honoring me with the award that every one in our class deserves just as equally. In any other place I would give a formal speech, but here before you whom I know and trust I will tell about my complicated attitude to journalism awards. This is about a deep moral conflict. As a journalist I do my duty by reporting stories. Those stories are mostly on grief and sufferings of real people and I always feel deep sense of shame before those people when receiving awards. On the other hand I understand that by awarding journalists the community brings more attention to their regions and stories, which is a best success for a journalist and this brings piece into my heart. Being chosen by the journalists like you is not only a great honor but a great credit and responsibility as well.

My family is here today. 15 people, three generations. My father, whose 5 brothers and sisters died during the Stalin times of hunger. He was the only one who survived as a child in the family where his father was a baker who saved lives of hundreds of village orphans by secretly giving them small pieces of bread he was stealing from the bakery.

My mother who worked for 45 years as a midwife in the village hospital where she was the only help for local women. More than three thousand babies came to this world through her hands — all healthy. Gulag, Solovki, Siberia — those are not easy words for my family on either side, those are the places where my grand parents and generations before them suffered and died. My brother and his wife — parents of five, my sister — our colleague journalist and her two children, and my children. My old friends, Nick and Ruth Daniloff, whose kind participation in my life is invaluable as well as my new friends — all of you in this room.

When I was thinking what to say here today I went through my archive. What I wrote during last 12 years. About three thousand articles almost the same as my moms’ number of babies. However my stories are not about happiness. Corruption, disappearances, military crimes against civilians, assassinations, attacks, arrests, mass atrocities. Sadly often those stories are about my close friends or colleagues.

Most of my stories are written under different pseudonyms. Dana Cei investigated the torture of political prisoners. She was the one who found unbeatable evidences of involvement of the federal secret services in massacre and disappearances and published the so-called black lists of people condemned to death. Rinat Fairullin wrote on corruption of high ranked authorities including the representatives of the Russian president in the region. Denis Golovalov wrote intensively on the close relationships between mafia and the government. The last one is very special to me. My colleague was murdered because he was suspected as the one who carried the Golovanov pseudonym.

The less dangerous stories that I covered under my own name were also good enough for being under continued pressure actually reporting for the foreign press is already a good reason for being suspicious. This is the document you receive from the police after being arrested, neglected searched and kept for an hours. This one is the paper from the FSB request for presence in the office for interrogation. Those two papers are the only ones I have. All other arrests went officially unreported. I want to read except from the book I am working on. I don’t think it needs any explanations.

“Here they are. Two cars like sharks, metallic, dark, and shiny, with the black unclear windows, they cut her from the world and squeeze her between them. Men in gray jump from the first car and run to the woman. The smell of last nights’ drinks hits her sensors. Their hands squash her hands. They push her into their car. She is silent and does not ask where they are going. It appears not too far. Few blocks away stands the gray, dirty building of the branch of MVD.

Her bag, camera, cell phone all are taken away. She is in the cage. It is dark. One side of the cage is made of beams from flour to flour. Space between each of them is small — you can hardly put your hand but the beams themselves are enormously huge.

She feels the smell. The smell penetrates into the skin, lungs, blood, and brain. The smell that makes her believe that it is her own from now on and forever. She hears voices, something is screaming. Cats? Too loud for a cat. Words? Humans? No human being can scream like this. Can they? What did the Voice say? “Enough!” Nothing stops. Small piece of something white lays on the floor - a finger? Is this blood all around? A broken glass with pieces of human flesh on it. Ah, why did she touch the beam? Something is sticking to her hand. Piece of human scalp with short black hear. Is it attached to her hand forever? She cannot drop it. Now it is her screaming: Let me out of here!! A man in gray appears with anger, opens his mouths, which turn into the old hoarse Gramophone. Words came to her very slowly like from the Elephants’ trunk “Be happy, you are not in the basement”

Her shoes are glued to the floor by something tacky. She does not want it to be the blood. It is just a berry jam. She can even lie down and rest. No smell, no screams, no scalps or blood, just aromatic jam that nicely enshrouds her body, and there are butterflies all around”.

During this year at Nieman we had many conversations on journalism and its’ future. Is it really worth all the sacrifices we have to make? Do people really need what we do?

This is the internal Russian passport. The stamp here is the proof of my address. If there is no stamp than you are homeless. In 2007 I took photos of the passports of the refugees that lived in the camp for internal displaced people for more than 14 years. None of their passports had this stamp. After the photos came out and the report appeared I received a letter from those refugees that since then they have gotten stamps in their passports they could not get for 14 years, which meant that they are not homeless anymore.

58 prisoners in Nalchik told their lawyers that the torture ended after I published their photos that were taken soon after the arrest with all the horrible signs of electrocution and other types of torture.

17 children from the mountain village that were poisoned by the pollution from the nearby nuclear lab got medical treatment from the government only after a series of my reports.

There are many similar stories and all the time there were journalists who were there before me, who decided that the situation is too dangerous or too hopeless. We have to try anyway. My answer to all those journalistic questions is — yes, we can.

Circassian etiquette, Adyge Habza does not allow people to show their feelings to even very close relatives. We use symbols instead of words. If you make something with your own hands and give it to someone then that is the sign of your sympathy. My children, my sister, her children, and me — we made these green bags with the Circassian National flag on them, there are 62 of them, I hope enough for every one in this room. Please, except these gifts as the admission of that my heart belongs to you forever.