Growing up in a country that was undergoing major social and political change taught Anna Neistat a very important lesson: the power of people and what can be done in situations where change seems impossible. It’s a lesson she has never forgotten, and is one of the main drivers behind the work she does as Amnesty International’s senior director for research, collecting information about human rights abuses in places such as Syria, Darfur and Pakistan.
“I am from Russia and at the time I was born it was still the Soviet Union so I do still remember what it was like,” Neistat says. “I was blessed with growing up at the most incredible time when the Soviet Union was actually falling apart and that was one of the most fascinating things to bear witness to – and I think something that significantly defined what I am doing to this day.”
Neistat has been working in the area of human rights for the past 15 years, visiting major areas of conflict: Chechnya, Afghanistan, China, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Kenya, Yemen, Sri Lanka and Haiti. She’s done more than 60 investigations, recording many devastating abuses.
“What I see while doing fieldwork is often devastating and extremely traumatic but quite honestly, what I usually bring back from my trips is not only the suffering and trauma but a lesson in incredible resilience and courage,” she says. “In that way I feel blessed to be able to see people in the most extraordinary circumstances, because only in these types of circumstances do you see the worst of humankind, and the best.”
Bearing witness is a crucial aspect of the role Amnesty International and Neistat play. They spend time talking with civilians, hearing their stories, which are then put into reports along with information gained from analysis of the situation. It is these Amnesty National reports that shed light on wrongs being done around the world.
“There is a notion that abuses happen in darkness – the perpetrators rely on the idea that nobody would ever bother to speak to the people in these places, they completely rely on their victims being invisible and voiceless. And that’s where we come in – that’s really the first stop in our human rights journey: to bear witness, to get as much information as we can.”
But the ultimate goal is change, which can take many different forms. “In armed conflict it’s making sure warring parties take measures to protect civilians or that humanitarian aid is delivered to those who need it or that refugees can flee in safety,” explains Neistat. “There is always some tangible result behind every project – there is always a plan as to how we are going to approach the situation.”
Shining a light on the darkness means that Neistat hears some extraordinary stories – stories that could easily make a person give up. But even after 15 years, Neistat still has what it takes to keep going. “What you need for this job in order to not give up is the outrage and the absolute deeply rooted belief that you can change things or at least you have no excuse for not trying. Every time I speak to a man or a woman or a child who talks to me about an injustice that has been done to them I feel it personally and I feel a personal desire to make sure that they get redress and that the bad guys who have done it are brought to justice.”
Throughout the process, hope is crucial for both the Amnesty International researchers, and the many people whose stories they hear. “We have to start with the hope in our hearts and minds but it’s also about building hope in others and for others. It’s about bringing hope to people in the most hopeless situations because that’s where resilience and eventual victory starts. You can’t get very far unless you have this foundation.