On the power to exit

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Agnes Callamard

01 Oct 2012

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It seems to me that a major theme in all my recent travels has been the power to exit or perhaps the power to flee. One might think that flight or exit and power don’t belong together.  Yet, they do. 

Mexican journalists, for example, don’t really have the “power” to exit Mexico.  Unlike their transient international counterparts who enter for a quick stay or a longer, those whose arrival in the country was by way of the act of their birth rarely have the power to leave. 

Colleagues point out to me that security-training courses teach them that when the worst comes to the worst, journalists should get to the airport and exit the country pronto.  It’s just that simple. But is it?  Such security training assumes that places where reporting is dangerous – such as Mexico - are not home but just places where one is sent to, places from where one can easily retreat.

The reality is quite different.  For many journalists – in fact for the majority – and for many human rights defenders  - indeed, for almost all of them – the most dangerous place to be is the place they call home.  Even if one can escape, when your unwilling flight takes you away from your own home, does one ever escape?  Is a home abandoned without choice ever really an exit?

Lydia Cacho was sharing these reflections a couple of weeks ago when she was with us in London.  She compared her own situation with that of certain European colleagues, whom she loves dearly, who also are very courageous investigative journalists.  They have options to exit, wherever they are.  Of course, all too frequently, sadly we are reminded that even for these journalists, exit may be denied them.  But Lydia’s point is these colleagues are far more likely to have the power to exercise this option.  For Lydia, however and others like her, things are more complicated, far more complicated.  

Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican town bordering the United States, is the world’s homicide capital of 2010.  The nearest exit from danger is El Paso, across the border.  All you need to win your escape is an official visa, which I am told many people in Cd Juarez can obtain. The visa gives residents of Ciudad Juarez the right to leave Mexico, enter the US and remain up to a certain distance from the border (about 100 kms).  Many have used this option.  By day, they work in Ciudad Juarez and by night, they exit to the relative safety of El Paso.  “Everyone speaks Spanish there.  It is just like Mexico but there we have a police force that we can trust,” I was told.  These who secure the visas secure the power to exit.  It’s not just journalists and human rights defenders who “opt” to live their lives this way.  The Mayor of Ciudad Juarez himself, who so proudly proclaims that there is newly found security in his town, also uses his power to exit: each and every night. 

But even in Mexico many have no such option: those living too far from a border town to qualify for border visas; those with families, whose children are going to school; those whose financial responsibilities make exit impossible; and those who never think the worse could happen. Many of those who in the face of violence cannot exit the country, are those who cannot get a visa to a safer place, and unfortunately, they are the majority.

To exit is – at times - a power.  The option to exit is a huge power if it means fleeing the risks and dangers of someone else’s home: Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Cd Juarez: the list goes on;  and exiting to your own.

It was a power I could easily deploy myself during my visit to Cd Juarez, had the circumstances required it.  It is a power I exercised today when I left the IDP camp that sits some 20 kms out of Nakuru town in a region at the epicenter of the 2007-2008 post electoral violence in Kenya.

I had spent the morning in conversation with women displaced by violence, some very destitute, some a bit less so; some living with some hope, demands and anger; others with far less.  Their story began in flight: a terrible flight from violence and killings. 

Exiting the conditions faced as an internally displaced person has proven to be, arguably, far more difficult.  For the last 4 years, durable solutions, including through resettlement, have proven elusive.  These women were resettled once, some months ago but the majority returned.  The new place to which they were sent had no school near-by, the land on which they were settled was the subject of dispute, and once again, tents for home instead of the hard walls they had been promised. So they returned.  From flight to flight to flight, they then fled once more, returning to the conditions of their former status as IDPs; returning to a life which, hard as it is, by offering them solidarity, a school, medical facility, a water borehole, is still safer than the alternative.

And yet, it is not an answer.  So where is their real exit?  And, they want an exit:  A house of three rooms, some land to work, a school, medical facilities and a little kick start to help them set a trade. They want choices.  They want some power over their lives.  They have hopes for a better one.  But right now, at this moment, for them there is no exit: exiting is not a power they can exercise.

Are there any connections between the experience of the Mexican journalist or activist and these women living in an IDP camp?  Yes!  For both - exiting is not in their power.  Their exits are for some one else to determine. Their exits are in someone else’s power. 

They may be given options of exit but neither has the power to create the timing or terms of those exits.  Unlike those of us who, at free will, can choose to leave a place of danger or a place of destitution or a place where hope knows no currency or a place that can never be home.  Unlike those of us who can flee to safety and dignity, can rush across a border, can push our almighty passport under the nose of bored border official.  Unlike those of us who can opt to rush to the closest airport, jump onto a plane, return to a home from which we do not need to flee.  Unlike those of us who can shake the burden of poverty, the impost of fear or the cloak of powerlessness in the time it takes to jump into a car.

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