Exiled from Azerbaijan just for being a journalist

Journalist Gulnur Kazimova fled Azerbaijan in fear with her young family in 2014. As the glitz and money of Formula 1 pays the country a visit, she tells Amnesty how she was hounded out of her country just for doing her job.

Uncertainty. This is the first word that comes to mind as I write about my exile from my country and those dear to me. Uncertainty means not knowing what tomorrow or even what the next hour may bring. Not being able to plan anything for yourself or your family.

When you have been exiled, you can’t turn back – and going somewhere else is beyond your control. You are in another country, unemployed, helpless, living in a rented place… And none of it is certain.

The day we fled

On that night of 28 December 2014, we had gone to visit some relatives in the Tovuz region. I remember that day, my son Mahammad had a New Year’s party at his kindergarten. He had dressed up with suspenders and a bow tie. 

That’s when we received the news. Two days earlier, the radio station I worked for had been sealed and our staff were being summoned to police stations and harassed. 

Gulnur Kazimova. Credit: Private
Gulnur Kazimova. Credit: Private

My phone wouldn’t stop ringing. My friends and acquaintances were concerned, especially those who worked for NGOs. They knew that I had been openly harassed and warned by officials during the previous few days. I had also been physically attacked by police several times while doing my job. In 2010, they confiscated my camera and deleted all my files. 

My close friends were worried for my safety and urged me to leave the country.

Unplanned and unprepared

Unprepared, I grabbed my five-year-old son and crossed the checkpoint into Georgia at midnight. We didn’t even have a bag with a change of children’s clothes. This was an unplanned migration. We had forgotten some documents on our way to Tovuz, so my husband and four-year-old daughter Jamila left the country two days after us. 

Two days later, individuals in plainclothes and police uniforms turned up at my home and the home of my parents. Introducing themselves as either police officers or as employees of the Prosecutor’s Office, they made nasty remarks towards my father and mother, asked where I was and said that a criminal case had been opened against me. Since then, there was no way back for us.

Painful chapter

The past two years of harassment and exile have taken their toll on us. What saddens me most is that I am writing a painful chapter into the childhood memories of my son Mahammad and daughter Jamila. They have paid the heaviest price for my journalism.

Even though we’re in Georgia, we don’t feel completely safe because it has close economic ties with Azerbaijan. We have felt signs that we are being watched. For our own safety, we have moved 11 times in just 17 months. 

Gulnur and her family. Credit: Private
Gulnur and her family. Credit: Private

These constant changes, as well as a lack of money and the difficulty of acquiring documentation, meant that my children could not go to kindergarten. My son lost a year of his education as a result. 

It was almost as if my children were living under house arrest. They were torn away from their friends and as a result of the language barrier they would often grumble: “We don’t have any friends, we want our friends back home”.

My hopes of finding a new home outside Georgia are slowly fading too. So we are trying to adapt to this place. We hope to work so we can build a future for our children. But it remains an uncertain hope.

Free speech under attack

It’s clear to me that the situation for journalists in Azerbaijan has got worse. Reporting on the ruling family, which controls financial and political life, carries a huge risk. If you freely express your thoughts about what’s happening you can be arrested. In the worst cases, like that of journalist Rasim Aliyev, you could be killed and silenced forever. Freedom of speech is being demolished.

I’m not one to get attached to places. It seems odd, but I don’t even miss our house. But my homeland is dear to me. The word Azerbaijan always trembles my heart. I want a happy Azerbaijan, one in which our children can study in a good education system and where I can work as a journalist who is not afraid to express myself.

As F1 #EuropeGP comes to #Azerbaijan, free speech is being crushed. Demand the crackdown stops now! http://bit.ly/1Ul8zRM

Gulnur Kazimova is one of several journalists and activists from Azerbaijan who have fled to Georgia in recent years. These include Efgan Murtanli, Gunel Mevlud and Shirin Abbasov, who work for alternative online news outlet Meydan TV, as well as opposition activist Dashgin Agalarli. As the Azerbaijani government continues to silence its critics, Amnesty is demanding an end to the crackdown on civil society and the release of wrongfully imprisoned journalists, human rights defenders and other activists.