Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Dodging bombs to document war crimes

20 March 2014

Everything has to happen fast on this early morning. Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang run across fields under cover of dawn. Suddenly, a barbed wire fence appears. They jump over it before they climb into a waiting SUV on an unpaved road. So far, so good.

“Welcome to Syria,” says Neistat, after the sprint across the border from Turkey.

Neistat and her husband Solvang work for Human Rights Watch, the international non-governmental organization has become one of the world’s most influential voices on rights violations from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. They are part of its emergencies division, a special group charged with investigating major rights violations even as they are taking place. The two are also among the subjects of "E-Team", a new documentary that screened at this year’s Sundance and True/False film festivals.

Since those who carry out atrocities thrive on secrecy, Neistat and Solvang would hardly be welcomed by the Syrian government or other groups involved in atrocities during a three year civil war that’s left 140,000 dead. Being a non-combatant is hardly protection. About 30 journalists have gone missing in the country since the war began, and 29 more were killed in 2013 alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Their role: to go undercover in Syria to unearth evidence of atrocities that can be used to attract international attention to a crisis and establish whether a larger investigation is warranted. To do so, Neistat and Solvang dress to blend in. She wears a burqa and he dons a headscarf. Their approach is simple: visit a village and talk to as many people as possible to gather information about attacks on civilians and other atrocities. Like detectives, the duo follows leads by interviewing potential witnesses and taking photographs.

Just as Human Rights Watch regularly sends its researchers to places few rights groups or news organizations dare tread, the film, directed by Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, refuses to cower. It places the camera alongside E-Team investigators as they navigate amongst the bombs and bullets of the Arab Spring in Libya and Syria.

Yet it also offers glimpses into the personal lives of people who have chosen a spectacularly dangerous and dramatic line of work.

Neistat, a well-dressed Russian émigré with a gift for talking her way out of tough situations in four languages, fell in love with unflappable Norwegian Solvang while she was detained by authorities Georgia during the 2008 Russia – Georgia war.

The film shows them at home, living a quiet life in Paris with their young son—planning their next trip to a war zone even as they cook the family dinner. At one point, the boy asks: “Does Assad steal the Syrian children’s toys?”

In a safe house back in Syria, Neistat and Solvang work on a report they want to publish. Suddenly they hear aircraft noises. Military aircraft fly overhead. Suddenly bombs explode, one after another. In a sense, this is all in a day’s work. Neistat alone has authored reports on death squads in the Philippines, post-election violence in Kenya and state-sponsored “disappearances” in Sri Lanka.

Human Rights Watch periodically faces charges of bias—often from authoritarian governments such as Eritrea and Ethiopia that are the subject of its reports. Additionally, its reports on Israeli military strikes operations in Gaza and Lebanon have drawn intense criticism from the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups—as well as a former chairman of the group’s board of directors.

Yet the slings and arrows of such critics would matter little to Neistat and Solvang, who appear mainly animated by the questions: “what happened?” and “who did it?” During their time in Syria, the couple was able to document a number of significant rights violations. Work of this sort is hard to leave at the office. Even Neistat recovers in the hospital after the birth of their second son, she does a phone interview about her latest human rights investigation.

Human Rights Watch: Syria (Video)

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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