When newly appointed President Shavkat Mirziyoev began to release political prisoners in Uzbekistan following the death of autocratic President Islam Karimov in 2016, “it was on everyone’s minds to interview them,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Uzbek Service journalist Barnohon Isakova recalls. “So we started.”
A decree signed by Mirziyoev in December 2017 pardoned over 2,700 convicts, the first mass pardoning in the country’s history of convicts, among them intellectuals, writers, journalists, and politicians who survived torture and as many as 24 years in prison in retaliation for their opposition to Karimov’s 26 year-long iron-fisted regime.
Isakova and acclaimed photojournalist Umida Akhmedova together produced a collection of short profiles combining interviews and historical videos to document the memories, tragedies, and courage of a handful of the survivors. The project, which they named “Unbroken,” quickly went viral.
Isakova sat down with RFE/RL Pressroom to discuss the project, which is meant to “let people know that these heroes are among us.”
RFE/RL Pressroom: The short documentaries of “Unbroken” have been viewed more than 2 million times on social networks. Did you expect this sort of response when you started out?
Barnohon Isakova: Absolutely not. When famous journalist Muhammad Bekjanov was released in February 2017 after spending 18 years behind bars, our interview with him in his house had an overwhelming response online – it was the most watched video on RFE/RL’s Uzbek website and on Facebook. We saw that nobody was producing this sort of documentary-style project inside the country.
Our audiences wrote and called in with suggestions for more profiles, and over time our initiative evolved into a series that grew bigger with profound and in-depth stories. We now have seven short documentaries profiling political prisoners who spent up to 24 years in prison.
Pressroom: Why did audiences react so strongly?
Isakova: RFE/RL is the first and only media outlet to produce such a documentary series under one clear title.
What made these videos go viral were the stories about torture, and the survivors of torture. People had never heard in detail about the conditions within the prisons of Uzbekistan, which have inherited an inhumane version of the former KGB. We had never had such a deep, fact-based explanation of this nature, and told by journalists and writers who know how to tell a story.
For the youth, the stories were very touching, and they learned about the lives of the victims. The older generation know the protagonists, who are famous and respected in Uzbekistan. They were waiting for these stories.
I hope to translate the documentaries in to English to reach wider audiences that are interested in the recent history of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, human rights and political prisoners. The stories about the lives of these survivors are very recent and valuable.
Pressroom: What motivated you to share the stories of the survivors?
Isakova: First, nobody had done it so far. Second, these stories are part of recent history, and the topics relate to our entire history. The victims do not only belong to the past 30 years, but to the past century or more. They have very rich biographies that reflect the history of our nation and the regime.
For me, it really is important that they are still alive, still with us. Why should we wait until they die to tell their stories? We shouldn’t have to go to their graves to look for them, nor to a book, but we should look around and talk to them.
Third, these survivors served the nation, then spent 10, 15, or over 20 years behind bars, yet now they are out, and they have not stopped to do their job. They did not have the chance in life they thought they would have, but they remain full of ideas. They read books in prison. They still have something in their mind that makes them determined to help the government do good.
That is why I think we have to talk with them and listen to them while they are alive. They are walking treasures.
Pressroom: What struck you the most from your interviews?
Isakova: All these people have a tragedy behind them. There were times during filming when I was sitting and crying – I didn’t expect that. I always think to myself, what is driving these people? What is moving them to fight? It is something that you cannot explain, a gift that they have.
Most importantly, they were not real opposition, but intellectuals who were writing and using their freedom of speech. That was their guilt for which they spent much of their life behind bars. Their braveness is something that I cannot understand. It fascinates me. We have to show such people and share their touching and influential stories.
Pressroom: Why the title “Unbroken”?
Isakova: The meaning of ‘unbroken’ is the same in every language. In Uzbek it translates as “sinmaganlar,” which is a very simple and strong word. The nature of this word, especially for former prisoners, comes from the Soviet time and relates to the dire conditions in Uzbek prisons which have been inherited today. Usually there should be four people in a prison cell, but in post-soviet regimes, there can be up to twenty people, with an open toilet in the corner. Even the iron beds from the Soviet time remain intact.
When people go to prison, they must face the “prisoner’s test” – meaning torture, abuse and sexual harassment by powerful prisoners. If broken, they will continue to suffer this abuse. Those who pass the test are ‘unbroken.’ Although the new government has made some promising steps in improving the conditions of prisons and detention centers, as well as the transparency of interrogation systems, Uzbek prisoners face not only a limitation of freedom, but also of simple food, sleep, toilet paper, medicines, and other basic human rights.
The protagonists in this project are unbroken. To be ‘unbroken’ means to survive and keep a human face and soul. They passed not only this test, but the test of the regime, time, their own tragedy, and the tragedies of their families. And yet, they continue fighting, not fighting but writing. The title “Unbroken” is the exact reflection of the main idea of this project.
Since graduating with a degree in International Journalism from the National University of Uzbekistan, Barnohon Isakova has over twenty years of experience in reporting. She has worked as a reporter, presenter, and assistant editor for different media outlets including Hurriyat (Freedom) and the first live radio channel in the country, Yoshlar (Youth). She joined RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Radio Ozodlik, in 2003 as a freelancer at its bureau in Tashkent. When authorities shut down the bureau in 2005, she continued her reporting for RFE/RL from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, before moving to Prague in 2007.
Contact her at Isakovab@rferl.org / +420-2-2112-3437