For some, it’s the sound of a knock at the door, or the thud of an explosion, shattering windows and splitting open the earth. For others, it’s the smell of smoke on the wind, or a text typed in capitals signalling that water levels are set to suddenly rise.
Whether a human rights defender at risk of arrest, a family living in a conflict zone or a woman planning to flee domestic violence in the middle of the night, they have one thing in common: a bag packed ready with this moment in mind. It does little to dull their fear, they say. But gathering life’s essentials means they know they’re prepared if they have to run. Whatever their warning looks like – however much time they have – they’re ready to go.
The origins of the “go-bag” are storied and imprecise: for as long as civilisation has existed, so has danger, disaster and war. From the romanticised illustration of a runaway, packing his life into a handkerchief and tying it to the end of a stick, to the black-and-white photos of children dragging suitcases during the second world war, history tells us people in times of crisis have always found themselves forced to condense the expanse of their lives into small, portable packages.
Today, the reasons and ways that people prepare their go-bags vary. Ever since Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February, more than 10 million residents have found themselves forced to cram their belongings into backpacks, their lives falling apart at a moment’s notice. Travelling for miles, often on foot, women and children grip pet carriers and teddy bears.
In other countries, environmental disasters pose the most dangerous threat, displacing more than 7 million in 2020. In flood-prone areas of south Asia, extreme weather sees backpacks kept in bin bags, sometimes on the highest shelf, while those living in regions at risk of wildfire make sure their birth certificates are safe in a heatproof box, ready by the door. For millions of women experiencing domestic abuse, a go-bag needs to be discreet – and preferably stored somewhere out of the house.
With autocratic and authoritarian regimes on the rise, human rights defenders and activists are also uniquely vulnerable. According to the international human rights network HRD Memorial, more than 900 human rights defenders have been killed worldwide in the past three years. The Swedish non-governmental organisation Civil Rights Defenders, meanwhile, reports a worrying increase in requests for urgent assistance from those who need to go into hiding after experiencing death threats, violence and arrests. Rather than flee their countries to seek safety, they exist in a state of perpetual danger – often carrying a toothbrush and a change of clothes whenever they leave the house.
“They have a really strong will to stay and work where they are, because that’s where they see the need for them,” says Gabrielle Gunneberg, Civil Rights Defenders’ global programme director. “They’re very brave people.”
But what would you pack if you knew you might have to leave your home at any moment, and weren’t sure when (and if) you’d be able to return?
‘You could have a day, or you could have minutes’
Glen Haydon, lives in wildfire territory
Facebook Twitter Glen Haydon with his wife Hanna Stone and their baby daughter Rose. Photograph: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian
Ever since he was a boy scout, 45-year-old Glen Haydon has subscribed to the motto of always being prepared. “But my idea of what that means has definitely evolved over time.” As a wildland firefighter based in California, he knows what it means for a fire to raze your home to the ground. “I’ve seen a lot of people sifting through the debris of their houses and have had to try to put myself in their shoes, and it’s just a very deep loss,” he says. “I hope I never have to experience that.”
Recently, the climate crisis has seen fires along the US west coast growing more frequent. “In the last six years, there’s been a significant shift in the scope, destruction and devastation these fires have caused,” Haydon says. “Every year for the last few years we’ve said, ‘Oh man, it’s the worst season ever.’ It’s almost a joke now, because even this year, it’s drier than it was a year before.
Facebook Twitter Haydon packs a number of items including documents that are kept in a fireproof envelope and a sword he inherited from his grandfather. He also has a nappy bag at the ready. Composite: Winni Wintermeyer/The Guardian
“The seriousness of it means I’m always making sure the family knows where everything is,” he adds. Last summer, when his wife was pregnant, she messaged Haydon to say she had received a text alert advising those in the area to evacuate. He was out of signal, fighting another fire. Following his previous instructions, she grabbed their emergency bag from the closet and the documents they kept in a fireproof envelope, along with the pet carriers for their two cats and a sword Haydon had inherited from his grandfather, before heading to a friend’s house. “In my experience, you could have a day or two, or you could have minutes, depending on where the fire started and where it is in relation to you,” Haydon says. “My wife and I always err on the side of caution. If you get that alert, that means you just go.”
The fire changed course, and their house remained unscathed. “But it was hard being away and not knowing what I was going to return to,” Haydon says. He finds it difficult not to imagine the worst. In 2018, a fire ripped through the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills, killing 85 people and destroying 19,000 buildings and homes. Haydon and his team were some of the first on the scene. “It still haunts me,” he says.
Since his daughter’s birth, Haydon’s sense of caution has grown – as has his collection of go-bags. “We have a little diaper bag that’s constantly packed and ready,” he says. “It’s just part of that essential kit, and goes everywhere with us.” Even as the climate crisis worsens, he can’t see his family leaving California. “The probability of a fire lining up for your particular house is slim,” he says. “You don’t have to live in constant fear, but you do have to live in a state of awareness.”
‘They could do anything to me at any time, for any reason’
Farrah, LGBTQ+ activist
It was Farrah’s* daughter who persuaded her to pack a bag (pictured left, top) and keep it ready on a shoe rack, next to the front door. “She was so worried about me. So we packed a small backpack, in case I ever have to escape.”
For most of her adult life, Farrah, 62, kept her sexuality a secret. Her daughter knew she was a lesbian, along with a couple of close friends, but that was it. In Bangladesh, homosexuality is illegal; sharing the information more widely would put her at risk.
Facebook Twitter LGBTQ+ activist Farrah’s bag has many practical items – including underwear, two pairs of jeans, five T-shirts and medicines – but she also has photographs of her family in her purse. Composite: The Guardian
That changed in 2006, when she met a group of teenagers through work and realised many of them were also struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. Some were facing arranged marriages to men, others were wrestling with their mental health. “They thought it was a disease, and that they weren’t like normal people,” Farrah says. “I wanted to help them to overcome that.”
Farrah began quietly building an informal support network of lesbian women and transgender men across the country – providing free counselling via an anonymous helpline, plus legal advice and vocational training for those who needed to leave heterosexual relationships.
But such work carries risks. In 2016, religious extremists killed Farrah’s fellow LGBTQ+ activist and close friend Xulhaz Mannan in a violent attack. “I thought things were progressing and we were getting safer,” she recalls. “But then Xulhaz was murdered, and I realised we were still at zero.” After her contacts warned her she was next on the hitlist, she didn’t leave the house for four months. Even now, she wraps a heavy scarf around her neck before stepping outside. “That way, if they try to cut my throat, I will have made it more difficult for them.”
The contents of Farrah’s bag are practical: underwear, two pairs of jeans, five T-shirts, medicines for her blood pressure and diabetes, plus candles and a lighter. In her purse, she keeps photos of her daughter and her four-month-old granddaughter. She doesn’t need anything else, she says.
“Society is still where it was 50 years ago,” she adds. “They could do anything to me at any time, for any reason. There was and there is no hope of being recognised as a lesbian woman in Bangladesh.” Leaving the country isn’t an option. “There’s nobody to take my place,” Farrah says. “I think of all the young women and girls across the country who grow up feeling like there is something wrong with them. I will never abandon them.”
‘Often, you don’t even have time to take them’
María Elena Mir Marrero, human rights activist
Facebook Twitter María Elena Mir Marrero, who has been campaigning for human rights in Cuba since the 1990s and is still packing emergency bags. Photograph: The Guardian
In the early 1990s, when María Elena Mir Marrero (left) started campaigning for human rights in Cuba, her neighbours initially thought she was working as a spy for the CIA. “We could hear you typing late at night, so we assumed you were filing reports to the US,” they told her years later, to her bemusement.
When Mir Marrero admitted the truth – that she was part of an underground network of activists working to combat state censorship and speaking out against the corrupt justice system under Cuba’s authoritarian regime – they seemed even more concerned than before. “People treat me like I am doing something wrong,” Mir Marrero, 60, says now. “But I will never understand why wanting a better life for me and my society is something bad.”
Facebook Twitter Each of Mir Marrero’s bag contain the same basic items, including toothbrush and toothpaste, underwear, and deodorant. Composite: The Guardian
For a long time, she worked in secret: hiding fellow dissidents in her house, quietly fearful of what government officials would do if they discovered them. When she was finally exposed, the threats were worse than she imagined. She temporarily went into hiding, and sometimes left the house wearing a disguise. But she continued working to oppose the government, even when officials threatened to take away her three-year-old son. Over time, Mir Marrero began writing letters to him to try to explain why her work was so important that she would risk their separation. “I feel like I stole his childhood,” she says. “It’s been a life of feeling completely isolated, discriminated against and always being afraid.”
Now in his 30s, her son has a child of his own, but Mir Marrero can’t let him visit her house. “I don’t want my grandchild to live through what their father lived through,” she says. “I have to avoid repeating the story.”
Despite hopes that life would improve after former president Fidel Castro died in 2016, Mir Marrero’s situation in Cuba remains precarious, with threats coming through every few weeks. She still packs the same emergency bags and leaves them around the house, so there is always one in easy reach if she has to flee. “Most of the time, you don’t even have time to take them,” she says. Each bag contains the same basic items: underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste and roll-on deodorant. “I don’t need anything else,” she says.
The truth is, she is tired of running. After three decades of fighting for basic human rights, when it comes to her own safety, Mir Marrero says she has nothing left to fear. “I learned that the more you hide, or the more you try to protect yourself, the more they will laugh,” she says. “So much has already been taken from me … I am no longer afraid of anything.” She believes the government wants her to leave Cuba. “And I will not give them that.”
‘I am always alert, always ready’
Le Tran, human rights activist
In April 2016, a Taiwanese steel plant released toxic waste into the sea off the Vietnamese coast, killing more than 100 tonnes of fish and destroying thousands of livelihoods overnight.
The news sparked protests across the country, and caught the attention of 28-year-old Le Tran*. She had never campaigned against anything before – at least, not publicly – but the cause struck a chord. Soon she was travelling up and down the country, speaking out against the Vietnamese government’s apparent negligence, and befriending activists who were protesting about other issues, such as digital surveillance, human rights and torture. “It just happened naturally, day by day,” she says. “I followed my heart, and became an activist.”
It was only later that Tran heard her activities had potentially caught the attention of the authorities, and she risked having her passport confiscated if she didn’t get out of the country fast. She hasn’t seen her family in person since.
Facebook Twitter Activist Le Tran keeps two bags ready: in the larger one is her laptop; the smaller has essentials – and chocolate. Composite: The Guardian
Today Tran, 33, is based in Thailand, part of a tight community of Vietnamese dissidents, all unable to return home.
There’s comfort to be found in shared experience, Tran says: everyone is always looking out for one another. But their proximity to Vietnam presents a problem. “There are a lot of Vietnamese secret agents in Thailand who observe the Vietnamese community,” she says, citing an incident in 2019, when the Vietnamese journalist Truong Duy Nhat applied for refugee status in Thailand, only to be sent back to Hanoi, where he remains imprisoned. “It is really dangerous.”
With her friends facing the same threats, well-practised measures are baked into their social lives. “Most of the time we speak English, and we speak really quietly so people will not know we’re Vietnamese,” Tran says. Even sharing a flat is considered too much of a risk. “If I get arrested, I can send an SOS message to my friend and she can help,” Tran says. If they lived together, she worries they would be arrested at the same time and nobody would know.
Even at home, Tran can’t relax. “During the night-time, if I hear any noise, my eyes are wide open,” she says. “I am always alert, always ready.” On the kitchen table are two backpacks (pictured page 28) – one to wear on her front, one on her back. “In my small bag, I pack my passport, purses, earphones, power bank, charger, notebook, pen, flash lamp, whistle, bag with basic skin care and medicines, hand sanitiser and chocolate,” she says. “In the large bag, I keep my laptop, charger and mouse.” She doesn’t know if she will ever need them, but having them within arms’ reach is a comfort. “I know that in case of emergency, I can run immediately,” she says. “I might be in danger, but that makes me feel safe.”
‘At least your own pillow smells of home’
Donna Walker, flood victim
Facebook Twitter Donna Walker, who had to leave her home in New South Wales in February this year because of floods. Photograph: Natalie McComas/The Guardian
Donna Walker, 50, always knew her house was at risk of flooding – though she didn’t believe it would happen. Lismore, a small, vibrant city of 27,000 in New South Wales, is built on a floodplain, and when the rains come, water levels rise fast. Most of the houses are elevated to mitigate the risks, and Walker’s stands more than 2 metres above the street, raised high on wooden stilts. Water had never entered the property, though in 2017 it lapped against the front door. Nevertheless, Walker knew the drill: if the skies darkened, she would look to the authorities for warnings. She also kept overnight bags packed in case she and her four children needed to leave at short notice.
When the State Emergency Service advised her to evacuate in February this year, she followed the protocol. The family gathered their bags, each one stuffed with blankets, pillows and phone chargers. “At least if you’re in an evacuation centre, you’re lying on your own pillow which smells of home,” Walker says. “I thought that was really important.” They didn’t take their birth certificates, or their three cats, Black Jack, Nyla and Casper. Unnecessarily evacuating the cats would be more traumatic for them in the long run, Donna thought.
Facebook Twitter Walker’s bags were stuffed with pillows, duvets, phone chargers, and balloons to entertain the kids. Composite: Natalie McComas /The Guardian
Hours later, as the news showed the water levels rising past houses’ front doors and up to their roofs, Walker and her children sobbed. “Overnight my whole family’s life was completely shattered,” she says. More than a week passed before they could return to their home, where they found its contents destroyed. Miraculously, their cats had survived; the family’s birth certificates and essential documents did not. “We really should have taken them,” Walker says. “But we never thought for a second that the water was going to come inside.”
The flood water was contaminated with sewage, and nearly everything the family owned had to be thrown away, from her children’s artwork to certificates honouring Walker’s parents’ roles during the second world war. “I mainly cried when I saw the pile of rubbish outside my house, made up of everything that I’ve treasured and loved,” Walker says. “It broke my heart.”
‘Here, we eat threats for breakfast, lunch and dinner’
Jon, human rights activist
As a child, Jon* grew up watching his father grab a plastic bag full of clothes from under his desk every time he left the house. For a long time Jon didn’t understand its purpose; it was only when he was a teen he realised his father was campaigning against the Philippine government, and needed to be prepared to go into hiding at a moment’s notice. “It was his contingency plan,” Jon says.
By the time Jon was in his late 20s, he, too, was involved in activism, organising workers and helping them demand better pay and conditions. But when hardliner Rodrigo Duterte became president in 2016, Jon and his father found themselves facing a renewed sense of fear. This was a president who suggested the Philippine police shoot any activists who got in their way. Concerned, Jon’s father advised his son to pack his own emergency bag. “A bag was something all the activists had [in the 1980s],” Jon, 34, says. “That practice has been passed on to our generation.”
Facebook Twitter Activist Jon has a bag under his bed ready with two sets of clothes, fake IDs, a first aid kit and emergency phone. Composite: The Guardian
Still, neither father nor son took the threats especially seriously – until early 2020, when unidentified gunmen fatally shot Jon’s father, after a government-endorsed smear campaign that had tagged him as a communist.
“Nobody thought he would be killed,” Jon says. “In the weeks before, we were exchanging messages over [Facebook], and he was telling me that he received another death threat via text message or something like that. We shrugged it off, because that was so normal.”
The killings of Filipino human rights defenders and activists have become increasingly common since then. In 2021, authorities falsely accused Jon of communism and human trafficking, pasting his photo in the streets and broadcasting allegations against him over the radio. “I heard someone say once that they eat threats for breakfast,” he says. “Here in the Philippines, we eat threats for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” He pauses. “The scary part is not the threat itself. The scary part is that you don’t know whether someone you meet in the street will just kill you for no reason.”
These days, Jon lives a wary, careful existence – isolated from former friends, a bag tucked under his bed containing two sets of clothes, fake IDs, a first aid kit and an emergency phone. He can’t count the number of times he has had to go into hiding over the past two years, but he knows it is unlikely to stop soon: the threats are escalating ahead of presidential elections in May. Duterte cannot run due to a one-term limit, but his daughter Sara is campaigning to be vice-president, with the former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, on the same ticket.
“Everyone is on red alert right now,” Jon says. He struggles to process how many lives have been lost. “But when we see their bodies in the coffins, that’s when the feeling sinks in that this is really happening to us.”
‘You can save your history by keeping your parents’ pictures
Issam Younis, human rights activist
Facebook Twitter Activist Issam Younis, who says a bag is a must in Gaza. Photograph: The Guardian
Every time Issam Younis, 58, sees the two hand-luggage-sized suitcases by his front door, he feels a tug of sadness. “You remember war is there, danger is there,” he says. Nevertheless, he reviews their contents frequently: replacing out-of-date medicine; adding a new certificate or piece of paperwork here and there. It’s not unusual to go to friends’ houses and see their own suitcases tucked into a corner. “In 12 years, we have experience four large-scale offences in Gaza since 2008,” he says. “So a bag is a must.”
“You cannot pack your sofas or your kitchen,” he adds. “But at least you could save your history, your humanity, by keeping your parents’ pictures or the graduation of a son or your certificate of marriage … Other things do not matter so much.” His wife packed her jewellery, while Younis included some painting materials and his old diaries. “Based on our experience, these are the most important things,” he says.
Facebook Twitter Younis frequently reviews the contents of his two suitcases, replacing out-of-date medicine, or adding a new certificate. His wife has packed her jewellery into the bags, and he has included some painting materials and his old diaries. Composite: The Guardian
The uncomfortable truth, Younis knows, is that the suitcases serve little purpose: in real moments of danger, it is unlikely there will be time to grab them. “An escalation could take place at any moment,” he says. “In a minute, the whole situation can change.” In 2014, Israeli armed forces bombed the house next door to his father in the middle of the night. His dad was killed instantly, still sleeping in his bed.
Even in the wider context of conflict, Younis’s work heading the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights makes him a high-profile target, he says. For the past 30 years, he has been campaigning to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, while advocating for reparations for those whose lives have already been lost. In recent years, the death threats and accusations of antisemitism levelled against Younis and his colleagues have grown in number. “The truth is expensive,” he says sadly. “If you go for the truth, you have to be ready to pay the consequences.”
Younis knows he and his wife could leave Gaza at a moment’s notice, but he says they plan to stay in Palestine, whatever the cost. “I stay because I’m a human, and delivering justice is a human act,” he says. “I’m full of hope that the situation will change, and the occupation will be eradicated … This is a just cause and it deserves our time and our lives.”
‘Every day is a risk. You have to be prepared’
Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, journalist
Facebook Twitter Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, who receives threats daily. Photograph: The Guardian
Each morning, as Abdalle Ahmed Mumin, 37, locks his door to go to work, he swings a small, nondescript bag over his shoulder. Its contents include his laptop and notebooks, alongside a phone charger, encrypted hard drive and a new toothbrush. For the next 12 hours, the bag will never leave his sight. Nothing else is important, he says: clothes are easily replaced; it’s his work that takes priority.
In one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist, Mumin understands the risks that accompany reporting on corruption and human rights abuses in Somalia. A civil war dating back decades has seen the government splinter and strengthened already powerful terrorist groups. Last year, violent confrontations between various security forces displaced between 60,000 and 100,000 residents in Mogadishu, the country’s capital. “Every day is a risk day,” Mumin says. “You have to be prepared.”
Facebook Twitter Mumin has a small, nondescript bag that contains the tools of his trade: laptop, phone charger, encrypted hard drive. Nothing else is important, he says. Composite: The Guardian
The danger comes from all directions. Last year, dozens of journalists were arrested by state authorities, and two were killed by the militant group al-Shabaab. “I often feel like I am just waiting to die,” Mumin says. His family live abroad, after he decided it was safer for them to leave the country in 2015. “It is very difficult balancing between my family and the security situation, and my work as a journalist and a human rights defender,” he says. “They miss me so much.”
Threats to cut off his head or his tongue arrive daily, sent anonymously over social media or passed on by word of mouth. Mumin takes them all seriously – and follows a well-worn, stressful routine that sees him seemingly drop off the face of the Earth until he judges it safe enough to return. Even when he is not in hiding, he does not leave his apartment except to go to work. “I call my assistant and ask him to buy food for me and bring it to my home,” he says. “I’m trying to limit my exposure to the outside.”
Following his wife and children out of Somalia isn’t an option. “This job, it is my calling,” he says. “It is my moral duty.” But that doesn’t make it easy. “When you are a journalist in Somalia, you have enemies all the time,” he says. “When the military groups are going to target you, when the government is your enemy, when the criminals are attacking you, how can you ever feel safe?”
‘You do not know who to trust’
Sal, LGBTQ+ activist
The worst thing about going into hiding, in Sal’s* experience, is that you can’t let your family or friends know you’re safe, and they can’t tell you if they are OK either. “You’re not meant to use your phone,” the 38-year-old explains. “So they’re not sure where I am, and I cannot tell them, and then I’m not certain if my house will be raided, or if they will be arrested. Will they be attacked?” Sometimes, she remains cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time. “It’s a very lonely life.”
Twelve years ago, when Sal first spoke out against Uganda’s proposed “anti-homosexuality bill”, reinforcing existing legislation that criminalised consensual adult relationships of the same sex, other members of the LGBTQ+ community warned her she was taking a dangerous path. People would try to kill her, they said, advising her to use a different route home every day and to change her address every three months. “It wasn’t like now, when people have security training,” Sal says. “Everybody was just trying to figure out how to survive.” Her elder brother beat her for bringing shame on the family and her friends “fear being associated with my sexuality, so they stayed away from me”.
Sal debated leaving the country, but felt that too many people depended on her to speak on their behalf. So, instead, she whittled down her possessions to the bare necessities and took to carrying a toothbrush and a change of clothes wherever she went. “You were never sure if you were going back home,” she says. The only item of any personal value was a small passport photo of her mother, who died when she was 12. But one day her backpack was stolen; after that, the bag’s contents became a matter of practicality and little more.
After 10 years of trying to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights, Sal recognises there is not much she can do to prevent the threats. Rarely a week passes without a man approaching her and threatening to rape or kill her; she believes local law enforcement has tapped her phone at least once. “It’s very scary,” she says. “If you do not know who to trust, you don’t know when you will be attacked.”
Despite the dangers, Sal says she will never stop advocating for the people who need her – even if she has to spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. “I know I’m not alone,” she says. “There’s somebody out there who identifies as I do, and who is going through more trauma than I am … If I stopped fighting today, who would fight for them?”
‘I’ve had to run before, so I know how important the bag is’
Luisa, environmental campaigner
Once every couple of months, Luisa*, 58, empties the large bag she keeps packed ready for emergencies, and washes the clothes. Three sets of trousers, three blouses and a jacket: all drying in the sun. “I live in a humid area,” she says. “So even if the clothes are super-clean, I have to wash them.” She hesitates. “If I had to run that day, I couldn’t. But normally I have it ready.”
Her family teases her because the bag is so large – aside from the clothes, she packs a first aid kit, nail clippers, shampoo, deodorant and hand cream. “They say, ‘Where are you planning to travel with that?’” She laughs. “But I’ve had to run away in the past, so I know how important it is.” Most of the time, she heads to a small shelter that locals have established with the help of funds from Amnesty International. “We’re trying to keep it as a second base,” she says. “The problem is we never have enough money to build our own emergency fund for things like this. We have to rely on other people.”
Facebook Twitter Campaigner Luisa says her family teases her about the size of her bag. The humid climate means she has to wash the clothes every couple of months. Composite: The Guardian
Luisa has had to use the shelter several times. As a farmer and environmental activist from a small community on the edge of the Amazon, she and her neighbours face frequent threats from militant groups, government officials and oil companies, all with their own stake in the land. To defend their territory, Luisa helped to form an organisation dedicated to educating and empowering the community’s youngest generations – teaching them to marry modern agricultural techniques with ancestral traditions. “These oil companies, the message they send is that the only road to development is through destruction,” she says. “That goes against our idea, which is that you can also develop through preservation.”
The more locals resist, the more severe the threats they receive. Recently, Luisa was told someone was planning to attack her house with a grenade, and she had to flee with another activist and two bodyguards in the middle of the night. “Lately, I can’t leave my house if I’m not accompanied,” she says. “These groups are killing entire families.” Luisa was suffering from Covid-19 at the time. The illness and the stress from threats left her feeling as if she was having a nervous breakdown.
As the farmers’ unofficial spokesperson, Luisa knows she is a target, but she is keen to emphasise that her neighbours are risking their lives for the same cause. “I don’t feel comfortable when people assume I’m doing all the work, because behind me there are women, there are young people and there are children,” she says. “They are just too scared to be exposed.”
‘I don’t live in paranoia – but I understand reality’
Mumine, citizen journalist
By the time Mumine met her husband Seyran Saliev at university, he was already an established activist. Whenever Eid approached, he would wander the campus, raising money for families who were struggling, or whose children were sick. Mumine, who was studying economics, admired his enthusiasm. But her own life’s path was different, she thought.
After the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Putin’s military forces occupied the Crimean peninsula and declared it part of the Russian Federation. Reports of the Russian authorities persecuting Tatar Muslims – an ethnic minority local to Crimea – quickly began to emerge. Saliev started attending trials for fellow activists and used the local mosque’s loudspeaker to publicly warn the neighbourhood that the Russian authorities were searching locals’ houses. Unable to stand by and watch, Mumine began working as a citizen journalist, joining her husband in the streets. “When the system destroys the destinies and families of dozens of peaceful people very close to you, it is impossible to pretend and live peacefully as if nothing is happening,” she says.
Facebook Twitter Mumine has two bags packed at all times. One holds her passport, press card and camera; the other has a toothbrush, headache tablets and a copy of the Qur’an. Composite: The Guardian
But the couple’s actions quickly drew attention from the Russian authorities. In 2017, when Mumine was pregnant with their fourth child, officials raided their apartment and detained Saliev for more than a week. Six months later, it happened again, but this time, Saliev was arrested and sentenced to 16 years imprisonment in a maximum security facility 700km away. “When the door closed behind my husband, I looked at my children,” Mumine, 36, remembers. “I had to do something.” Over the following months, the arrests continued and more of Mumine’s loved ones disappeared. Over the next five years, approximately 10% of Crimean Tatars fled the region for mainland Ukraine.
Ever since, Mumine has lived “in a mode without sleep and rest” as she works to document the persecution of her community and to support other women whose husbands have been arrested. Aware of the risks, she keeps two bags packed at all times: one with her passport, press card, a loaded power bank and a camera; another with a toothbrush and toothpaste, headache tablets and the Qur’an. She prays she will never have to use them. “I don’t live in paranoia,” she says. “But at the same time, I understand what reality I live in.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Mumine was in Kyiv, travelling home from the launch of her photography exhibition, Born After Arrest, which depicts the lives of Crimean children whose fathers have been imprisoned by the Russian regime. Surrounded by families fleeing the country, their own emergency bags on their backs, Mumine felt a familiar sense of panic. “My chest aches and burns, as if my heart is broken into small pieces,” she says, following a terrifying seven-day journey through eastern Europe to make it back to Crimea, where her children were staying with their grandmother. “The lives of many people are in real danger.”
‘A “bag for life” was a bag for my actual life’
Amara, domestic violence survivor
By the time Amara*, 29, went into hiding, she had already had a panic button installed in her house, and had contacted the police many times. But those measures weren’t keeping her safe, and her ex-partner had been threatening her for more than seven years. “It took so long for the police to take it seriously,” she says. “I just shut it out and hoped for the best and tried to do what I could to placate him, not to make the situation worse.”
The best option, the authorities told her, would be to move – and not to tell anyone where she was. The domestic abuse charity Refuge could provide a room for Amara and her seven-year-old son on the other side of the country. But they would need to be ready to move in two days’ time. “I had to choose between two places, and I’d never been to either of them before in my life,” she remembers. “But that was our only way to stay safe.”
Today, Amara laughs quietly as she recalls packing her and her son’s belongings into two small suitcases and a supermarket “bag for life”. “A bag for life is supposed to mean that the bag would last for ever, but, for me, it was a bag for my actual life,” she says. She struggled to select the few items she had space for – desperate to bring the cleaning products that could soothe her compulsive need to wipe down all the surfaces on arrival. “Another factor for me was race, because I needed specific hair products,” she adds. “If I moved to an incredibly white village, it might be difficult to access them.”
Her son was another consideration. Amara packed an iPad and headphones so she could sit him on her lap and turn up the volume as she navigated a bureaucratic maze of paperwork and legal documents, describing her former partner’s threats again and again. “The conversations were distressing for me – and definitely not appropriate for him to hear.” Her son wanted to take his Play-Doh collection. “But when you’re trying to decide between clothes and Play-Doh, there’s a clear winner.”
For the next eight months, Amara and her son lived out of their suitcases – unable to tell anyone they met where they were from, or what they were doing in their new city. But for all the trauma, Amara considers herself lucky. “For some women, packing a bag or gathering their documents could put them in more danger,” she says. “We had a whole weekend to make sure we had the essentials we needed.”
* Names have been changed for security reasons.