Survivor Scribe

Tongam Rina, Associate Editor of The Arunachal Times was shot at while she was about to enter her office at Itanagar, the capital of this frontier state of India in July 2012. She is presently in Germany at the invitation of Hamburger Stiftung. She has been awarded the “Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media” 2013. She talks about the mental trauma she went through, life in Germany and the need for a support system reporting from conflict zones of South Asia in an exclusive interview to Teresa Rehman

How has been your experience at ‘Hamburger Stiftung’, a German NGO that cares for journalists in need?

I am fortunate that, through the organizations, I have met many people and organizations who are interested in our country and my work. It’s a nice way to exchange ideas and learn from each other. It has definitely broadened how I look at the world.

We are four guests here at the Foundation this year. I closely interact with Rosa Hasan, a Syrian writer, blogger, one of the leading voices that came out from Syria when the uprising started and Ana Lilia Perez from Mexico, a writer and an investigative journalist, who have exposed the dealings of drug cartel in her country. We share stories and often dream about a world that is safe and not violent. The Executive Director of the Foundation, Martina Baurle has been a constant source of support and encouragement to us.

I travel too. One thing good about EU is that you can easily cross over to most borders without having to worry about visas!

Do you think there is enough for attending to the trauma of journalists reporting from conflict zones in India as well as South Asia?

Sadly no. There is none, apart from few individuals coming to your help. You are pretty much left on your own devices. I was in a better position than lot of others since I had colleagues from all over the country that truly cared about me. You are left traumatized for a long period of time and you don’t know who to approach. Either you completely withdraw or you are upset and become a nervous wreck, compounded by the fact that there is not much support at hand. Physical pain goes away but it is the mental pain that stays with you. And sadly, I don’t know of an organization that attends to the trauma of the journalists. I wish that things change and someone get trained and take up the cause.

What kind of support did you feel that you needed after you were shot at? Do you think things could have been better for you?

Things could have been better handled when it came to mental well being. Yes, I was luckier than a lot of journalists in the same situation. But one is not prepared for many things. No matter, how aware we are of the dangers we might face, while discharging our duties as journalists, we are never really ready to face them. We think about danger and we brush them aside. But when something bad happens, you are left confused and hurt. And not many people can deal with that. I did not know how to deal with that. I was under heavy medication and painkillers for atleast three weeks and when it wore off, I had to face the reality. I was unable to walk on my own and it made me feel miserable. My mental well being was at its lowest. I was unable to deal with the fact that I got hurt while doing the work, I love most. It still hurts.

What is your opinion on the lifting of ban on issue of gun licences in Arunachal Pradesh?

When I was informed about it, I just could not believe it. It is disgusting to say the least. Why would citizens need guns? In Arunachal, many people use guns to hunt wild life. It is illegal but it goes unabated. People hunt wild animals, using licenses issued by the government, who maintains that it is illegal to shoot animals. That’s double standard. For the government, it is a way to generate revenue but how can one justify such an act. There are many instances of people misusing gun to intimidate and threaten others. Government is surely encouraging the use of gun. Scrutiny of people who should have guns, are farcical too. Never in my life, I felt the need of guns to protect myself or others. There have been occasions, when I had to come face to face with people who had guns, but it never made me want to acquire a gun.

What are the new things that you have learnt in Germany? What kind of lessons would you like to bring back home and maybe implement in your home state Arunachal Pradesh and northeast India?

Among others, efficiency, a very effective social security and waste disposal systems and punctuality. Most Germans, I have met are fifteen minutes early! Many Germans support good causes and donate too. Our stay here is funded through individual donations. These are experiences I certainly would want our part of the world to emulate.

What kind of problems do you think journalists in northeast India face?

I admire the tenacity of the journalists working in our part of the world. There is no security to speak of and they are paid very low. Most of them are here not for the glamour of it but they seriously are committed to their work. Information is hard to come by, even if one uses RTI Act. There are various actors who interfere with our jobs almost on a daily basis. And what happens in our part of the world is barely noticed by the rest of the world. But we will survive.

Do you think your assailants will be brought to book?

I am told Police arrested few people. But it is hard to believe anything right now. I don’t know. Perhaps, we will never know.

Is your stint in Germany a kind of catharsis for you?

Yes, I guess it is. Though, often I am saddened by the fact that I find a foreign land safer than my own home. It is not a good feeling.

Did you suffer from PTSD?

Yes. I suffer even today.  I sought help of a counselor, which helped a lot but I still have nightmare. Time and again, it comes back to me. The moment I rang the office bell, the loud bang and my colleagues screaming and crying. Sometimes, I stop at the middle of the road or drop my fork because the images keep coming back and I feel an excruciating physical pain.

How do you think a journalist can cope with PTSD?

Well, I banked on strong support of my family, friends and colleagues and off course psychological counseling. I took support of Psychiatrist too. If you like cat and dogs, you could try and be friends with them too. To me, they are great therapists. It is also very important to have a strong willpower, even when we are faced with worst of situations. And yes, it is okay to feel angry, upset at the world and cry. It is absolutely okay to ask questions, even though you might not get answers. Count the blessings when things go wrong. I know its tough but it helps to stay positive. Discard negative thoughts and people. It’s not easy but it is possible. Celebrate the fact that one is alive. Worse things happen in the world.

What does this award mean to you?

A lot. It’s inspiring to do more and also a message that I am not alone.

Also read:

Honour for Tongam Rina