The Cost of Telling the Truth: A Journalist in Exile

Photo courtesy of CM Rien Kuntari

After living in hiding for six years in the United States, journalist CM Rien Kuntari is ready to go home. “I don’t want to live the rest of my life as a prisoner or as a political asylee. I want to go home as a free person,” she says.

Since 2009, Kuntari has been living in exile in New York City after working as a war correspondent for Indonesia’s Kompas Daily for nearly 20 years. In 2008, she published her eyewitness account of state violence during the 1998 referendum in East Timor, titled East Timor, The Final Hour: A Journalist’s Notes. Shortly thereafter, she was alerted by a contact in the military that she was targeted for assassination. She fled to the U.S. on a tourist visa.

“I never took notes, but I remembered everything. That’s why they really want my head, because they knew everything was in there,” says Kuntari.

Since relocating to New York, Kuntari has been unable to work as a journalist, in large part, because she left her diploma in her office at the Kampos Daily when she fled. She’s unsure if it is still even there. Kuntari and thousands of other asylum applicants, who have earned an education and are well respected, often leave behind the lives and careers they built in their home countries, says immigration attorney and co-director of the Artistic Freedom Initiative, Reza Mazaheri. “Starting an entirely new life in an unfamiliar country is not an easy thing to undertake.”

“Imagine when one has to live in fear and isolation while having to keep hope & conviction. Its not so easy is it?” says Arahmaiani Faisal, a contemporary Indonesian artist who was also forced into exile.

For Kuntari, the final straw came last month when she was unable to obtain travel documents to attend the opening of the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, where she was invited as a special guest. “Why Frankfurt becomes very important, it’s a chance to for me to show up in person. It brings international attention to my case,” says Kuntari, adding that the fair would have make it difficult for the Indonesian government to target her. “It’s not me, but the government that brought the book to Frankfurt.”

Since Kuntari’s Indonesian passport expired in February and the asylum process has dragged on, she is currently stateless, making travel documents even more difficult to obtain. “One of the biggest issues in affirmative asylum cases is the [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service] backlog. Currently, it can take up to two years, if not longer, to get an interview,” says Mazaheri.

For Kuntari, the greatest challenge has been the emotional trauma of not knowing when, if ever, she can see her family, community and country again. “Separation from family is one significant difficulty, as is the inability to return to your country. Not being able to see friends or relatives for an extended period of time – or possibly ever – is emotionally devastating,” says Mazaheri.

This has been compounded by her inability to integrate into the Indonesian community in New York. “The different reasons that people migrate put communities at odds,” says Kuntari, “Frankfurt would have been a measure of how much they (the Indonesian community) hates me.” Many Indonesian nationalists, at home and abroad, believed East Timor should have remained part of the country and feared that one succession could lead to others.

Kuntari smiles when she recalls her time in the field. She talks about befriending generals and gangsters, the first time she met Saddam Hussein and the power of her impenetrable memory. When asked about potential security risks upon her return to Indonesia, Kuntari says, “I will confront them. I am a journalist. Why did I become a journalist? Because journalists confront problems.”


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