I’ve spent so much time communicating with people in locations with internet restrictions and online security issues, it’s caused me to develop a personal insecurity, so that I panic a little when online conversations end unexpectedly. For a moment, I forget that most of the time there is a perfectly rational explanation.. a technical issue, a personal emergency, a mundane interruption. In those moments, an array of increasingly dire circumstances flashes through my mind: arrest, injury, having to flee the scene. Worse.
Our strict protocol of using aliases deprives us of certainty. The uncertainty fuels us with urgency. We are stronger, more resilient, and we get things done, because we have learned to work in virtual isolation. Reunions, re-connections, are often joyful occasions, but the never-knowing permeates everything, framing snapshots of snatched conversations with shadowed corners.
At other times, I am viewing gruesome videos of bloodshed and brutality, carnage and casualties, many of them activists. An endless, bloodied, caravan of the named and the nameless, any one of them with the potential to be a dear friend and confidant. It may seem morbid, that I would volunteer to wade through miles of hideous footage, yet in some ways, it has increased my capacity for compassion: these are not necessarily the tragedies of random strangers – these people might be my contacts, my comrades. In any case, they are real, no different from me in any meaningful way. Yes, it is disturbing and distressing at times, and the grisly images take root in my brain and invade my dreams, churning them into nightmares.
The bad dreams and broken sleep returned recently, but this time, I immediately knew what to do. It wasn’t always so clear. When I started out, my emotions were scattered in all directions by the drama I was witnessing and the trauma that generated. Those of us who operate in relative safety, far from the heat of battle, often fail to retain compassion for ourselves, to nurture our bruised psyches, to seek help from each other when it gets too tough. Fortunately, I was eventually able to discover others like me, and we have gradually formed our own small networks; good reliable friends who can depend on each other for emotional support to get through the worst of it.
These relationships are almost entirely virtual, although some of us have since met each other in the real world, we all met for the first time online. Individual members of the supportive networks come and go, as time passes and circumstances change. Unsurprisingly, contact with activists in trouble spots has a more volatile nature. Some reappear months or even years later, others remain silent for the moment, our interrupted conversations hovering uncertainly between us, the dangling threads of an unfinished tapestry.