Freeing Jailed Activists? Welcome to Day 1 by Noah Zussman (A’20)

by tuftsigl
Jun 21

After spending the past five months studying abroad in Athens, Greece, I was ready to go home. However, when I was selected to participate in the Institute for Global Leadership’s (IGL) Oslo Scholars program, I knew I couldn’t leave Europe. This summer, I am interning with Srdja Popovic and his organization, the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS)  in Belgrade, Serbia. As a Political Science and Peace and Justice Studies major at Tufts with a strong belief in the power of people to enact change, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. The past three weeks have been riveting, making me all the more ecstatic for the rest of the summer.

I knew that work at CANVAS was going to be exciting, dynamic, and challenging. My very first day of work confirmed this. On the first day, I was immediately thrown in to help resolve a situation in Zimbabwe, a country where CANVAS has been working for many years. One of the main roles of CANVAS is holding workshops to train activists from around the world in nonviolent civil resistance strategies, as well as helping individuals and groups in campaigns against their governments.

These campaigns are meant to chip away at authoritarian rule in pursuit of democracy and, as I will expand upon later, is focused on harnessing “people power.” Seven activists from different civil society groups in Zimbabwe attended one of these workshops run by CANVAS in the Maldives and were immediately arrested and imprisoned at the airport when they returned to Harare. They were charged with treason and trying to subvert and overthrow the government, which could lead to life imprisonment. Their arrests are part of a broader campaign by the Zimbabwean government to crack down on civil society and strengthen the rule of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. As they had just come from a CANVAS training, we felt directly responsible and did everything in our power to get them released from prison.

Watching and participating in pushing for their release solidified my understanding of the age-old phrase “it takes a village,” because in this case it took a global village and leveraging many networks to get them released. We were busy working with their lawyers in Zimbabwe, crafting press releases in response to accusations about CANVAS and the activists, monitoring and tracking the situation on social media networks, and communicating with civil society in Zimbabwe to create a response.

We also used our networks to try to get the international community to put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to release them, which worked. Their arrests and the broader crackdown were reported by major news organizations, including Al Jazeera and Voice of America (VOA), which helped draw attention to their plight. After a sustained campaign of pressure, the activists were released on bail, albeit harsh bail conditions that continue to be a violation of their rights. While it is a relief they are currently released, the situation is not over. They are still going to be tried, so CANVAS is going to continue to fight for their innocence and push for the expansion of human rights in Zimbabwe.

This experience opened my eyes to the inherent danger and harsh reality of activism in countries where it is not permitted. While in America we are shielded from persecution by the government for exercising our universal human rights to freedom of thought, speech, and press, this is not the case in the countries of the activists who work with CANVAS. For these activists, speaking out is often a life or death, or severely dangerous, situation, as in the Zimbabwean case. That is why the work CANVAS engages in is well thought out, in order to carefully put pressure on points with the most potential to crack while cognizant of moves that will endanger the activists.

What has amazed me, however, is the will of these activists to create change, no matter the personal cost to them. While I have read and thought about the dangers of activism before, working on dynamic situations with people who just want peace in their countries has brought a much more personal element to human rights work. What drew me to CANVAS was the concept of “people power,” that it is ordinary citizens who hold the power to catalyze change and that even incremental change can lead to toppling a dictator. Getting to understand the dynamics of how “people power” works through my work with activists in Zimbabwe and other countries is transformative. I came into the summer with a strong belief that nonviolent resistance is more effective at creating positive change than violent protest, and conversations with Srdja and my diving into the work has strengthened this belief.

As part of my responsibilities, I help create a weekly news report for activists and interested parties around the world. We track issues that have to do with human rights, activism, politics, and other major international developments in order to give our followers a clear, concise summary of major events around the world (quick plug – go to to sign up for it!). We track 27 countries that CANVAS is involved with or that are relevant to our work. These countries include Sudan, Hong Kong, Nicaragua, and Iran. The other three interns and I rotate which countries we research every week, which is a great opportunity to familiarize myself with situations I had little knowledge of and expand the scope of my understanding of human rights around the world. Writing these reports has helped me better understand the extent of the universality of activism and human rights work; while each country has circumstances that are unique, all who are nonviolently fighting are fighting for the same universal wants and needs. I will also be updating a country report done on Eritrea to include the recent developments of ending the war with Ethiopia and trying to open itself to the rest of the world.

What I am most excited to be working on this summer is helping the Human Rights Foundation Freedom Fellows. The Freedom Fellowship is a program that awards ten human rights activists from authoritarian countries around the world the opportunity to dramatically increase the impact of their work. The Fellows engage in a year-long mentorship under Srdja Popovic with access to CANVAS’s toolkits on nonviolent protest, as well as other opportunities for collaboration and fundraising.

Each of these fellows is developing a campaign to enact change in their countries, and I will be assisting them with research and analysis. This research includes looking at different pillars in their societies that have the most structural impact and influence on the current situation they are trying to change and seeing how they can craft their campaign around leveraging these pillars. At the end of the summer, these activists will be coming to Belgrade for a week-long workshop, so it will be a great culmination of my work to be able to meet them at the end. I hope that the assistance I provide will help them catalyze tangible change in their countries and I am ready to absorb and learn about their experiences and strategies.

I am very excited to continue exploring Belgrade, which is a city unlike anything else I have experienced. While studying abroad in Athens, I was able to visit Sofia, Bulgaria, and that is the only other city I have visited that reminds me of Belgrade. Though gritty and often sweltering, the city has a ton of character and many new and upcoming neighborhoods. The food is delicious (cevapi, a Balkan regional specialty, has been my favorite thing I have tried so far), there are big markets where I buy fresh produce every morning, and the city is filled with great sites and museums. These sites include the National Museum of Yugoslav History, a massive fortress on the Sava river, and many shelled buildings from the NATO bombings. I have also taken a day trip to Novi Sad, a city in northern Serbia and a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Belgrade.

I have additionally planned four other trips around the Balkans to Kotor, Montenegro, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Skopje, North Macedonia and Ljubljana, Slovenia. As I have both an academic and personal interest in the region, I am grateful I will be able to explore its dynamics and complexities.” I am lucky to be able to spend my summer living and working with two other great interns from Harvard, Mirnes and Herkus. They are motivated, passionate, committed to the work and challenge me every day to think about and approach the issues we deal with in different frames. I am fortunate that I will be able to continue these new friendships in Boston!

I hope to leave this summer with a better understanding of how nonviolent movements are started and led, and with a toolkit of tactics and strategies in nonviolent change. Working with CANVAS thus far has given me hope for a brighter future powered by people caring about the environment they live in. I am looking forward to seeing what the next month brings!

See his other two blogs here: blog2/blog3