This is (not) our war

The Belarusians with few options but to flee the country if they want to stand with Ukraine

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

I’m writing this text while the Tbilisi-Yerevan train carries me forward to an unknown future. After each paragraph, I stare out of the window and try to make up my mind, looking at fast-changing nightscapes—almost toylike and too peaceful. Mountains covered with unexpected spring snow, tiny distant houses with brightly lit windows, and hundreds of little lives behind them, dreaming their dreams. Like many others running from war or severe repression, I no longer have a home. But there is a vast difference between me, who had a choice, and those who woke up to bombs. What unites us is a great fear of, a long struggle with, and an intense hatred for those who have dared to claim our freedom and happiness.

“Wake up! The war has just begun! Russia has invaded Ukraine at night!” I woke up in the early hours of 24 February to my husband’s voice. Still trying to understand what he was saying, I stretched and sat on my bed. War? Like real war? A first thought came to mind: “How are my friends in Ukraine? Are they safe? Are they alive?” Then, a second thought: “Is Lukashenko involved?” Lastly: “What’s going to happen next?”

Many things have happened in the past 24 hours. A meeting at my husband’s work, where the employees were told to grab their belongings, documents and family members, and leave the country within the day. A visit to our parents to tell them we’re moving away. Buying tickets for the train from Minsk to Moscow. The struggle to fit two lives into one suitcase, all done in just four hours. There were no tears, no goodbyes—just cool-headed decisions because we had to. Then the trip to the Domodedovo airport in Moscow, a night at the airport hotel before the plane, and several hours of flying to reach Antalya, Turkey. I only let myself break into tears when we found a small hotel, put our suitcase on the floor, and I suddenly understood: there would be no home for me anymore. I could smell the sea crawling through the curtains of our room and hear the calls to prayer—all while crying so hard, it was as if a colossal lake had popped up inside my head.

Opposing a dictator

I have been asking myself “What’s next?” for almost one and a half years now. It started when the pandemic hit and the government lied to us about the preventive measures, infection and death rates—about simply everything. That was the first time I understood the very spirit of Belarusians: we’re always here for each other. Honest doctors started to share accurate information, the independent press gathered it and shared it with the broader public. Meanwhile, the officials just kept falsifying the statistics—undermining the efforts of civil society. 

At this time, President Lukashenko had been ruling over Belarus for 26 years, and every election had been fraudulent with a lack of robust opposition. With such malicious ignorance towards life, Lukashenko had lost the last of his supporters. For the first time in over two decades, we had strong politicians who could become democratically elected presidents. 

But my voice, along with the voices of thousands of fellow Belarusians, was viciously stolen in the 2020 elections. Lukashenko stated that 80.1 per cent voted for him, despite the strong evidence of independent watchers. Hundreds of thousands of people rushed to the streets to say “no” to the self-elected dictator. First, the police and special task forces started detaining people at protests, then they came to people’s homes early in the morning, kicking the door in, beating them, and filing fake lawsuits. Thousands were arrested, detained, beaten, raped, and tortured. Each more or less politically active person became nervous, PTSD-driven, waiting for their turn to go to jail—sent there because they exercised their right to protest. As of 26 March 2022, Belarus has 1,104 people that are recognised political prisoners. Behind each name, date and sentence, there are unique human experiences and everyday brave deeds. 

My colleague’s now 22-year-old sister was arrested and sentenced to two and a half years in prison for being a secretary of a student political union. The police unexpectedly showed up at her flat, declared her a suspect, searched the house inside out, and took the young woman into custody, where she spent half a year before a trial began. 

Another friend spent the whole year writing letters and postcards to political prisoners. But being a pen pal is in no way safe, and the police track people down who sympathise with activists. When an acquaintance of hers got detained for the same reason, she became nervous and sleepless, jumped at every sound and became suspicious of strangers and phone calls. She has been unrecognisable since

A representative of the Belarusian anarcho-movement and his flatmates were dragged out of bed, put on the floor, beaten and choked with a plastic bag to make them give up their computer passwords. After the torture, one of the men was taken into custody. He is still waiting to be brought to court, but the sentence on the charges he is falsely accused of can be up to six years. 

+100,000 people attended the protests in Minsk*, a city of two million inhabitants.

+1,406 protesters were injured.

200 people received head trauma and concussions.

3,000 people were arrested on the second day of the protest.

>50% of the injuries took place in police vans, police stations and detention centres.

+25 people went to hospitals with broken bones and serious injuries.

435 people faced prosecution.

40 injuries were caused by rubber bullets.

At least 3 detainees received injuries consistent with sexual violence.

0 criminal investigations have been opened into the actions of Belarusian law enforcement during the protests.

*While there were multiple protests in different cities, we only have (limited) data on the protests in Minsk. The actual numbers of injuries are likely much higher. The protests went on for months, but we only have data from 10 August until 13 September, when official reports halt. Data for later protests, including anti-war protests in 2022 have yet to be uncovered.

A Georgian welcome

Since 24 February, we have a situation a thousand times worse than it was. Without notice, Lukashenko let Russian troops enter our territory and fire missiles from our land towards Ukraine. At the beginning of the year, the non-elected president had stated that Belarus and Russia were holding combined military exercises. Russian tanks, missile launchers, and troops were brought to Belarus. And then the war started. Belarusian border guards let them pass through to invade Ukraine, causing shame and pain. 

We spent two weeks in Turkey trying to decide where to go. We settled on Georgia. Though extremely overcrowded, it looked like a great new home with a strong diaspora of Belarusians helping each other. Fellow members of the diaspora gather for demonstrations and festivities, share resources and information, look after one another and welcome new people with heartiness and warmth. Of course, the attitude among locals in Georgia is different now. Belarusians are refused visas and new bank accounts, denied flat rentals, or simply cursed at for their passports or preferred language of communication.  

We knew that already—so we tried to prepare mentally.

On our first evening in Tbilisi, we went outside searching for something to eat and found a place with traditional cuisine. As we entered, two elderly Georgian men approached us. “Are you from Russia?” they asked us on the spot. “No, from Belarus,” I replied, trying not to shake in anticipation of their reaction. “Oh, well,” they shrugged, “It doesn’t matter. We’re all humans. We were planning to go home, but now you’re our guests, and we’ll play music for you.”

They offered us a table, took out their instruments—a violin and a synthesiser—and started to play music from old French movies. I sobbed into my bowl of soup. The tears fell because of the sensual, sad melodies; because of this awful and wicked war; because of the worries for my loved ones; and because of my personal angst—being here without a plan. I expected to be treated as a traitor, hated and despised. But these musicians smiled at us, fed us and kept playing until we finished our food. Now I know that there will still be music, human love, and kindness—even when everything falls apart.

Helping in silence

Many people all over the world assume that Belarusians are collaborating with Russia. As I scroll through my newsfeed, I see hundreds of banners from private advertising campaigns with a similar message: “Belarusian people, we are your brothers, please, stop this aggression towards us, stop supporting Putin.” Even Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky recorded a video addressing Belarusians, suggesting that we make the right choice and refuse to collaborate with the occupying army. But we already made a choice—almost two years ago. We raised our voices and declared that Lukashenko was an illegitimate president and that his decisions were not ours. In Belarus, I was a hostage. And a person forcefully silenced cannot be accused of keeping quiet. As a nation, we are heartbroken but full of love, forsaken but hopeful, tortured but determined to help others. Our government is not our nation. We knew what Lukashenko was capable of and have been screaming in protest for years, but all we’ve gotten back is the “deepest concern” of Western politicians.

We keep on helping and fighting as much as we can, as fiercely as ever, though we could be prosecuted for a Facebook post. The stakes are high as hell. Now, it’s not just about our one mad dictator and his death grip on our society. It’s about a devastating war with our neighbours, the people of Ukraine, who we love deeply. During the first days of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, more than one thousand Belarusians were detained for their participation in anti-war protests. And those people already knew how they would be treated in jail: beaten, hungry, cold, and even sexually abused.

And so here I am, fleeing my country although the war takes place in Ukraine, not Belarus. My reasons to do so are simple: if you don’t speak up, you’re a coward. But if you doyou’ll end up in custody. 

Can a person help Ukrainian people while thrown in jail? Obviously not. My friends and acquaintances from the Belarusian diaspora work day and night as volunteers at the Polish, Hungarian and Moldovan borders, in refugee camps, kitchens and humanitarian aid points. People from my homeland donate money, bring food, clothes, and medicine, and host refugees in their homes. Belarusian men enrolled in the Ukrainian territorial defence forces and created a special Belarusian squadron named Kastuś Kalinoŭski, after the leader of the January Uprisings of 1864, which aimed to liberate the Belarusian, Lithuanian and Polish people from Russian occupation. So, we speak up. We fight. But we can only do so because we managed to flee the dangers at home and are now in a position to help.

I am not the only one undertaking this journey. Many of us are fleeing, mostly to Poland, Lithuania, Turkey, Georgia and Uzbekistan. 15,777 Belarusian citizens entered Georgia alone from 24 February to 16 March. And the exodus continues. Of my fourteen closest friends, only three are still in Minsk. The others have fled. Some of them carried children, and some brought pets. They have waited in queues at border checkpoints for 35 long hours.

As Lukashenko endorses Putin’s atrocities, economic and political sanctions from the West pile up. Belarusian people, who have already suffered tremendously from the vindictive regime, are now losing jobs, money, stability and opportunities. 

Some adult men are trying to get away as soon as possible out of fear that Lukashenko will declare general mobilisation and send Belarusian men to fight alongside the Russian invaders. People are ready to dive into the unknown and leave everything behind rather than become pawns in a war of brother against brother. But as we try to rebuild ourselves abroad, we enter our new lives with the stigma of being “aggressors.”

Even if we’re hated and being spat atwe must keep helping in silence, not waiting for gratitude. It’s crucial to focus on helping those in danger, instead of proving who’s right.

Both beautiful, strong Ukraine and my dear motherland, Belarus, will one day be free. Our friends and loved ones will return to rebuild their homes from the ashes. We will gather to celebrate and never be separated again by any malicious, militant dictator. Together we stand. Together we fight. And together, we will win.

About Bazhena Gurlenia

Illustration by

Eddie Stok