The world should not turn its back on Belarusians

It was on April 11 at breakfast, that I heard on the New York public radio that Belarusians alongside Russians were banned from participating in the Boston Marathon under their countries’ flags. I am not a marathon runner, but as a Belarusian-American, the news upset me. It was another sign of the world overlooking the fight by many Belarusian citizens against the authoritarian government of Alexander Lukashenko.

Since 1994, the so-called last dictator of Europe has ruled Belarus with impunity, disregarding human rights and freedom of speech, while heavily relying on Russia’s support. The resistance to his rule culminated almost two years ago, when thousands of Belarusians took to the streets nationwide to protest against the rigged election of August 9, 2020.

For a brief moment, Belarusians believed they had a real chance to topple the regime that our nation of 9.4 million people has lived under for too long. Western democracies cheered on the brave protesters and activists.

However, the regime’s response to dissent was swift and brutal: security forces met peaceful protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannon and even live ammunition. In the first three days after the election, more than 6,700 people were detained, over a thousand injured, and at least three people were killed by the police. When the arrestees were released from jails, their stories shook the nation.

According to Pavel Sapelko, an analyst with the Belarusian human rights group Viasna, the nature of injuries – broken bones, electrocution wounds, brain injuries, broken teeth and traumas consistent with rape – left little doubt. Thousands were tortured in precincts, police vehicles, on the streets or in jails. In the months following the election, the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the domestic law enforcement agency tasked with pre-trial criminal proceedings, received 4,644 complaints of physical injuries, other kinds of police brutality and torture. Not a single police officer has been indicted. To date, more than 40,000 people have experienced politically motivated imprisonment, at least 1,600 people have been convicted on charges of terrorism and extremism, and 1,168 political prisoners remain behind bars.

As before, in 2020 Putin supported Lukashenko by sending Russia’s National Guard to assist the local police in controlling the population, propagandists to help control the narrative in the media, and by propping up the economy against Western sanctions with a $1.5bn loan. At the beginning of February, Russia positioned 30,000 troops and military equipment in Belarus for joint military exercises. Since the beginning of the war, Russia has been launching its air attacks and missile strikes from Belarusian territory.

I am a documentary filmmaker and journalist. For the last year and a half, my colleague Ottavia Spaggiari and I have interviewed dozens of survivors of state brutality, as well as human rights lawyers, activists, academics and members of the police to reconstruct the events of August 2020, and to explain why it is so hard to bring dictators to justice.

We have stayed in touch with many of our sources, even after the reporting was over. Many of them had to leave Belarus fearing further repressions. For example, one of our sources, Marina, 33, fled Belarus after being incarcerated twice. In August 2020, she and her husband were dragged by the riot police from their car parked near their apartment building. In July 2021, she was arrested on nonsensical charges of being party to a terrorist plot. Fearing a lengthy prison sentence, Marina and her husband first left for Lviv in Ukraine, and then moved to Kraków in Poland, less than three weeks before the war. These days Marina volunteers by helping Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Another Belarusian, 20-year-old Max*, left the country in March, after receiving an army conscription notice. Apprehensive about being sent to Ukraine to fight, he fled to Georgia.

Since August 2020, Belarusians have been leaving the country en masse for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia and other countries they could get to. It is hard to pinpoint the exact number of refugees and migrants, as they travelled on a variety of visas, sometimes crossing borders illegally. It can be anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2021, I started hearing troubling information about the changes in attitudes towards Belarusians. It was logical, as Lukashenko pledged his allegiance to Vladimir Putin and as such, tied his nation to the appalling assault on Ukraine. However, for the most part, the negative attitudes are directed at people who either fought against Lukashenko’s regime or were its collateral damage. To put it bluntly, the victims are being victimised again

My close friends, a married couple, had to leave Minsk in haste fearing for their safety. A few months ago they landed in Tbilisi where they tried to rebuild their lives. After the war began, Georgian hospitality in some cases gave way to hostility. Belarusians alongside Russians were denied service in shops, cafes and banks. Their Airbnb reservations were cancelled and their tyres slashed. My friends said they have been reluctant to leave their apartment. Several weeks ago they received humanitarian visas and left for Lithuania.

Poland and Lithuania, two EU countries that share their borders and centuries of history with Belarus, have received tens of thousands of Belarusians in the last two years. Many Belarusians have found these countries very welcoming, but others, especially since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, have faced hostility.

In an online survey conducted among Belarusians currently living in exile by activist Darya Churko, the majority of 206 respondents (98 percent) reported facing abuse and persecution – anything from verbal abuse to broken rent agreements – due to their nationality. Most of the incidents happened in Poland, while Georgia had the second-highest number. One respondent, a Belarusian woman, said a Ukrainian man spat in her face after he found out her country of origin.

This is despite the fact that Belarusians overwhelmingly oppose the war, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the British think-tank, Chatham House, in March. Of the nearly 900 surveyed, only three percent supported Belarus’s military involvement in Ukraine.

Despite growing cases of xenophobia and discrimination, many Belarusians continue to wholeheartedly support Ukraine. They include the Kastus Kalinousky battalion of  Belarusian volunteer fighters who are now a part of the Ukrainian army and the non-profit BySol, which has raised 124,652 euros ($72,000) to support the war effort. BySol and the Free Belarus Center have helped evacuate civilians from Ukraine. All over the world, members of Belarusian diasporas volunteer their time or donate money to support our southern neighbour.

Within Belarus, thousands have faced down the draconian security apparatus to protest against the war; more than 800 people were detained for it. Meanwhile, members of the civil resistance have worked to disrupt the movement of Russian troops and their machinery through Belarus to Ukraine.

According to Yuliana Shemetovets, the spokesperson of the Cyber-Partisans hacker movement, the group has waged several attacks on the railroad’s automation system that affected operations. Other resisters support the effort by sabotaging signals and tracks. Many risk their lives to help the anti-war movement. More than three dozen “rail partisans” have been arrested so far.

With such sacrifices, it is unfair to link all Belarusians with the tyrannical regime of Lukashenko. As a global community, we should take the time to understand the situation better. As for the Boston Marathon, dear organisers, if I ever decide to participate in an organised athletic event, I’ll opt for the Vermont Half Triathlon, instead.

*His name has been changed to protect his identity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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