"A Place Far Away From You"
Letters from Belarus
Eastern Europe. Belarus. A place far away from you, that’s for certain. You hear that horrible things happen to innocent people there. But horrible things happen to innocent people in remote countries all the time. In fact, the distance between your European self and a country like Belarus can be measured exactly by the degree of violence inflicted upon innocent people there. The bigger the violence, the further the country.
Yes, European politicians are actively meeting with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya; yes, they are imposing more severe sanctions on our illegal government. Hopefully, a deeper change is also taking place in European minds: a change in the way Europeans think of themselves in relation to the Belarusian people.
In Belarus, people draw a straight parallel between their present day-to-day reality and the horrors of Stalinism in 1937, the horrors of fascism in 1941; the present level of censorship and misinformation matches the Soviet handling of Chernobyl. The murder and torture of peaceful, defenseless people have opened these old wounds. This history is the history of Europe, this history is no history: none of its workings have crumbled into dust over time, none of its workings have been safely tamed by the history books. As you teach your children about fascism in Europe, as you talk to them about Stalinism and the Holocaust, as you explain Srebrenica massacre to them, keep in mind that these terrors are happening here and now – not at all far away, not at all not in Europe. When your children ask you, how such horror and injustice could have happened, and you tuck them in and kiss them on the forehead saying: “Do not worry, my angel, this will never happen again,” remember that you are lying. This is exactly how injustice happens, here, in the middle of a European continent: it happens when people pretend it’s not happening.
On 9 August, the night of the Belarusian presidential elections, many people waited outside the polling places to see the results of their votes posted on the doors. Most polling places are organised inside public schools, right on one’s block, with children playing nearby on playgrounds. Most people know the teachers who tally the votes: history teachers and math teachers working together to make history, to make voices count. Some teachers became nationally known when the recordings from their “vote-count rehearsals”were posted online before the election. “We already know the numbers,” a voice says in one such recording,“so memorise them, secretly from your family, be prepared.” Sometimes teachers assign homework to other teachers.
In the polling stations where the workers posted true results, cheer broke out. People chanted “Thank you!” across the door, teachers raised a victory sign into the air. The arrests started suddenly. In a blink of an eye, people waiting by the schools their children went to, right under their apartment windows, were thrown into police vans. Children ran screaming, dragging their bicycles. There were no election results. Instead, the riot police escorted the poll workers: some to a safe place, others into detention. This is the present-day history unfolding in the middle of the European continent.
That night, people came out into the streets, peaceful and dignified. They came out as a walking vote, a voice that others can see, demonstrating that the country is united. The police threw stun grenades into crowds of young families carrying balloons; flashes of explosions brought those who stayed inside to their widows. In the streets, people ran screaming: “We are being killed!”. Rubber bullets reached not only those in the streets, but also women on their balconies, and children sleeping inside apartments. In the next few weeks, the police would shoot rubber bullets, intentionally targeting journalists. During the next few weeks, foreign journalists would be expelled and all independent media stripped of their news status. In the next three months, almost 30,000 people would be detained for singing a song, carrying a white-red-white umbrella, showing a victory sign with their fingers. This is the present-day history unfolding in the middle of the European continent.
Four days after election, on 13 August, Amnesty International would report on the widespread torturingof peaceful protesters. Protesters: a misleading word. Recently, when a detained, 65-year-old woman was asked why she had gone to the protest, she responded: “A protest? A protest is an organised event with speeches and proclamations. I was walking with a friend in my city. We saw a man whose eyes were full of teargas. We stopped to help him and were arrested.”
Not one single investigation into the acts of police brutality has been opened. Phrases like “traumatic brain injury” have become mundane. Doctors, who are already overwhelmed with the battle against COVID-19, addressed the government, asking them to stop this violence. “These are war time injuries,” doctors said. Immediately, the most vocal doctors got either fired or arrested. Their colleagues came out during their lunch breaks to stand outside, in their white robes, in solidarity. Over fifty doctors have been detained at least oncefor this “anti-governmental” activity, leaving hundreds of patients without care.
Labour workers went on strike. In an interview, a man wearing his factory uniform said: “How could we work when our medical and cultural workers are suffering for us in jail?”. At the National Opera House, the musicians stood up: “How can we play when our people are being beaten?”. The following day, a new list of firings was announced: the leading male vocalist, the first violinist, the orchestra director; an impressive list of criminals. The heads of universities got replaced. Professors were detained in front of their students. Students were detained in front of their professors. The owner of an art gallery was detained. The TV host of a beloved children’s show – the Belarusian Mr. Rogers – was detained. A beauty queen – Miss Belarus 2008 – was detained. A whole band of musicians was detained right after performing at a neighbourhood concert. Poets were detained after their readings. Olympic athletes got detained. An owner of a flower shop who gave out flowers to women walking by got detained and beaten. An architect with work all over Minsk was detained when he came to put a rose at the memorial of a man killed by plainclothesmen for defending the white-red-white ribbons in his yard. His wife found him in the hospital, in a wheelchair, covered in blood, unable to speak. When she tried to touch him, he would just shake his head. Traumatic brain injury, a diagnosis that is as frequent as COVID-19 these days in Belarus.
State violence sways between sadistic chaos and targeted detentions. Nobody is safe anywhere. The police can take down the door of your apartment; no warrant is necessary to arrest somebody inside their home. The whole print of a newspaper got seized at the printer’s by plainclothesmen who didn’t have to show any documents. This is the present-day history unfolding in the middle of the European continent.
“I’m getting used to the idea of violence inflicted upon me as an inevitable fact,” my strong, beautiful friend says. “If I don’t sacrifice myself, what am I good for? The hardest thing is to accept that no reward can follow our sacrifices. It’s only gestures that don’t lead to change.”
On 15 November, after the police threw stun grenades into a group of mourners, two hundred people took shelter in the nearby apartment building. They laid face-down on the floor for fifteen hours while the police forces walked back and forth looking for them. Strangers opened their doors to strangers, harbouring them at their own risk, the same way their grandparents harboured Jews during World War II. One person shared: “We spent many hours in the dark, flat on the floor. We crawled to the bathroom but never flushed so that the sound wouldn’t alert the police that somebody was inside. We couldn’t open the fridge because the light from it would betray our presence.” People asked foreign diplomats for a humanitarian corridor that would allow them to leave unharmed. But only Belarusians can help Belarusians right now. The duty of others is to see what is happening for what it is: unfolding European history. Keep watching Belarus, do not avert your eyes.
In the following days, heat and water were turned off in the apartment building where strangers rescued strangers from violence. There are no strangers in Belarus any more. Everybody is connected by terror and solidarity. Water jugs and heaters were left in the yard of the building. The police started stopping cars and checking whether they were carrying water. “A blockade,” people called what was happening for what it was. This is the present-day history unfolding in the middle of the European continent.
What now? There’s a lot of anguish. Once you see the beaten bodies of your people, nothing is the same. Once you look through the photos of bodies that are cobalt-blue from hematomas, nobody is a stranger. Once you see the contorted faces of the detained; once you see the backs of the detained lined up against a wall with their hands above their heads, nobody is far away. Belarus should not seem remote to anybody in Europe after what has been happening here since August. This is the present-day history unfolding in the middle of the European continent.
Yes, nothing is the same. Belarusian joy has also been unfolding since August. Belarusian joy exists. The hand-knitted, white-red-white flags in wrinkled hands is Belarusian joy. National Philharmonic Orchestrasinging in the rain for the workers on strike is Belarusian joy. The dozen pairs of running shoes by the door of an apartment opened to strangers is Belarusian joy. Belarusian solidarity is Belarusian joy. Drivers lining up to pick up people released from jail is Belarusian pride and joy. Flowers are Belarusian joy. Concerts in the neighbourhoods where people dance and share cakes is Belarusian joy. Belarusian seniors chanting “We love our students!” is Belarusian joy. Belarusian joy is unfolding in the middle of the European continent. Are you happy with us? Are you hurt with us?