Essay / 14 March 2022

“Have You Suffered Enough?”

Europe’s Short Memory and Repressed Belarusians Now Seen as Aggressors

With the current obvious focus on Ukraine’s war against the Russian aggression, in the eyes of some people writing about Belarus might seem inappropriate, untimely. We still have water and roof; our kids go to school and we don’t have to run into the subway to hide from air raids of Russian boys who believe to be on “military training” or saving the Russian-speaking population from neonazi. A 20-years-old relative on my mother-in-law’s side has claimed that Putin was bombing Ukraine “very carefully”, which literally left me in shock at a mere co-existence of these words in one sentence. Comparing to our neighbors on fire, Belarusians are still okey. Our 1,085 political prisoners are okey [1]. Our 46 liquidated human rights and civil society organizations are okey. Our south occupied by the Russian troops is, probably, not so bad, either. At least, we are alive, right?

Pripyat abandoned school

“No, I have never been in prison. No, I don’t have “photo or video documentation” of tortures and beatings. No, the KGB hasn’t dropped me a hint of their plans to conduct a search in my home. Do they do it, in general? Wouldn’t it be too Hollywoodish?” The first time I confronted the idea that suffering could actually be “measured” was in spring 2021, when after tons of filled in papers and three interviewees where I had to repeat the same stuff to different “deeply concerned” [2] Europeans, my partner and I were politely refused assistance in relocation to Germany.

“If it might come as a comfort to you”, the organizer of the humanitarian initiative texted me, “none of the six families who had applied with our program were given visas.” Six Belarusian families who had cherished the hope to move to a safer space are now disillusioned and heartbroken. It was something that, according to the German “helpers”, could cheer me up. I was not alone – there were other Belarussians whose suffering was classified as “not enough”. A reason for a sigh of relief?

Following Plan B and realizing that had I continued to accumulate suffering points for the sake of meeting EU-visa criteria, I might have very soon joined my 13 colleagues in overcrowded cells of Okrestina detention center, I moved to Georgia. A beautiful country with a rich history, original cuisine and a cameraman who died of severe injuries during an anti-Pride march in its capital Tbilisi [3] – a country where any Russian-speaking person now risks being associated with Putin’s regime. However, it was the only place we could afford with our savings and no documents. Still safer for me to continue writing and leave the international media focused on Belarus. In Minsk by then I had already found it hard to sleep with no nightmares of strangers in military uniform searching our one-room apartment.      

“Sorry, we are now focusing on Afghanistan,” “Reporters Without Borders” replied after getting acquainted with our case in November 2021, a few months after our forced exile in Georgia. Just enough time for me to pull myself together and start filling in new questionnaires – relentlessly constant in their request for torture proofs. Well, at least they had the guts to put it straight, unlike the leader of another initiative that had promised us help with relocation to the Czech Republic. At a certain point she just stopped answering. Her last message was “I guarantee: on April 1 you will be in Prague.”

I took up learning Georgian. One of my first words was “მძულს”. “I hate”. But Putin and Lukashenko were not the only subjects I was directing my hatred to. Observing the EU states one by one stopping to issue visas to Belarussian citizens [4,5], universities “halting cooperation” [6] and denying our repressed students and lecturers support, and our journalists – assistance and safe working conditions to keep telling the truth about our homeland occupied by the Kremlin and used as a launchpad for its missiles. I felt anger bubbling up in me.

Only half a year ago the international media were celebrating the “flower power” of the Belarusian peaceful female protest. On August 21, 2020 the iconic image [7] of a girl with a rose appeared on the cover of “The Guardian” with the heading, “Flower power: the women driving Belarus’ movement for change”. A similar message was later launched by “The New York Times” that published an article “In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes” [8]. How come did the rhetoric change so fast? Why did my country whose citizens keep facing beatings, arrests and imprisonment the media are not interested in covering any longer out of the blue turn into a scapegoat and a subject of bulling and blindly applied cancel culture? Or was all the sympathy the world showed to Belarusian female protester just for the sake of a nice clickbait image that sold well?

For people in Belarus nothing has changed – well, it is just actually getting worse. Around 1,000 people in Belarus were arrested during antiwar rallies and single-picketing actions on February 27-29.  [11] 155 “flower girls” are currently in custody. And I hope that on the state TV channels they are allowed to watch nothing would be said about the most ironical gesture of “support” “Pink Floyd” has recently demonstrated to them. “To stand with the world in strongly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, the famous antiwar band statement explained removing their music from all digital music provers in Russia and Belarus [9]. However, even if the Belarusian prisoners do learn about it, I am sure they would be okey. The Belarusians always are. The suffering limit seems to be endless. 

No-one in the world do I wish to feel what Ukrainians experience – leaving their houses under bombing and shell attacks, dying of dehydration in Mariupol, coming back from the Polish border after their kids’ transportation to safe places to assist those still unable to do so. Any war is evil. But suffering and trauma do not have a nationality and there is no way one can “measure” if someone “has suffered enough” to ask and be given help. A passport is not a destiny. Just like a Facebook repost or empty phrases from well-off Europeans and Americans wishing us to “hold on!” or “stay strong!” and then refusing us real, not “spiritual” support, are not actions.

No-one in the world do I wish to feel what Syrians experienced in 2021 facing the wall erected at the Polish border and unable to get to the EU to reunite with their families. Or Afghans looking for asylum in Greece in 2015. Or the Belarusians now.

“Please, keep writing about us, – my friend from Luninets, the south of Belarus, texted me today. – I am extremely saddened to see the changes in the word’s attitude to our country and people. My job has been taken away from me – which was the point of my life. I don’t know what to do next, where to go, how to keep my family safe… Many of us lost what we had been working so hard on in 2020 in the fight for our victory. We hear roaring Russian helicopters above our heads and bump into bearded men with Kalashnikovs in our shops. My little daughter goes on asking me why their schoolteacher keeps silent about the war. The missiles are launched from our native Polessie which doesn’t feel like the land we belong to anymore.”

These words sound nothing like the words of the aggressor, do they? How much suffering is enough?

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A. Pashkevich