“The people in Belarus are not willing to fight against Ukraine. It won’t be easy to convince them,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told the Munich Security Conference last week amid threats from Belarus that it could join the Russian offensive. The Belarusian regime has supported Russia since the invasion, but their armed forces have not (yet) been directly involved in the conflict.
Like in Russia, anti-war rhetoric has been heavily repressed in Belarus. Last March mothers of Belarusian soldiers were arrested after they gathered in the church to pray for peace. And only last week a 65-year-old garage owner was fined, and his business closed for having called Russian military personnel “occupiers” and refusing to sell them goods.
Nonetheless, some political prisoners have managed to communicate their feelings about the war. “We are one, we used to be at peace […] Hide your pride and shake hands,” Siarhei Sakavets wrote in his poem “22.02.2022” on the eve of the invasion. “There are so many rumours about everything that is happening, and the news on TV. God help me. I am very worried about you,” Larysa Kuzmenka wrote to her daughter and grandson last November.
Reading these letters from Belarusian political prisoners published by Index on Censorship, Pasha Bystrova – a Ukrainian woman who now lives in the Netherlands – says she felt a sense of “extreme injustice”. In different ways, Ukrainians and Belarusians are being deprived of their fundamental rights. They are suffering the consequences of tyranny.
Bystrova, who now works with refugees – including Ukrainian refugees – told Index that she feels that political prisoners and refugees are alike in that they are often perceived as being ‘the other’ by wider society. They are misunderstood because many people have preconceived ideas of who a ‘political prisoner’ or ‘refugee’ is. Having read political prisoners’ letters, Bystrova said: “I felt this could be me, any of us or our loved ones.”
Bystrova feels that the fates of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined. “I believe the result of this war will greatly influence the situation in Belarus,” Bystrova told Index. “The collapse of the Lukashenka regime is inevitable.” That’s why defending Ukraine is “for our freedom and yours”.
Index on Censorship has so far published letters from 29 of the 1450 political prisoners in Belarus. Read their letters here.