Reader’s note: Volha Harbunova is a Belarusian woman human rights defender, psychologist, and former head of the non-governmental organisation Radislava, which offers support to women who face domestic and gender-based violence. She also created the social enterprise Norm Cafe, which was an inclusive cultural and social space that provided training and employment for women. In March 2021, Norm Cafe was forced to close for security and financial reasons.
Harbunova was arrested on 9 November 2021 on suspicion of organising all-women marches in 2020. The authorities consider her actions to have grossly violated public order. After her arrest, Harbunova declared a hunger strike. She ended the hunger strike two weeks later after the prison authorities met some of her demands, including providing her with a mattress and her medication, and allowing her to send and receive letters. She is being detained in Pishchalauski Castle in Minsk.
In the letters below, Volha writes to her friend Karyna. She asks Karyna to send her the lyrics of a song by Sveta Ben, the lead musician of Belarusian indie band Serebryanaya Svadba (Silver Wedding). She expresses concern for her daughter, Vlada, specifically regarding her studies, and urges Karyna to have her friend Artyom help her with physics.
In her final letter, she refers to a “planet parade”, which is likely to be a reference to the alignment of six planets (Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus) between 28 December and 3 January 2021. She signs her letters “Volya Goa”, as Goa is a short form of her surname.
Hello, my dear Karyna!
Thank you for your letter :) It’s saddening to read that the kids are sick. Let it just be seasonal harmless crap! And I hope you have the opportunity to go out again to some concert on your own :) And when I get out, we will definitely go somewhere together. I’m sorry I didn’t get to visit you. I thought I would have more time :)
Don’t worry about me, I’m okay over here. Today, for the first time, I went to the psychologist :) It was a very quick and unusual meeting. She checked my arms to see if I self harm, and told me to perceive every experience philosophically :) she tells me, this is just a life experience! I remember Sveta Ben has a song about it, could you send me the lyrics? :)
The lawyer brings me different news from you, she said you’ve sent me greetings, I’m glad you didn’t forget about me in such a huge stream of news :) My days are going by faster now with [my medication] and books. I read such nonsense, but I don’t have much of a choice. I think the last time I read comics was in high school, such as special forces fighting aliens who conquered the Earth :)))
I saw snow, and I saw through the tower window of [Pishchalauski] castle. I try to realise I am in the center of Minsk, because my perception has narrowed to the size of a small cell and it seems that nothing else has ever existed… I know that it will not take long for me to adapt. It’s just that internal resistance prevents us from accepting the reality of our experiences. I’ll be waiting for news from you, Karyna. Say hi to everyone. I’m very worried about Vlada and her physics:) Let Artyom take a couple hours of his time to help her, please! I hug you tightly! Warmth and safety to you all! Volya Goa
Hello Karyna! :)
I’m happy to receive your third letter, the second one got lost somewhere :) Karyna, don’t worry about me. I am on pause, frozen, every day is Groundhog Day. I’ll cope, then, it seems to me, I’ll have another stage no less difficult than in here, and life will no longer be the same. But maybe I won’t be the same. That’s how my path is! Most of the time I get letters from people I don’t know. I’m glad to see your name on the envelope.
I’m glad to hear you were able to retreat from everyday life :) It’s important to look around and find opportunities for yourself, Karyna :) Thank you for your kind words about me, you know, I’m calm and definitely believe in myself. As one of my friends wrote, if I hadn’t done what I did, I wouldn’t have been myself. Respect for my decisions is more important to me than acceptance. I think I already wrote something similar :) To be honest, my head is still foggy. I answer letters every day as soon as I receive them. I am writing to strangers as if I have known them for 100 years :) I am sitting in the center of the city, and I still have this feeling that the city and everything else doesn’t exist. However, today I heard the church bells ringing, I was very surprised :) Thank you for the greetings from the girls, tell them I said I’m fine, I miss you too and will definitely see you next year! And anyway, spring is coming! I hug you tightly, and wish you warm and safety!
29.12.21 …I’m sorry that I didn’t respond immediately, I received your letter last week. However, I got sick, and honestly, I don’t know what to write, so that my letters could be allowed to be sent out. I want to tell you the truth, but I think that in this situation it isn’t worth using up my strength, which I already have little of. That’s why I just want to say that I’m glad that people are here with me, through the presence of these letters. It’s probably from the smell of the pages. But I haven’t had a sense of smell for a month now, because of my second Covid infection, in a pre-trial detention center. My thoughts are like fleas, so my handwriting is awful :) Thanks for the news :) I’m swallowing it here day after day, not even chewing, so that I don’t start sinking into all this. I don’t want to think about it, about my people, and the feeling of guilt, that’s the first thing I always fall into.
The planet parade began on 28 December, as it was shown on TV. I would like to visit [outer] space, or at least see it through a telescope. My days pass very slowly, especially since I am sick. I don’t go outside, which means I lose the opportunity to see the sky, air, light, and movement. But I definitely will go, I want to put in 10,000 steps before the end of this year :)
When I used to be just a psychologist at Radislava, I made a list of feelings and emotions. Many of us find it difficult to understand what we are feeling in the moment. It has helped both in work and in life :) Now I would add this feeling to the list: “Phew, f*ck!” This is a cross between anger, disgust, and powerlessness. Generally, you can always learn something new when you listen to yourself :)
Happy New Year! I’m hugging you tightly, I wish you warmth and safety inside and out! Tell my best friends that I really miss them and I am surviving for you all, each and every one of you. I love you and I’m so grateful for your support and help to me and my Vlada. See you in the New Year! Spring is coming :)