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“I stay so that those who have been imprisoned or forced to leave have a place to return to”. Motivations of journalists who choose to stay in Belarus

11.05.2023 Source: Аўтар для Беларускай асацыяцыі журналістаў

On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, we interviewed colleagues and friends who remain in Belarus.

They talked about their hopes and dreams, explained how they take care of themselves, and what helps them not to get demoralized and keep working.

Names have been changed for safety reasons.

Siarhei, correspondent

I have many dreams. To stop the war. To make Belarus a democratic country. To empower people to speak freely. To stop the persecution of dissidents.

For me personally – to be able to work in peace without the risk of being searched or arrested.

I hope that those who started the war will have more sense than to drop nuclear bombs. That people in Ukraine will stop dying. That Belarusians won't attack Ukraine. That it will be possible to live freely and without constant fear of the authorities in Belarus.

Thank God, my relatives supported me during the difficult time when they came with searches and detained me. My family is my primary backing. The support of my colleagues who helped my family to find lawyers and were by my side morally was also important.

Today there are few reasons to be happy in Belarus. I take delight in my children's achievements: their school results, how they do in sports, or when they go on trips in Belarus... I try to work, to write, to keep myself busy, to have little time for bad thoughts. That way I don't get depressed.

I understand that we live in difficult times, but I have no right to despair. After all, my mood will affect the people around me.

I still work in the media, although by law I am no longer a journalist. I am only a correspondent for a private media source. Nevertheless, I remain in the profession, albeit with limitations. I do not know what will happen next. It doesn't depend on me, but on how much they want to increase the repression.

Have I thought of leaving? Sometimes I do. But there’s just nowhere to go, a lot of things keep me here, primarily, my family.

Aliaksandra, journalist

For the first time in many years, I will celebrate our professional holiday with tears in my eyes. Everything we have achieved, everything we have done for decades, is being destroyed. The media I worked for was suddenly declared "extremist". As soon as I found ways to cooperate with other publications, they too were "blacklisted"... I have no idea how to continue my work. I will probably decide to leave the country this month. I do not see any other way to remain myself and to continue working.

Life in Belarus now is characterized by constant fear for oneself and one's colleagues. And it has a great effect. To be honest, I can't do without antidepressants anymore.

My home is no longer my fortress. In my own home, I feel in danger, I feel cornered, with no way out if someone comes for me. When I am in a field, in a forest, by a river, I feel more free and protected. Nature is probably the only thing that inspires me, makes me happy, and gives me positive emotions.

My biggest pain is my disagreement with my relatives about the situation in Belarus. Propaganda, damn it! It is very frightening and offensive, and there is nothing you can do about it. I found a way out: I don't visit them, it's calmer and healthier for my psyche. Only rare phone calls where we talk about health and weather.

Perhaps my comment will be the most hopeless of all... But there is hope. How can there not be hope? Every day I hope that something will change, that the streak of bad luck will end. Editorial offices will resume their work, journalists will return to real journalism, political prisoners will be released, and Belarusians will learn the truth and start building a new country.

Andrei, editor

First, I refused to talk about my hopes and dreams. Because I was sick of the reality. Then I changed my mind. But what do I have to say?

It feels ridiculous to think of any plans right now.

Many editorial boards had plans, but can no longer work. So the only plan is to hang in there, defend yourself and your colleagues, and if the fate of other publications befalls you, be able to support your own.

I don't have any personal plans. What can you plan under such conditions? I do not plan to go abroad. We have to take care of our elderly parents, and my wife and I are not so young. But anything can happen, including a forced departure.

When spring came, it became a little easier to get rid of heavy thoughts. We are working hard in the summer house and recently planted potatoes. I even joked with my wife, "Why are we 'grounding' potatoes?" Humor is as black as our thoughts.

All our hopes are tied to Ukraine. We are waiting for its victory and hope that the dictatorship in Belarus will fall as well.

Iryna, photographer

Life in Belarus reminds me of a multi-level quest, where you realize that you don't necessarily reach the end. One mistake can cost you your freedom. But of course, you want to be among those who reach the end. I am not disillusioned with my profession, I understand its importance and significance in a time like this. And it gives meaning to my life.

Is it scary to live in Belarus?

The other day, on my way home, I ran into the riot police in a courtyard. They were masked and in full riot gear. I think they were looking for someone. My first thought was, "Is it me or not?”

 No, this isn't my yard. I walked past a policeman and our eyes met. Interestingly, I did not feel fear. Instead, I felt... curiosity. When you know what to expect if you are arrested, when you have been preparing for different scenarios for three years, it feels pointless to be afraid. That's why I allow myself to live, to rejoice, to observe the people and what's going on around us, and to try to figure out how it all changes me.

And it certainly does. You become more cautious and selective with people. I thank my lucky stars that I have real, worthy friends in my life who help me not to give up. Some of them are close, in Belarus, and some are abroad, but it's extremely important to surround yourself with such people, to know that they have your back, and to feel supported.

I have completely limited contact with panicky and toxic people. "Are you still here? Do you think you have nine lives?", "You write letters to political prisoners, what if they come for you?" and so on. Welcome to my blacklist. And it was the most useful decision I have made in a long time. It's why I spend less time on Facebook and don't participate in flamewars. It helps keep my psyche functional.

Life is a great thing, no matter what. And we only live once. Now I feel it so acutely, so deeply, all the shades of it. You find and see beauty in everyday life, in people, and you feed on it. And the people here are wonderful. I feel like I'm living in a different society – not the one that existed before 2020. And I love it. So many stories, so many observations, so many discoveries!

We shouldn't say or think that everything has disappeared in Belarus, we shouldn't give up. No, but we can't talk about many things right now. We're improving our ability to break through concrete. I feel a lot of mutual support from those who remain here. We don't need words to understand each other because we're in the same boat now. I wish you could feel that kind of support from those who have left. I think that's the best way to listen and take care of each other, no matter which side of the border you're on. But it feels like there is a growing divide between us. Let's build bridges instead of digging holes!

My friends and colleagues have repeatedly told me that they are haunted by the police in their dreams. I don't dream about the police. But I do dream about people who are now behind bars. One dream is very clear: It's early morning. People are waiting at the prison walls. We're all waiting impatiently for those who are about to be released. When the first one comes out, I burst into tears. And I am not alone. A loved one who was able to come home will be next to me.

That's one of the main reasons I stay and that's what keeps me going. So that those who are imprisoned and those who were forced to leave have a place to come back to.

To stay where you are, to do what you need and what you can, to support those around you. I would not be ashamed to look into the eyes of those who ended up behind bars for fighting for our freedom. I look at myself over the last three years and realize that I'm the one person I can count on who has not let me down. As long as you believe and dream, as long as you hope and love, as long as you breathe and don't give up, nothing is over.

Volha, journalist

My greatest pain is connected with our prisoners. I am very much looking forward to the day when the regime will finally collapse, the prison doors will open, and all political prisoners, all martyrs who suffered for a free Belarus will be released.

I hope that the law enforcers and various servants of this government who have terrorized the Belarusian people will go to jail.

The propagandists who have done terrible damage to the minds of our people with their cynical lies should also be brought to justice.   

It would be a great tragedy for me if this didn't happen. Evil must be punished.

It's difficult to live in Belarus now. Of course, we try to remain optimistic. But... You never know if you will stay free or get arrested. It is impossible to make serious plans for more than one day.

Life seems to slip through my fingers like sand. And so I live, hour by hour, day by day, in terrible Belarusian ignorance. Before, life had taste, smell, color, and sound. Now there is nothing. You get up in the morning just because you are alive. And you go out to do something because you have to.

The formula for the happiness of Belarusians in Belarus is as follows: if you are alive, healthy, and free, then you are doing well. And the most difficult thing is not to fall into hatred or to the level of those who use violence.

 I am inspired by the thought that when I look into the eyes of my descendants, I will not be ashamed of how I lived in 2020-2023.

Every day I hope that the political trials will end soon. But for now, they continue. It's hellish suffering not to know how much longer we have to wait for the dawn. A month, a year, two years, ten years... And that's a lifetime! And it's scary that it's disappearing like this because I could be so much happier – in a free country.

I don’t know when the finish line is, so I’m running out of energy. I want to keep myself in good physical and mental condition until the expected day. My survival rules are a healthy lifestyle, nature, friends, books, theater, museums, and learning foreign languages.

You'd be surprised, but as a journalist, I haven't read the news in six months. Or rather, I do it once a week. At first, without information, I was like a drug addict craving a dose. Now it is okay. The order remains the same: repression-war-trial-arrest. It is frightening to read the news even once a week. I feel for my colleagues who have to work with this news, who have to live it every day.

There are times when I don’t want anything at all, I am so exhausted by that emptiness. The only thing that motivates me to live is that many journalists are behind bars.

Every morning, no matter how heavy I feel, I tell myself, “Get up and work. Your colleagues would like to work, but they can’t. So work – for yourself and for them!”

Every night, no matter how bad my mood is, I go out for a walk. My colleagues would like to enjoy the outdoors, but they can’t. So I walk and breathe the spring air – for me and for them.

Life goes on in Belarus. Villagers are planting potatoes, teachers are teaching children, people are having children, engineers are inventing modern machines, and journalists (there are still decent media, even if they are few) are creating news. The storks have returned to their homeland, the gardens in Palesia are in bloom, and the rivers are flooding Paazerye. Spring rages, sings, and laughs against all odds.

I believe that Belarus will surely see its spring, its day of victory over evil. Oh my God, what a holiday it will be! Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers grandly celebrated it in 1945. But the world has never seen a holiday grander than that to be organized by the Belarusians, who have longed so much for their freedom and joy!

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