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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

    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!

    Read more:

    Journalism is not a crime!

    The authorities are trying to destroy independent journalism in Belarus. Support the Solidarity Marathon!

    Journalists Padabed and Lazarau recognised as political prisoners


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