Since the 2020 protests, thousands of Belarusians experienced violence and torture at the hands of Belarus’ security forces. Every day new cases of their brutality are reported by media or happen with their friends and neighbors. This can’t but leave a trace on a person’s psyche. The International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus interviewed Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine to see how the events of the last three years had affected their decision.
How we went about this project
Part One – 2020.
To what extent and how were you involved in activism before the 2020 protests?
What was the turning point for your decision to participate in the protests (if you did).
How did you live between 2020 and 2022?
Part two – 2022.
How did you perceive Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on 24.02.2022?
What was the motive behind the decision to join the ranks of volunteer fighters?
Vision of the future
P.S.: Our common future
How we went about this project
From the first days of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, there were reports of Belarusian men and women joining the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. There was a common thread running through the interviews: very few volunteers had had prior combat experience, but many recalled the violence they had experienced in 2020. Many recounted how they had been ill-treated and tortured by security forces. We could easily see a link between their decision to volunteer in the Ukrainian military and the traumatizing experience of Belarus protests.
On August 12, 2020, sixteen-year-old Tsimur Mitskevich was battered to the point where doctors had to induce him into a coma. “Later, Tsimur became a ‘suspect’ in a criminal case. Timur’s mom died, and the boy disappeared from the hospital. “He was “found” only in January: it turned out that Tsimur managed to flee from Belarus,” journalist Yauhenia Dolhaya reported.
The news about Tsimur’s service in the Kalinousky Regiment defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine made the authors of the project wonder: “Would Timur have gone to war had it not been for August 2020?”
We asked a crisis psychologist (not mentioned by name for security reasons) to compile a questionnaire for the Belarusian volunteers serving in Ukraine. Its questions were helpful to reveal the interviewees’ attitudes to the events before and after August 2020, to understand the motives for their involvement or non-involvement in each of them, and to discover how they see the near future. The interviews were conducted by psychotherapist Demyan Popov, who interviewed 15 volunteers: 1 woman and 14 men. Only two of them had previous military experience. The names of the interviewees are also kept confidential for security reasons.
The sequence of questions can be visualized as a timeline with the major events of the recent years:
This article will discuss psychological trauma. The American Psychological Association defines it as a reaction to “any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning.” Such experiences can be caused by natural or industrial disasters, as well as war, torture, acts of terrorism, serious illness, rape, and other disruptive events.
Nevertheless, the authors do not give any diagnoses. This project is not a comprehensive study of psychological trauma, but a reflection on the feelings and emotions of the last three years shared by many Belarusians, as well as an attempt to ask the right questions that take some time to answer.
To what extent and how were you involved in activism before the 2020 protests?
Most of our interviewees (9 out of 15) were politically active even before 2020: four – occasionally, and five – consistently. Among the six interviewees who reported living a life of an ordinary person with no political involvement before 2020, most show their well-established opinion on the life of the country: “Power is given to people who should not have it at all…”, “Russians are our enemies”, “The state does not care about people”, “It was getting worse and worse every year”.
Part One – 2020.
Answers to the first question
The average age of the volunteers is 30 years: that is, 8 of them were born after 1993 and have lived their entire lives under Lukashenka’s regime. The report of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus describes the circumstances behind the development of Lukashenka’s regime and its repressive system, which went became fully operational in 2020.
Three of the interviewees at the time of the interview (late 2022 – early 2023) were under 25. Two of them, due to their age, could not really be involved in activism before 2020.
“My attitude was more than neutral because I wasn’t that old at the time, the government… I can’t say I liked it, I really disliked certain laws.”
“I started to develop my interest in political life somewhere in 2017, before that I was too young and [I was] concerned with other issues. In 2017 I really delved into studying history and learning about politics, and that got me involved in the movements prior to 2020.”
The third interviewee grew interested in what was happening in the country thanks to his parents, who read alternative sources of information and independent media. Over time, he became involved in activism.
“In general, I became interested in politics in 2015, when I was about 14-15 years old. It came from my parents, because they were always reading some independent news portals, and that’s how I got interested in politics.”
Almost everyone recalls disagreeing with the decisions of the state apparatus. However, they could rarely express their opinion or influence these decisions. Therefore, like many Belarusians, they tried to adapt to what was happening. Two interviewees say they felt disillusioned with activism.
“I joined youth organizations when I was 15 or 16, but after the Square 2006 protets, I became somewhat disappointed in the whole opposition movement in general, and by 2010, I was no longer involved in anything. […] And, basically, I did not participate in anything until 2020, because I felt completely disappointed both in the Belarusian people, and in opposition leaders and movements, in particular”.
“I never supported the government, the person who calls himself president has never been President for me. But I believed that the majority of people in the country are probably satisfied with this state of things and I felt that it’s not that people really supported him, but they just tried to live as it goes: raise a family, go to work, live in their own separate world, that the government can’t control”.
People followed the rule: you don’t bother us, and we don’t bother you. It was as if the two parties had agreed to ignore each other, to live in parallel universes. One existed with the support of the state, which demanded unquestioning loyalty, while the other relied on other values and was evolving in spite of the reality. Sometimes they interacted and cooperated, but each of them was doing their own thing.
Human rights activists, opposition politicians and activists have been talking about torture and ill-treatment for many years, but the authorities ignored them. For example, former political prisoner Siarhei Parsiukevich wrote about the attitude to prisoners and conditions of confinement back in 2008. Much of his description resonates with modern Belarusian realities and is not surprising, but 15 years ago this report did not catch the attention of the general public.
Any protest was suppressed by force, such as the peaceful rallies against the fraudulent election results of 2006 and 2010. According to the Human Rights Center Viasna, in both cases about 700 people were arrested and convicted. These rallies were ineffective, as were the protests against the integration of Belarus and Russia in 2019:
“One needs to understand the context of that period. For example, in 2019, the signing of Belarus-Russia agreements was followed by a wave of protests against it, too. […] Everything was so mild that the authorities did not see any threat from us, and we realized that we were unable to do anything”.
Things changed on March 11, 2020, when WHO announced the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. The world was paralyzed with lockdowns, and the Belarusian authorities denied the problem and proposed absurd ways to deal with it. The “life and death” problem became so critical that people took responsibility upon themselves. Some sewed protective suits and masks for medical personnel, some made food for hospitals, many donated funds and went into lock-down mode if they could. During that period, community involvement grew to such an extent that the government attempted to prohibit health care workers from accepting support. That was the first time when people felt their power and realized that they could make a difference.
“The turning point was in the spring of 2020, why? – Because of the COVID. Lukashenka claimed that COVID did not exist. Here’s his quote, that’s what he said: ‘Can you see it [COVID-19]? No. I don’t see it either.” People were just left on their own – do as you please. I just have a lot of doctors in my family, I know how it played out, how our whole family was looking for protective suits in China for a family member who worked in the red zone to make sure they didn’t catch it.”
It was warm at the end of spring 2020, and it brought, perhaps misleadingly, some relief after the tense first months of the year. It seemed that life, albeit slowly, was returning to its usual course – cafe terraces were safer than indoors, and the elections would end with the usual ” over 80% for Lukashenka”. Three interviewees recall that they could not imagine the elections-2020 to go any other way. The other 12 interviewees agree that they were highly impressed by the developments.
“I didn’t believe in these elections, I thought it would be business as usual: they would cheat, a few thousand people would protest and go home.”
The events of the time looked quite cinematic. Society was trying to fight the system by finding loopholes in it. People were queuing up to give their signatures for the candidates, and to file a complaint about yet another failure of the system to comply with the law. The most popular presidential contenders – Viktar Babaryka and Siarhei Tsikhanouski – were arrested, and Valery Tsapkala was not registered. Voters were outraged by all this. Hope returned when Tsapkala’s and Babaryka’s headquarters joined together around a registered presidential candidate – Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. That’s how one of the most intense and emotional election races began.
“I remember these moments, as people stood in the pouring rain, giving signatures for Viktar Babaryka. And then he was arrested and we lined up along the entire avenue. The whole Independence Avenue was jammed up, the entire avenue was full of people, on both sides. I had a dog, I couldn’t take him to a rally, so we got in the car and drove around. The cars created a huge gridlock, and everybody was honking, and people standing. And everyone really believed that we come out in big numbers, and that would be enough to show what we want and how we want to live in the future. After all, the main slogan of 2020 was “Go away!”.
Three women – Maria Kalesnikava, Veranika Tsapkala and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – gathered huge rallies in Belarusian cities, which was the first time that people so openly supported an opposition politician. At the same time, Lukashenka hurled sexist insults at the increasingly popular Tsikhanouskaya and traveled to military and security forces as part of his election campaign.
People wore white ribbons on their wrists, which became a symbol of support for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, while independent observers, who were often not allowed even into the courtyards of polling stations, could stand around the fence all day with binoculars trying to follow the voting process. In those days, everyone wanted to believe that victory was close, because it seemed impossible not to notice and hear such a large number of people. The regime responded with violence to the very first protests, although it seemed that no one was really frightened by this.
What was the turning point for your decision to participate in the protests (if you did)? How did you participate in the protests (if you did)?
All interviewees mentioned that “it was impossible to go on living like this”, their desire to restore justice and the rule of law, and their stories conveyed a sense of solidarity with their detained family and friends, as well as with people who had been injured. Of the 15 interviewees, 8 had been beaten and tortured. Almost all have seen others being arrested and beaten, one interviewee describes it as “extra points of anger”. Two of them say that the turning point in realizing what was happening was not the elections, but COVID-19 and the behavior of the government in this regard.
Part One – 2020.
Answers to the second question
On the evening of August 9, 2020, and for the next three days, the level of violence peaked. This point is the first traumatic event on the timeline. The protests were peaceful, but despite this, the authorities used excessive force and means of restraint all over Belarus. People were shot with rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades, and heavily beaten during arrests.
“I saw an unfinished building and started climbing up there. I climbed to the first floor and heard footsteps, and I thought that if it was some OMON officer, law enforcer, etc., I would just hit him and run away as fast as I can. But it was a watchman who told me to hide on the second floor, that there were already a few people there, and he would tell the OMON that there was nobody there. We were sitting on the second floor, or rather, we were lying on the floor. I heard OMON officers running up and asking if there were any people there. The watchman said that no, he wouldn’t let anyone in, they must have gone somewhere else. I lay there until 6 a.m., I slept a little. I heard people being beaten, I heard explosions and gunshots, all in all, I was very scared.”
Police departments, temporary detention centers and prisons all over the country turned into torture chambers. The Internet was down, and it was impossible to get the news without a VPN, just as it was virtually impossible to find out anything about a person who was out of contact for a long time.
After the “women in white” event on August 12, the degree of violence began to decline, and on the 13th came news from those who had been released, as well as photos of beaten and maimed people – and each of them was horrifying.
On 13 August 2020, Belarusian human rights organizations addressed the Minister of Internal Affairs Yury Karayeu with a demand to stop torture, release detainees and investigate cases of violence against them. They also published an appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur with the call to intervene in the situation. Already then, human rights defenders spoke about what had happened as a crime against humanity – an extremely grave crime under the international law.
Viktoria Fiodarava, international law expert and founder of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus, emphasizes that human rights are enshrined in the main international treaties. When breaches of these rights become large-scale, widespread and systematic, they may amount to international crimes. As regards Belarus’ context, one can speak about crimes against humanity: numerous victims, failure to institute criminal cases on the facts of torture, whereas all events take place with the knowledge and participation of state structures and are approved at the highest level, as confirmed by their statements and comments in mass media. The same applies to protests – here we are talking about excessive use of force, which is also a violation. And this falls under crimes against humanity, and in the most severe cases can be interpreted as an attempted murder. “At this stage we have conclusions of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report stating that the violations that have been taking place in Belarus since 2020 could amount to crimes against humanity,” Viktoria said. Since August 2020, human rights defenders of Viasna and the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus have collected about 3,300 testimonies on torture and ill-treatment.
Even those who expected that this protest, like the previous ones, to be suppressed by force, were not prepared for such a level of violence and cruelty. These days, we also learned about the deaths of protestors — Aliaksandr Taraikouski, Henadz Shutau, and Aliaksandr Vikhor. The post-election developments raised a question that everyone had to answer: “Can we ignore what is happening, as we used to do in the past?”
“I was one of those people who said “stop” back in August ; we can forget about the elections altogether; it doesn’t matter how many votes [Lukashenka] got. What happened afterwards is all that matters – in any case, he has to resign and give up his powers. And the elections don’t matter at all.”
At this point in 2020, we can talk about the beginning of a serious trauma in society. Everyone, whether a participant, victim or witness, has an emotional and completely different reaction to such events. And any of the reactions are absolutely normal. The history of mankind is full of tragedies, wars and disasters, so the psyche has learned to cope with such experiences.
During a month after traumatic events, a person may experience different reactions: crying, screaming, anxiety, fear, or disrupted sleep patterns. Yet all this remains within the scope of a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Demyan Popov, a psychotherapist who conducted interviews for this project, explains that there is nothing wrong with trauma itself, it can even become a resource and a point of growth. The only question is whether a person can cope with it and move on.
A simplified scheme of coping with trauma in a healthy way can be described as follows: a person needs to let oneself express all the reactions, emotions and feelings that come during this period, no matter how painful they may be, give oneself time to come to terms with what happened and leave these events in the past, recognizing the existence of this experience and related losses in one’s life. In the first month, while trying to process what has happened, people may ask themselves many questions: “How can I live in such an insecure world?”, “How can I live in a world where I have little or no control over some situations?”. The answer to them is essentially the same: things beyond my control happen sometimes, and if it happened to me, I have coped, put it behind me, and gained an experience, albeit unwanted, that has made me stronger.
If the trauma is not overcome, it may have a lifelong impact on the person. It can cause disorders and conditions that serve as an indicator of our inner world and show that one has not fully coped with the event and probably needs help. One of the most common conditions in the aftermath of such events is post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). Its symptoms can include painful memories of the experience, flashbacks, disturbed sleep, emotional withdrawal, apathy, and avoiding anything that reminds one of the traumatic events. According to statistics, PTSD develops in 7.3% of cases among people who witnessed violence, in 32% of cases among victims of physical violence, and in 49% of cases among victims of sexualized violence. Demyan Popov explains that PTSD is more likely to develop in those who have been helpless for a long period of time, in which case the consequences are more common.
In the post-election days, Akrestsina – a complex of detention centers in Minsk – became a generic name for the places where violence, which can be equated with crimes against humanity, took place. Brest, Lida, Homel, Pinsk, Salihorsk and many other cities in Belarus had their own ” Akrestsina”. That’s where people were tortured: they were beaten, stripped naked, often immobilized, in stress positions, they were kept in overcrowded, stuffy cells for several days. They did not understand what was happening to them: why they were detained and especially why they were put through all this.
Apart from physical suffering, torture is difficult to endure psychologically. Its very purpose is to break a person, their will, and to force them to obey the abuser. At the moment of violence, a person can experience completely different feelings: fear, suffering, shock, helplessness, guilt, and shame.
“They took a grenade, faked it or something, twisted the pin, put it in my underwear, my hands and feet were tied, left me and ran away, pretending they are about to kill me. I just lay there for about 30 seconds, there was no explosion, and I thought, well, let’s live on.”
Recovery from abuse can be difficult, but the mechanism is all the same – to accept, live through and integrate the experience, leaving the past in the past. To live through means to feel and to let the emotions come out. “You can’t heal something you don’t feel,” writes Edith Eva Eger, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, in her book The Gift. One must accept that it may be difficult to feel it because what happened is so heinous, inconceivable and enormous that there are no words for it. Survivors of torture and abuse may fall into addictions to alcohol, nicotine and so on, but even this is part of the norm, as it often helps to cope with the pain.
According to the crisis psychologist who worked on this project, it can be important and healing during recovery to look for anger or some other feeling in that difficult moment that would indicate internal resistance. “It means that the person feels some kind of control. In therapy with survivors of violence – and torture is the ultimate violence – it’s important to try to find something where they have resisted in some way. Even if it is calling the abuser names silently, that is also resistance. One’s opinion is also resistance.”
Torture is also difficult because it can undermine the foundations of a person’s trust in others. “The trauma associated with “human-to-human” violence is experienced more severely than technogenic and natural disasters. Because humans are social animals, it is important for us to have a sense of belonging to society and that we can trust people. And the survivor of torture experienced the horror of what one person can do to another. And, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for torture survivors to lose their families and ties with family and friends,” adds the crisis psychologist.
“I had fights with a lot of my friends who were in favor of peaceful protests, and after what happened to me, I didn’t see the point of peaceful protests anymore, and I had a big thirst for revenge and everything. For what had been done to me. I just couldn’t see my friends’ point in this case.”
Recovering from such events can take a long time. The first year may be only the first part of coping, during which one goes through all the stages of the process. Everything is unique and depends on many factors such as: previous life experience, general physical and mental state, and social relationships. The role of other people is very important at such times, as the risk of PTSD is much lower if the person is listened to, heard and supported: by family and friends, colleagues, people with similar experiences, and the community at large.
“I realized that the level of brutality and violence had surpassed all possible and impossible limits, I realized that something had to change, and after that I went to a huge march, a 500,000-strong march, on August 15 or whatever date it was. When there was an unbelievable number of people just near the Stela. And then I understood – this is the feeling of freedom and the feeling of fearlessness – because there were no police in the city at all. And we walked in a huge crowd, with flags, everything was great, people shared water, I went to the store, bought ice cream with all the money I had, and gave it to people”.
Perhaps that is why the huge march on August 16, 2020 was so important for everyone. The survivors saw that the horror they had experienced was not accepted by society, that all these days they had been searched for, fought for, that they were not to blame for what had happened and did not deserve to be treated in such a way, no matter how many people tried to make them believe otherwise. And it was especially important to see, understand and feel the huge number of people in many corners of Belarus and especially in Minsk. People were not left alone with anger and pain, and this made many people feel better.
How did you live between 2020 and 2022? What was your motive for participating in the protests?
Of the 15 interviewees, 9 left the country after the protests: 8 immediately, and 1 – after some time, having received no support in calling for stronger confrontation, under threat of arrest. Six of them left for Ukraine. Many were in a difficult emotional state, seeing no support and no meaning in life. Two interviewees say that they were preparing for future violence such as guerrilla and/or protest actions.
Part One – 2020.
Answers to the third question
The confrontation between the regime and the people who refused to accept what had happened began: marches of pensioners, people with disabilities, students, Saturday women’s marches, and large Sunday marches that drew large numbers of people. They were relatively safe, and the system of harassment of administrative detainees was not yet as sophisticated as it had already become in November 2020.
“And remembering this year, I remember these marches, when you walk, along a bunch of people. I’ve never seen such a thing and probably I’ll see it only when we return to Belarus, God willing. And I remember how people often came up to me and told me their stories. They said, we are scared crazy, but we march every Sunday. I was scared crazy, too. And at the same time, we are afraid that no one will come. That we show up to see no one. And yet people kept coming. Every time they came out to protest.”
There were many unforgettable moments during that period: drivers who managed to escape the police at the last second, Maria Kalesnikava tore her passport when they tried to kick her out of Belarus by force, and people hid protesters, complete strangers, in their apartments, from beatings and arrests.
“We were hiding in the service station under a car. The guys hid us in the pit, and lowered the car so that we couldn’t be seen. We were sitting in this pit, we saw the boots of OMON officers who walk around this service station, but they did not look in the pit. And then we came out with the girl who was sitting there, too, and she said she was going in the same direction. So we got out and started walking, my friends were supposed to pick me up two blocks away from the station. And we saw a bus coming towards us, realized we were probably going to be arrested. And she just grabbed me by the collar of my jacket, pulled me to her and we started kissing. It’s a total stranger, I’ve seen her for the first and last time in my life. And the bus stopped next to us and then drove off. I remember my heart just jumping out from everything – from the situation itself, from the fact that the girl was beautiful, and that we could just be arrested and thrown into jail.”
Large marches were suppressed in mid-November 2020. Due to growing violence by security forces, the level of physical danger for protesters was approaching the level of the August events. The last big Sunday march on November 15, 2020 was dedicated to the memory of Raman Bandarenka, who was beaten during arrest and died from the injuries. Central marches evolved into neighborhood ones, but these were soon suppressed as well. In 2021, the protest activity faded from the streets and became almost invisible, and the regime began to eliminate any signs of disloyalty. All groups of society fell under repression: from human rights defenders, journalists and activists to athletes, IT workers, businessmen, lawyers and doctors.
Any, even a slight manifestation of disagreement with the official position of Lukashenka’s regime was punished – comments in social networks, subscriptions to the media, declared extremist in Belarus, donations to relief foundations, and ‘wrong’ colors in clothing or interior that resembled the white-red-white national flag. The majority of criminal cases are related to protest activities: funding, participation in rallies, dissemination of protest information, as well as insulting or disseminating information about propagandists, law enforcers, representatives of the regime and Lukashenka personally. The number of political prisoners is growing every day, exceeding 1,450 by the end of July 2023, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
In this time period, we can talk about complex trauma: when many traumatic events occur in a certain period of time and there is no way to stop them. Both the participants and the witnesses suffer, whether they see what is happening in person or learn about it from the news. According to the crisis psychologist who worked on this project, it is not common in classical psychotherapy to work with people in a dangerous situation, because recovery should begin with a sense of safety. But as long as Lukashenka’s regime is in power, many Belarusians and Belarusians have to cope with the traumas they are suffering, along with the unceasing flow of bad stories and news.
Detainees spoke about torture in court, often the injuries were still visible, but judges and prosecutors ignored this. There is evidence that political prisoners are given “special” treatment in places of detention: colored tags are attached to their prison uniforms, they are given the worst jobs and conditions, they are occasionally denied medical care. Under various pretexts, they are not allowed to meet with their families and lawyers, letters and parcels are not handed over to them, money transfers are restricted, they are periodically beaten, and they are placed in a punitive isolation cell much more often than other prisoners. At the same time, political detainees under administrative proceedings are placed in overcrowded cells with insufficient sleeping space and hygiene supplies. They are denied medical care, which often leads to deterioration of their physical and mental health. They are not allowed walks or showers, and the slightest disobedience and attempts to assert their rights are punished and their conditions deteriorate even further. Detainees may have their sentences extended on flimsy charges, remaining in such conditions for months at a stretch.
The protests in Belarus were expressly peaceful. In spite of all the brutality of the security forces, there was hardly any resistance to them. Since the very beginning of the 2020 protests, activists debated whether it was worth continuing in the same manner or whether it was necessary to resist. Among the interviewed volunteers, only one person explicitly urged for more vigorous actions right away.
“I did not want to leave Belarus out of principle, because I felt that leaving was a failure, nothing could be done about it. At the same time, I always advocated – I think so now and I thought so then – that dictatorial regimes cannot be overthrown without violence. So I said to all the protesters: “You either take up arms and fight, or surrender immediately, because you will not win this way.” I was in favor of a violent protest.”
Five interviewees switched from supporting non-violent protest to the idea of active resistance. Two of them suffered torture and ill-treatment in different periods since August 2020, another one underwent the most severe violence from the Belarusian security forces in the first post-election days.
“After emigration I was in bits for quite a long time. I never wanted to live anywhere else. At some point I realized that I would like to defend my country with arms.”
The wave of emigration that began in 2020 is growing rapidly as people flee repression and persecution. Civil society organizations, businesses, and the media are relocating employees to provide them with a safe working environment: it is no more possible in Belarus. The presence of “protest” information on a computer, phone, or other electronic device can jeopardize not only an employee personally, but also their colleagues and clients.
Out of 15 volunteers interviewed, 10 said that they had to leave Belarus because of repression and threat of arrest: six of them lived in Ukraine, four in other countries.
“I fled from Belarus, as I was absolutely helpless there. I had two options: either go to jail or run away. Jail doesn’t seem like a nice option. Assuming that it would really be useless. If you could go to jail and it would make a difference, yes. But you’ll just go to jail for nothing.”
Some volunteers say that life in emigration was hard, two say that it was difficult to figure out how to build a life further. This is a challenge for many Belarusian men and women who have left their country. Many change several countries, have problems with legalization and employment. They often have no opportunity to take a break and fully recover. There is no way to step back as returning to Belarus would cost them their freedom and jeopardize their health and even their life. Emigration is always hard, and forced emigration even more so. Such stress cannot but affect a person’s mental health.
“When I had already moved, I was full of anxiety, and I had problems understanding the value of my life, what I was living for. Some things like money and other things don’t really interest me. I make a normal income, I have enough to live on. I am interested in other things in life. That’s why I felt very bad, I was seeing a psychologist.”
The condition can be aggravated when superimposed on previous traumas that have not been fully dealt with. In addition, despite leaving the country, many people remain in the context of the Belarusian news, which seems to report only about new arrests, violence, social and economic problems. Some are simply stuck between the past and the present, forgetting that despite the horror of what is happening, it is important to carry on with their lives.
In the middle of 2021 some events in Belarus made it to the world news. It was impossible to miss the forced landing of a Ryanair plane in Minsk, the scandal with track and field athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as well as the migration crisis on the Belarus-EU border.
How did you perceive Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on 24.02.2022?
Three interviewees saw the beginning of the war as an opportunity to cope with the feeling of helplessness, to find meaning and capacity, four were ready to fight right away, and another four did not want to lose their second home – Ukraine. One interviewee says that he sees the war as a chance of victory for Ukraine and Belarus. Another said that he was horrified by everything that was happening.
Part two – 2022.
Answers to the fourth question
At the very beginning of 2022, there was constant talk of possible war. People were making plans, but always added “if there was no war”. Tensions were high, but many dismissed even the very thought of it. However, the morning of February 24, 2022, showed that the seemingly crazy conjunction “if” turned out to be real.
“I haven’t really worked since the 24th [February 24, 2022]. I had no interest at all. Even before the 24th, after 2020, I had little interest in anything, except for what can be done to continue these ongoing processes. And the 24th simply cut off all other earthly interests. Just like everyone else, I was there, scrolling through my phone, thinking only about the war. Then somehow it got a little easier. I started to breathe.”
It was a great shock for Belarusian society that Lukashenka’s regime allowed the Russian army to invade Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. The image of Belarusians as people who do not support any forms of violence, much less military actions, was wiped out in an instant. The image of a non-conflict, non-aggressive and absolutely peace-loving society in Belarus seemed to permeate everything: from the official agenda to artwork. The same message was supported by the protesters in 2020.
“I work in an activist organization, and when we realized that the air strikes came, and Russian troops entered Ukraine from the territory of Belarus, etc., I realized that 1.5 or whatever years of my work [was] not enough to stop it. And all my efforts to keep the protest peaceful made us powerless to stop that from happening with our work”.
At that time, Ukraine was one of the main countries where political emigrants moved to. Many people who chose Ukraine when they left Belarus had to flee for the second time. Only the threat to life was many times higher. However, there were some who decided to stay.
In the spring of 2022, the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus made a report on the reaction of Belarusian society to the complicity in the Russian aggression against Ukraine. In Belarus, despite the threat of arrest, on February 27, 2022, people came out for the first mass protest since November 2020. At the same time, people began to share information about any activity of the Russian army, for example, to “Belaruski Hajun” service. Some even received criminal sentences for sharing information with independent media and Telegram channels. Later, the Belarusians began to destroy railroad tracks in order to complicate the movement of the Russian military equipment. During one of the arrests of the “rail partisans”, as they were called by the media, the police purposefully shot them in the knee joints, although they did not resist. After this arrest, Belarus introduced the death penalty for “an unfinished crime – an attempt to commit an act of terrorism”. With this law the state granted itself permission to execute people for actions that could only theoretically lead to tragic consequences and deaths, although nothing of the kind had happened before the arrest.
“When the war started, I was really triggered. I was triggered by the situation in Belarus, there were very big echoes, let’s not hide the fact that Russia could have interfered in Belarus [in the aftermath of the 2020 elections], probably no one would even argue that it actually did. So I said: “We lost Belarus, we can’t lose Ukraine”.
This is where the second major recent crossroads begins. The question was now different: “Which side to choose?” The previous one was rather: “What can we do?” From the first day of the war, many Belarusian emigrants joined volunteer activities to help Ukraine, despite the negative attitude towards them.
Some chose a more radical way – to join the military. Although the news about Belarusians who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces was somewhat expected, their number grew rapidly. It was striking that these were people without military experience, who avoided compulsory military service in Belarus in any way possible. Among our interviewees, only two had minimal background in this field.
“And when the war started, I realized that if not destiny, it was my upbringing, my principles, my choice not to run away for the second time, because Kyiv is the city where I, as many Belarusians, felt freedom for the first time. For me, it was some inner thing, … that was the limit. That is why I felt happy and pleased, probably, because I understood that now I can do something to eliminate the problem.”
What was the motive behind the decision to join the ranks of volunteer fighters?
Five of the interviewees wanted to become volunteer fighters as it returned them some control and they could no longer be a victim, another five said they wanted to gain some combat experience. One interviewee admitted that his decision was motivated by revenge.
Part two – 2022.
Answers to the fifth question
We prefer to keep the motivation question out of the timeline. The price of such a decision for is very high for our interviewees and all Belarusian volunteer fighters, it may cost them their health and life. They can’t go home until the fall of Lukashenka’s regime: Article 361 part 3 of the Criminal Code of Belarus penalizes participation in an armed conflict with imprisonment of up to 5 years with or without a fine, while recruitment, training, funding or any material support of such activity is punishable by imprisonment of up to 10 years with or without a fine. The regime harasses their family members: they are arrested, searched, summoned for interrogation, pressured and intimidated by all means possible.
For the Lukashenka’s regime, the worst-case scenario is the people who get real combat experience and know how to act in the war mode, who are ready to fight, if necessary, against nameless law enforcers, who are used to disperse unarmed crowds of civilians with little or no resistance.
Perhaps that is why the words of our interviewees are very clear and uncompromising. They talk a lot about Belarus and the feeling of helplessness caused by what is happening there. But in Ukraine everything is different, and one can fight back, because there is no point in running away.
“I remember that feeling when you’re ready to go to the square and burn yourself alive. The only thing you can do at this point. You know, you shouldn’t do it, because it would be useless. It’s like that. You can’t do anything out there. And then you realize that you can make some difference. And you can oppose the same enemy you had there. Because it was absolutely obvious that Lukashenka’s regime would never have survived without Putin’s help. And, in fact, our enemy that we had at home came here as well. You go to another country, and he comes after you. You’re like, no, I can kick your fucking ass, I’m gonna do it. That’s about right. I couldn’t do it there, but I can do it here.”
“Fight back, because we support the right thing and you realize that there is only one right side here, and yes, especially since now you are out of your country and you are caught up with all this again. So what, you’re always running somewhere. If you don’t stop it, it’ll keep spreading. I can’t go back to my country, and now I [have to] leave from here and run around like this all the time. I have to do something about it.”
Some interviewees say that this decision seems to be the right and only right one. This decision is the only and fastest way home.
“For me there was no question at all, everything was clear, especially since in the beginning of March it seemed to be the fastest way home, let’s put it that way.”
“When the opportunity arose, you know, in the first weeks, like everyone else, you think, shit, I must go to war, I must do something, I must fight, terrible things. So, you slowly talk yourself out of it, what will you do there, you don’t know how to do anything. I didn’t serve in the army — I found a way not to. And then the Kalinouski Regiment came around. And I couldn’t help but grab the opportunity. I packed a rucksack and joined them”.
During the interview, the interviewees showed almost no emotions. Demyan Popov did not note any problems with establishing contact: “Because I understand how it is: I don’t feel horror, I don’t feel excessive emotions. Therefore, many of them spoke smoothly. Especially since this is not the first time most of them are talking about it. ‘It’s part of life, I’ve been through it’ – every one of them talks about it as just a part of the story.” According to Demyan, there was only one interviewee who had heavy emotions and feelings during the conversation. He suffered the heaviest torture at the hands of Belarusian security forces during the events of August 9-12, 2020. “If we talk about him specifically, he was directly knocked out, very harshly, from one reality to another by everything that happened in Belarus.” It was he who explained his reasons for becoming a volunteer fighter with a sense of revenge:
“I would probably still put revenge at the top of the list, because I had so much anger again in February when I saw what was going on. You get angry, you get mad. I couldn’t control my emotions.”
Demyan Popov adds that blunted sensations is a necessary element in war, as otherwise one may not be able to cope with the experience: “It’s not about embitterment or desensitization. The feelings become a new experience – ‘I know what it’s like, yes, I feel it, but I feel differently’.” One takes that experience and becomes stronger. It’s about feeling like there’s not much to scare you anymore. And most people I’ve talked to, say their motivation is this: we’re going to get some combat experience now and we’re going to move on. Again, the bitterness, the cynicism and the cruelty, if they are still there after it’s all over, could be considered PTSD. If a person has not coped with it, it could lead to degradation and destruction of personality.
Vision of the future
Most of the volunteer fighters’ answers correspond to the situation: it is difficult for them to make plans. Therefore, they talked about abstract things: they speculated about the duration of the war, talked about the liberation of Ukraine and then Belarus, but did not talk about themselves personally. Only three admitted that after the end of the war they wanted to “live their lives”.
Part two – 2022.
Answers to the sixth question
“This shows that the degree of uncertainty is huge. It is high to the extent that it is not realistic to create a vision for the future while being in such conditions. But this is absolutely normal,” explains psychotherapist Demyan Popov.
“I have a strong feeling that it is absolutely impossible to make plans right now. Because after this war, the world will not be the same as it was before. It is very difficult to imagine where you will be in a world that doesn’t exist yet.”
“I can say that I don’t really think that far ahead yet, because of the war. If someone had asked me before the war, I would have given a clear answer. And since the war started, the variation has gone up so much that there are so many options for the future, and it’s very difficult for me to say, I don’t know. I don’t see any picture at all.“
The crisis psychologist points out that this may indicate more serious problems: “A person may be in a prolonged traumatic experience. The traumatic experience blocks the vision of the future, because trauma is like a perpetual ‘here and now’ that is always present. It was probably important for them to talk about the experience of 2020 and the events that followed. Sometimes it felt as if they were still living in that experience to this day.
“I am a hostage of circumstances. If the war continues, and I believe it will continue, and not for 2 years, I will fight to the last ditch.”
“The ideal future for me would be complete military victory over the Russian army and territorial integrity of Ukraine and political independence of Belarus from Russia, from the Russian state. In my ideal future, in 2 years it is a future where I can live in Belarus, under democratic and nationally-oriented government, which does not discriminate people for their political beliefs of the language they speak”.
The last question was planned to be both diagnostic and therapeutic. In the first case, it allows us to see how far a person can look into the future. Meanwhile, its therapeutic function is that even if a person cannot come up with an answer, it reminds them that such an answer is possible and about the future, despite the nightmare of what is happening at the moment.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’m best at, which is a creative profession. I have a fair amount of all sorts of skills, so I think I’ll find myself in this life. I’m pretty sure about that. That’s what we’re fighting for, to get back to normal so people can go about their business.”
“I think I would like to go back to the normal life I had before the war. I would like to live in an apartment, to be able to read a book, watch a movie, take a walk outside. I certainly understand my activist nature, and I will need to do something extra for some kind of social fulfillment, but it will probably be other, more peaceful forms than participating in the war.”
It is very likely that some interviewees just decided not to share their personal plans and ideas about the future. However, when talking to survivors of torture and repression, we often see how difficult this issue can be. People may get stuck in the past and find themselves organizing their lives around an important but traumatic event. On the one hand, this can be empowering, but on the other hand, it can become obsessive and worsen their mental health. To prevent this from happening, it is advisable to find points of safety, joy and meaningfulness right now. It is necessary to create a space around oneself that is about life and joy. “It is important to have something of your own that you can keep out of this madhouse,” says the crisis psychologist.
Five of the respondents, when asked about their motivation, talked about gaining capacity. The violence in August 2020, as well as its aftermath, was about losing capacity. In the post-election days, survivors reported that one of the most difficult experiences was standing or lying in stress positions for hours at a time, that any attempt to move could be punished by punches. For almost three years now, the regime has been trying to put everyone and everything behind bars, hoping that this lawlessness would keep them in power. Belarusian men and women have their hands tied, literally and figuratively, because nothing non-violent seems to work or, or at least to be somewhat effective. Most likely, that is why most of the interviewees speak about joining the ranks of volunteer fighters as an opportunity to directly confront absolute evil. And this, based on the responses, means gaining their capacity back. Hopefully, each of them, thanks to this, would regain themselves without losing their humanity.
Opinion of a crisis psychologist
Some of them would, and some wouldn’t – we got different answers. For some, as we can see from the interviews, everything started way before the elections: activists – they would have gone in any case. And for some people, everything that they have experienced has changed them dramatically. We can say that the events that started in 2020 have caused their decision to join volunteer fighters. However, the only thing we can say for sure is that these events have definitely contributed to their decision of “going to war”. After all, what can make an ordinary person take up arms? Extreme violence, his voice being unheard, deprivation of his subjectivity – this is exactly what the Belarusian regime does.
We can’t say for sure whether the decision to go to war is a bad scenario of psychological trauma development. Nothing is over yet – we don’t see the whole journey. We’ll have to wait for the point of safety, to give them time to live through these events, observing how well they cope with everything that has happened – the Belarusian trauma, and the military trauma. And since it is prolonged and of the same type – the trauma of violence – the risk of PTSD is pretty high here. Therefore, in the future we need programs of help, rehabilitation, and therapy. We need to find spheres, where volunteer fighters could be fulfilled, and could enjoy being needed, important and successful. When a person is going through any trauma, it is very important to leave it in the past. Clearly, you will never forget it, but it is important to recognize and feel that you have moved on with your life and start making some plans for the future.
Opinion of psychotherapist Demyan Popov
This project confirmed my understanding of what it takes to turn an ordinary person into a person who can shoot and kill – a soldier. It’s the story of “capacity” and “not being a victim”. […] The example of these people shows very clearly that one of the main feelings after the 2020 elections is the feeling of helplessness, “I can’t do anything.” And that’s why war sounds like a way out to them – it’s about gaining capacity. “To fight in Ukraine”, “to punch the enemy in the face” – this is what they talked about during the interview. We realize that here [Russia] is just another head of the dragon – totalitarianism, dictatorship, violence – that doesn’t understand non-violence. Here is a man, one of our interviewees, who strongly supported the peaceful protests, participated in them, and went through horrible things because of that. And now, in an interview, his main motive for joining the volunteer fighter ranks is revenge. To me, he is a good example of that link. And that was probably the most interesting thing for me. Violence begets violence, because usually violence can only be handled with violence. Trauma can also be a point of growth, and that works both for one person and for society as a whole. […] If you survive this, and manage to preserve your identity, then society has a chance to move to a new stage of development. If you fail to cope with it, it might lead to destruction, degradation, annihilation, and death – in the social or general sense.
The Belarusian volunteer movement has never been as massive as it is now. In Belarus itself, however, it operates quietly and discreetly. The authorities saw their mistake, having underestimated people’s ability to self-organize, and do not want to repeat it. The experience of 2020 showed the power of people united by an idea. It is likely that some Belarusian volunteers and volunteer fighters for Ukraine may have the roots of the same trauma – the events of August 2020 and its aftermath. Lukashenka’s men would hardly want to see the line being crossed when people who do only humanitarian work and support only peaceful forms of protest take up arms for lack of alternatives. Moreover, we have already seen a similar precedent.
P.S.: Our common future
While we were working on this paper, it seemed that it was part of a big project that has no logical conclusion yet, that writing about psychological trauma of recent years, analyzing it, should be done a lot later, not now, but in the intangible future. For it would be better to explore it and start healing from a point of safety, when the traumatic events are over. But until then, there is a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of holding trials against the perpetrators of propaganda, repression, torture, murder, and those responsible for the brutal suppression of protests. It is important to keep oneself alive and physically and mentally healthy, to be strong enough to travel this path.
On March 17, 2023 the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, prompting new discussions about possible trials against the representatives of the Belarusian regime. We can’t address the ICC on Belarus issues, as it hasn’t signed the Rome Statute, but there are also universal jurisdiction procedures. Viktoria Fiodarava, international law expert and a founder of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus, explains that the essence of any trial is justice, evidence and establishment of the truth: “There is no such thing that it is always on the side of the victim: the two sides are equal in the process, and the accused person also has the right to defense. Therefore, we need to prepare and provide the victims with psychological support well in advance, for such trials.
At different stages, before and during the trial, victims and witnesses will have to recount what happened to them over and over again, with higher risk of re-traumatization. “And we’ll have to ask ourselves a question: what is more important, even for that individual personally – justice or their psychological well-being. Often, it is precisely seeing justice that can help a person to get over the trauma,” says Viktoria Fiodarava. – So, the only thing that we can recommend now is continuous or occasional therapy to monitor the psychological state. And documenting the cases of torture, ill-treatment and repression. Often, this helps to get some relief.”