As repression against civil society grows in belarus its activists find refuge in Ukrainewhere they support the country’s efforts to weather Russian aggression and help forge deeper ties between the two countries.
”It takes courage to speak Belarusian in today’s Belarus”, he tells Efe Alina Rudinahead of the Information Center of Belarusexperienced journalist and social media editor, who was forced to leave her country after the crackdown on mass protests in 2020 and has lived in Ukraine ever since.
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In 2020, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest against electoral fraud perpetrated by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
The regime responded with mass arrests, torture and beatings, and five of Rudina’s colleagues were detained.
Rudina says around 500 NGOs have been suppressed in Belarus since 2020, as the state clamped down on all forms of independent grassroots movements, seeing them as a threat.
According to the “Viasna” human rights center, some 6,380 Belarusians were detained in 2022, among whom about 900 were imprisoned for their political views, in many cases receiving years in prison for acts such as reposting a message on social networks or wear blue and yellow ribbons in support of Ukraine.
In Ukraine, Rudina eventually switched to speaking Belarusian, while the Belarusian state discouraged the use of the language under the rule of pro-Russian Lukashenko.
While Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to launch the invasion from the territory of Belarus, in addition to using its airfields and other civil and military infrastructure, the networks created by thousands of Belarusian émigrés immediately began to function to support Ukraine’s defense.
Rudina says she welcomed dozens of Ukrainians to her apartment as they fled their bombed-out homes in the first months of the invasion.
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As the flow subsided, she began helping weave camouflage masks for Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines, to “at least do something”.
As Belarus’ role in the invasion became apparent and dozens of civilians were killed by Russian missiles launched from its airspace, an outburst of anti-Belarusian sentiments became visible in Ukraine.
Rudina emphasizes, however, that she has not found a trace of hostility among her Ukrainian acquaintances who knew well about her situation.
The two countries, according to Rudina, used to know very little about each other and much of what they have been doing is aimed at bridging the gap between stereotypes and knowledge of the facts on the ground.
Along with her Belarusian and Ukrainian friends, Rudina has worked to raise awareness of the similarities between Ukrainian and Belarusian history.
”For example, like the most prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, more than 100 Belarusian writers, scientists and artists were executed by the Soviet regime in 1937 in what is known as the ‘Night of the Poets’.”, explains Rudina, who co-organized the Poetry Night in Lviv in October to commemorate the tragedy.
Several Belarusian emigrants have reported difficulties in obtaining or extending residence permits in Ukraine.
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Representatives of the Free Belarus Center and the Kastus Kalinouski regiment, made up of volunteer Belarusian fighters in the Ukrainian army, discussed the matter in December with Ukrainian ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets and 10 deputies from the group “For a Democratic Belarus”.
Rudina says she hopes progress can soon be made to secure special status in Ukraine for those who had to flee Belarus and oppose the Lukashenko regime.
Like other Belarusians in Ukraine, he believes that his country’s future depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and that Ukraine’s victory would pave the way for a free Belarus.
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