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Friday, May 27, 2022

Why young Belarusians do not want to go to war?

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The war in Ukraine has been going on for four weeks now. Since then there have been thousands of deaths and millions of refugees. However, not only people are fleeing from the war zone, but also from neighboring countries. Like Krystina A.*, that she is now safe after 22 days on the run.

She left Belarus overnight with her husband Piotr: they fled their hometown of Minsk with only their mobile phones, passports and clothes on their backs. “We just wanted to leave as soon as possible,” says Krystina in a video call with her daily mirror. Where should she go? They themselves did not know. There was only one goal: to get out of Belarus.

Piotr is a reserve officer, and he would be the first to take a hit if the ruling Lukashenko participated in the Russian invasion with his own troops. According to Ukrainian military intelligence, this could happen soon. For the couple, however, it was clear: “We don’t want to fight with our Ukrainian friends.”

Three days after the start of the war, they board the plane.

So the only option was to run away. The couple traveled through several countries, were attacked by locals and harassed by border police. They finally made it to Georgia, from where Krystina now reports. The blond Belarusian sits in front of a black wall, she looks gloomy. How is she? “I don’t know. I’m depressed, but also panicked.”

[Alle aktuellen Nachrichten zum russischen Angriff auf die Ukraine bekommen Sie mit der Tagesspiegel-App live auf ihr Handy. Hier für Apple- und Android-Geräte herunterladen]

On February 27, three days after the start of the war, they rushed to the Minsk airport and boarded the closest flight to St. Petersburg. They were there for a week and felt accepted. “We are all in the same boat. I saw a lot of women crying,” says Krystina. However, things quickly became unsafe there: the geographical and political proximity to Belarus was too great. So alternatives were needed.

Lukashenko rules with an iron fist.Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP/dpa

Entering the Schengen area, for example Germany, was not an option. Unlike Ukrainian refugees, Belarusians need a visa, but there was no time for that. Without a visa requirement, many more Belarusians would likely flee to the EU, says Astrid Sahm of the Foundation for Science and Policy in an interview with Tagesspiegel.

But that’s not the only reason, another hurdle is that westbound air traffic has almost come to a standstill after a Ryanair plane was forced to land in May 2021. It doesn’t get any easier by land. “For some, the only option is to take the illegal route through swampy areas with route guides,” says the expert on Belarus. That was out of the question for Krystina and Piotr, which is why they ultimately chose Uzbekistan.

In Tbilisi, Krystina does not feel welcome

To get from St. Petersburg to Tashkent, they had to leave their last memories behind: Russian border police confiscated mobile phones, checked social networks, examined messages and reviewed photos. In the end, everything was erased. “They checked our likes on Instagram and videos on YouTube,” says Krystina.

As he speaks, he continues to look at Piotr with a questioning expression. He seems like he needs to make sure of what he can and can’t say. Piotr cannot be seen or heard. Every day that Krystina is in contact with the daily mirror, she does not want to have an opinion. Because her English is bad, she says. But maybe she is also because the fear is too great to say the wrong thing and still be found.

When Krystina was finally on the plane to Uzbekistan, she was “incredibly happy and free.” However, upon her arrival in Tashkent, it soon became clear that she could not stay for financial reasons. The Central Asian state is too expensive and permanent housing is unaffordable. So they got on the plane for the third time.

Krystina and Piotr have fled to the Black Sea and want to remain anonymous.Photo: Private

We continue to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There, Krystina felt that she was not welcome as a Russian speaker, which she also understands because of the 2008 Caucasus war. “Because of our nationality, no one wanted to rent us an apartment,” says the Belarusian. An acquaintance made it even worse when he was threatened with a knife in the cafe.

[Alle aktuellen Entwicklungen im Ukraine-Krieg können Sie hier in unserem Newsblog verfolgen.]

So they couldn’t stay in Tbilisi. So they moved to Batumi on the Black Sea, where peace seems to be returning for the time being. They found an apartment there and met “great Georgians”. The view from the window also gives hope: in addition to the blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, flags with red and white stripes, the protest colors of Belarus, hang from neighboring houses. In Belarus itself, the combination of colors is prohibited.

“I dream of a democratic Belarus”

Anyone who uses it anyway faces fines and prison. When Krystina was driving her white car, she wasn’t wearing a red sweater. Even now, thousands of miles away, she chooses her words carefully. Alexander Lukashenko always calls her “our president”, instead of dictator or autocrat. “There are terms that should be avoided. Maybe they are listening to our cell phone,” explains Krystina, looking at her husband in disbelief.

What does she expect from her future? “I live for the day. But I dream of a democratic Belarus and an end to the war.” There is no turning back at the moment, because as a deserter, Piotr is threatened with being imprisoned in his home country. For the moment, however, they are safe, at least until June, because then they will have to leave his apartment. *Names have been changed

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