It was on April 11 over breakfast that I heard on New York public radio that Belarusians along with Russians were banned from participating in the Boston Marathon under the flags of their countries. I am not a marathon runner, but as a Belarusian-American, the news upset me. It was another sign that the world is overlooking the struggle of many Belarusian citizens against the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko.
Since 1994, Europe’s so-called last dictator has ruled Belarus with impunity, disregarding human rights and freedom of expression, while relying heavily on Russian support. Resistance to his rule culminated almost two years ago, when thousands of Belarusians took to the streets across the country to protest against the rigged elections on August 9, 2020.
For a brief moment, Belarusians believed they had a real chance to topple the regime under which our nation of 9.4 million people has lived for far too long. Western democracies cheered the brave protesters and activists.
However, the regime’s response to dissent was swift and brutal, with security forces engaging peaceful protesters with tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons, and even live ammunition. In the first three days after the elections, more than 6,700 people were arrested, more than a thousand injured and at least three people were killed by the police. When those arrested were released from jail, their stories shook the nation.
According to Pavel Sapelko, an analyst with the Belarusian human rights group Viasna, the nature of the injuries — broken bones, electrocution injuries, brain injuries, broken teeth and rape-related trauma — leaves little doubt. Thousands were tortured in compounds, police vehicles, on the streets or in prisons. In the months after the elections, the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the national police body in charge of pre-trial criminal proceedings, received 4,644 complaints of physical injuries, other types of police brutality, and torture. Not a single police officer has been prosecuted. To date, more than 40,000 people have been imprisoned for political reasons, at least 1,600 people have been convicted on charges of terrorism and extremism, and 1,168 political prisoners remain behind bars.
As before, in 2020 Putin supported Lukashenko by sending in the Russian National Guard to help local police control the population, propagandists to help control the narrative in the media, and propping up the economy against Western sanctions with a loan of $1.5 billion. In early February, Russia placed 30,000 soldiers and military equipment in Belarus for joint military exercises. Since the beginning of the war, Russia has been launching its air strikes and missile attacks from Belarusian territory.
I am a documentary filmmaker and journalist. Over the past year and a half, my colleague Ottavia Spaggiari and I have interviewed dozens of survivors of state brutality, as well as human rights lawyers, activists, academics, and members of the police to reconstruct the events of August 2020and explain why it is so difficult to bring dictators to justice.
We have stayed in touch with many of our sources, even after the report ended. Many of them had to leave Belarus for fear of further repression. For example, one of our sources, Marina, 33, fled from Belarus after being imprisoned twice. In August 2020, she and her husband were dragged by riot police from their car parked near her apartment building. In July 2021, she was arrested on nonsensical charges of being part of a terrorist plot. Fearing a long prison sentence, Marina and her husband first went to Lviv in the Ukraine and then moved to Krakow in Poland, less than three weeks before the war. These days, Marina volunteers to help Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Another Belarusian, Max*, 20, left the country in March after receiving a military recruitment notice. Fearful of being sent to the Ukraine to fight, he fled to Georgia.
Since August 2020, Belarusians have been leaving the country en masse for Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Georgia, and other countries they might reach. The exact number of refugees and migrants is difficult to pin down, as they traveled on a variety of visas, sometimes crossing borders illegally. It can be from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, 2021, I began to hear worrying information about changing attitudes towards Belarusians. It made sense, since Lukashenko pledged his allegiance to Vladimir Putin and as such linked his nation to the heinous assault on Ukraine. However, for the most part, the negative attitudes are directed at people who fought against the Lukashenko regime or were its collateral damage. To put it bluntly, the victims are being victimized again.
My close friends, a married couple, had to leave Minsk in a hurry for fear of their safety. A few months ago they landed in Tbilisi where they tried to rebuild their lives. After the war began, Georgian hospitality in some cases gave way to hostility. Belarusians along with Russians were denied service in shops, cafes and banks. His Airbnb reservations were canceled and his tires slashed. My friends said that they have been reluctant to leave their apartment. Several weeks ago they received humanitarian visas and left for Lithuania.
Poland and Lithuania, two EU countries that share borders and centuries of history with Belarus, have welcomed tens of thousands of Belarusians in the last two years. Many Belarusians have found these countries very welcoming, but others, especially since the start of the war in Ukraine, have faced hostility.
In an online survey conducted among Belarusians currently living in exile by activist Darya Churko, the majority of 206 respondents (98 percent) reported experiencing abuse and persecution, from verbal abuse to broken rental agreements, due to your nationality. Most of the incidents occurred in Poland, while Georgia had the second highest number. One respondent, a Belarusian woman, said a Ukrainian man spat in her face after discovering her country of origin.
This is despite the fact that Belarusians overwhelmingly oppose the war, according to a public opinion poll conducted by the British think tank Chatham House in March. Of the nearly 900 respondents, only three percent supported Belarus’s military involvement in Ukraine.
Despite increasing cases of xenophobia and discrimination, many Belarusians continue to wholeheartedly support Ukraine. They include the Kastus Kalinousky battalion of Belarusian volunteer fighters now part of the Ukrainian military and the nonprofit organization BySol, which has raised more than $100,000 to support the war effort. BySol and the Free Belarus Center have helped evacuate civilians from Ukraine. Around the world, members of the Belarusian diaspora volunteer their time or donate money to support our neighbor to the south.
Inside Belarus, thousands have stood up to the draconian security apparatus to protest the war; more than 800 people were arrested for it. Meanwhile, members of the civil resistance have worked to disrupt the movement of Russian troops and their machinery through Belarus into Ukraine.
According to Yuliana Shemetovets, a spokeswoman for the Cyber-Partisans hacker movement, the group has carried out several attacks on the railway’s automation system that affected operations. Other resisters support the effort by sabotaging signs and tracks. Many risk their lives to help the anti-war movement. More than three dozen “railway partisans” have been arrested so far.
With such sacrifices, it is unfair to link all Belarusians to the tyrannical Lukashenko regime. As a global community, we must take the time to better understand the situation. As for the Boston Marathon, dear organizers, if I ever decide to participate in an organized athletic event, I will opt for the Vermont Half Triathlon.
*Your name has been changed to protect your identity.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.