How do Belarusians feel about their country’s involvement in Ukraine? This was one of the most debated topics on my friends’ social media pages during the past week. Belarusian territory is being used as a launching pad for Russian rockets. At least seventy out of the 480 rockets that have been launched on Ukraine so far were launched from Belarus. There is also the imminent possibility that the country’s troops will be directly involved. In light of these events, many Belarusians may feel concerned about an increased level of animosity towards them, which is understandable, given the circumstances. It is also understandable that many may feel vulnerable and discriminated against, as accounts of Belarusians who have been denied services or housing in Ukraine and European countries only begin to circulate online.
But I would argue that we should not despair and overreact. Instead, we should explain to those affected by the war who we are: activists, opposition members, protesters, exiles, immigrants, or victims of the Lukashenka regime. At the moment, the best thing that we Belarusians can do as a group is to signal unequivocally which side we are on and focus on what needs to be done to stop this war, not on our personal feelings. And if our feelings are to be channeled, we should talk about collective responsibility, which, as decades of philosophical discourse have demonstrated, is not a simple thing. In a nutshell, people may or may not consider themselves responsible for what has already taken place, but we are all now collectively responsible for bringing it to an end. And only when we succeed, if at all, will we be able to discuss how guilt and responsibility may be applied to various scenarios. First, though, Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes must be overthrown.
The Belarusian community as a whole has become increasingly transnational, encompassing people within Belarus, displaced persons, and diasporas around the globe. Ukraine is our neighbor and ally. We are connected to it by thousands of invisible threads, through our families, friends, and recent refugees who fled the Lukashenka regime. Together with Ukrainians, we are living through a trauma that will take years and years to heal. And I want to say to those who keep reposting messages about feeling ashamed that you should perhaps stop because this language is inadequate to express the complex mix of emotions that we are experiencing at the moment.
As I am typing these words, my husband’s father is being bombed in Kyiv. As a result of a stroke, he is paralyzed and cannot leave his apartment. My journalist friend has sent me an encrypted message with her son’s documents, asking me to find and adopt the boy if they were to be killed. As part of the message, she attaches a photo of her family, so that the kid can remember his parents. My other friend’s parents are too frail to go to the shelter, recuperating from covid. Her mother is sleeping in the bathtub, and her father is sleeping by the bathroom door. The grandmother of another friend is in her nineties and in poor health. Has she survived the massacre of Babyn Yar only to be bombed by Putin and Lukashenka? How is the family to tell her that Putin has bombed the sacred ground of Babyn Yar? I see many people writing on their Facebook pages, “Thank God, my parents (grandparents) did not live to see this.”
Enough of being ashamed, do something! Actions today are more important than words, and our efforts, at the very least, should go to aid the refugees. Over a million people have already arrived in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova, and some will eventually arrive in the United States. From my feed, I learned that my professional contact in Kyiv, who is nine months pregnant, is walking alone with her six-year-old across the border, wondering if her husband who stayed behind to defend Kyiv will survive. She’s asking on Facebook for someone to take her cat since she can no longer carry him. My best friend from college managed to relocate her family first to Kyiv and, after the war started, to Poland. She says they are still in a haze. Watching the bombs go off over Borispol airport, she kept asking herself how it could be real.
These are just a few glimpses of this humanitarian catastrophe. Do something to help them but don’t forget about the groups that are discriminated against in this conflict, like our own people who are left behind in Ukraine. Earlier today, I saw a Facebook post from sociologist Andrey Vozyanov writing that Ukrainians are refusing to let Belarusians on the evacuation trains since Belarus has become a party to this conflict. Seeing our people abandoned is heartbreaking. They already escaped the concentration camp named Belarus only to be repressed again. This is not the time to be silent.
And do we really have anything to be ashamed of? Over the last year and a half, the regime leveled our resistance to the ground so that Russia could use it as a military base. Our country is occupied by Russian troops. We have lost our critical infrastructures. There are no independent journalists on the ground to keep the population informed. Human rights organizations have nearly disappeared. And we have more than 1,000 political prisoners in a country with a population of 9.4 million. Those who are still in Minsk protested the war yesterday, and 800 of them went to jail. All these people will face torture, and many will face criminal charges. One protester commented that he put his body on the line to show his solidarity with Ukrainians and distract their jailers from the war. If anything, we should drop the sense of shame and look up to the Ukrainians and learn from their know-how. After all, our countries share a common regional destiny and common enemies – Putin and Lukashenka. During the Maidan, some Belarusians fought side by side with Ukrainians, and now a new Belarusian battalion in Ukraine is being formed. Those who are not ready to take up arms should at least oppose a world order that puts profit above human life. Or the production of knowledge about the region, which results in Belarusian and Ukrainian bodies being less valuable than those of citizens with other passports. It is by acknowledging responsibility that a new sense of agency and ability to act is born. Glory to Ukraine! Long live Belarus!
Sasha Razor is a Belarusian-American scholar and activist who lives in Los Angeles.