Since August 2020 Belarus has been abandoned by dozens of thousands of persons fleeing repressions and persecutions. A mass-scale forced winding-up of the civil society organisations has begun since July 2021. As of the text publication date, 755 entities have been wound up or undergoing the winding-up procedure, the latter giving rise to a new forced migration wave that is still an ongoing phenomenon.
The materials below are meant to help in understanding why the Belarusian activists, both male and female ones, who have been forced out of Belarus, are assisting Ukrainians and all those affected by the war in Ukraine; or, to be more precise, why they could not help doing otherwise…
«Don’t be scared, but Kyiv is being bombed»
– I woke up early in the morning on the 24th of February. And, from force of habit, the first thing I did was to open the Instagram, where I saw that Putin had declared war on Ukraine. It was shocking. At first, I thought it was a fake and went on corroborating the information only to grasp very soon that from then on it was our reality.
At that time my partner was sleeping serenely, while I watched him and comprehended that he was still living in the world with no war. I faced a dilemma: should I wake him up there and then or else let him linger on for a while in his serene slumber. Yet, I made up my mind to avoid responsibility, just in case. And woke him up with the following phrase: «Sergei, the war has begun».
The whole following day was inundated with a total chaos: live coverages, news updates or information searches through all kinds of channels to find reliable materials.
– In the morning on the 24th of February, I was awoken by my boyfriend who said: «Don’t be scared, but Kyiv is being bombed». The next moment I called my sister Karalina who was living at that time with her husband in Kyiv. Literally a few days earlier I had stayed with them as a guest and tried to find out if they had any Plan B, just in case something was to happen.
I am not in a position to live through crises just idling. I find it challenging to exist and realize that I do not have everything under my firm control; therefore, I began looking for useful information to share it with my friends and some people I knew who, like my sister, were doing their best to flee Ukraine.
Afterwards I wrote a long message to the Telegram complete with some useful links and shared it in various groups and channels. These were bomb shelter maps, safety or security rules, first aid links, official Ukrainian channels providing relevant information and evacuation venue maps.
The active links proved to be lost, when copied, which made the whole business nonsensical. Then my colleagues and I got to sharing our personal contact information.
In the beginning, these were some acquaintances of some persons we used to know, but very soon the situation started to remind a real request avalanche. The persons were turning to us for help and we were looking for information to meet their requests. For example, where to spend a night at a certain city, town or village, what road to choose, what documents are needed to cross a border and so on and so forth.
They were all kinds of people: Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians alike. At some moment in time, we could hardly imagine, where our contact information was circulating. I used to receive messages from residents of some small Ukrainian towns I had never heard of.
Definitely, for me it was a personal story relived, too, because my sister and I had at first to leave forcibly Belarus, go through persecutions and lose our home, sweet home. And now it was a war!
In the evening on the 24th of February my sister and her husband left for L’viv by car taking along a few more persons, while on the 25th of February they were in Poland. From then on, my sister and her husband have been doing some volunteer work across the border in south-eastern Poland near the town of Przemyśl.
25th of February
«What should I be at the war?»
– On the second day my mentality began adapting itself and getting used to the sensation that the war was the stern reality we all were stuck in. And I had a question rising from deep inside me: «What can I do now?» By the way, I was asking myself the question for a good reason.
Back in 2021 I lived through a forced migration, loss of home and a break-up from my family and friends. That being said, my experience was very much alike with that of many Belarusian activists, who abandoned their country forcibly fleeing persecutions and repressions, which are still ongoing.
I do not believe there exist any former activists, which is why I tried hard to grasp what I could do there and then. And I came to a conclusion that I cannot afford just idling.
My life has always been intermingled with a lot of struggle. It was the struggle to remain my usual self, when I realized my sexuality, the struggle against homophobia and the struggle against discrimination. This is to say that I have lived my whole life in such a metaphoric war and with a constant feeling of being a target for an imminent attack.
The war in Ukraine started by Russia has encouraged me to reassess some things and to understand that the world has changed and would never be the way it used to be. In essence, my daddy who died in 2014 was our only family representative of a warless generation.
My new sensation was as follows: now every man and every woman can do something. Personally, I had at my disposal some contacts, knowledge and expertise to be used. But there was a wrinkle in that how exactly it was to be performed.
There was also an issue of empathy. It was not at all a matter of nationality, ethnicity or national colours. I felt being faced with a huge injustice with the presence of an undisputed aggressor country and a victim country, which was bravely fighting back to defend itself. The framework made me feel that something had to be done.
There were quite a few options available, like putting on a bullet-proof vest and going to fight as a volunteer, transfer some money to support the Ukrainian army or to do volunteer work on the border.
I was faced with the question: «What should I be at the war?» Frankly, at that moment my values were shaken. I could not help believing after working for so many years with the human rights issues how the horrors happening to the people and caused by other people going rogue could be true.
– I shall tell the truth, it did not appear to me as something new, because over the past 2 years I have lived in such a crisis and learned to act fast and efficiently.
I have experienced myself detentions and then a search in my own apartment, because my boyfriend had been allegedly an accomplice or a witness of a terrorist act. As a result, we both had to emigrate forcibly.
Against the backdrop of the war it did matter for me very much to keep on remembering about Belarus, too. Evidently, most Belarusians are opposed to the war: people staged protests despite repressions or engaged in a guerrilla warfare to block railway routes from Belarus to Ukraine.
I am touched to the quick, because for 2 years already the people of Belarus have been fighting for freedom and democracy, although they are declared co-aggressors. In fact, the power in our country has been seized in a lawless way. While literally now some amendments to the Penal Code are taking effect with capital punishment being envisaged for an attempted terrorist act.
However, in spite of everything we have gone through, the people’s solidarity stood firm and our team was rapidly growing in numbers. At first, we were joined by friends and some people we knew and then also by the participants of past programmes in our Viciebsk-based Zadvizh_ka initiative. This is how we erected our small 20-person chat.
Sometimes one person had to handle as many as 100 or 200 requests per day; in other words, one begins processing requests in the morning and ends up doing it late at night and after some 3 hours the business reiterates. Therefore, we agreed on keeping a Google document, where we collected the hot centremost information, which was much more convenient to provide a link to or to read.
26th of February
«We just want to help»
– The document gained a lot of popularity with the public and we used to receive some requests like this one: «Hi, I am from Slovenia. Please, allow me an access to the document so that I could update its information on my country». This is to say that the volunteer network was growing all by itself. People from all over the world were prepared to help.
In a very similar way, we were contacted by some IT guys who were eager to implement a project like ours. To avoid document duplication, they proposed joining efforts and developing a website. They were guys from different countries, Russia included.
At that moment the document consisted of more than 100 pages of text with just brief descriptions and links. That is to say, no superfluous data, just an absolute extraction of a vital, understandable and relevant information on all important issues covering over 20 countries.
This is how a technical pool of our Napryamok Initiative was set up; it included 8 persons. We named our little chat «We just want to help».
It does matter very much for us that the project was moved on at all its stages by people from Belarus and Ukraine, as well as from Russia. I say it because during the first days we received a lot of aggressive hate; it was painful to read, because the persons we helped were truly thankful to us and appreciated our help even higher knowing that we were from Belarus or Russia.
It was then that we developed one more team chat we named in Belarusian Liuboŭ dy abdymanki (Love & Hugs) to showcase all the positive feedback, comments and thanks we were receiving mixed up simply with some good news or lovely pictures to support each other at difficult times.
Besides, we introduced as an anti-burnout practice so-called By Duty of Love telephone calls, which are still in effect today. We never talk there about work, but about living. It is very helpful.
In this way after 4 days we made public our Napryamok website. To be true to life, we needed 2 more days and 7 persons to transfer the entire information body we had accumulated by that moment in time.
– I have chosen for myself an option to become part of the anti-war process, which means supporting the people who flee the war and are looking for a place to stay, which is why, when our project sprang up, I formulated for myself the following mission:
I shall help the people whose relatives or friends have remained to fight in Ukraine, so that while they are defending their homeland, they may be sure that their families are safe.
The icanhelp.host project was developed very fast, by leaps and bounds. The Obama Leaders chat I am signed up for received a message from Farhad Shamo Roto, a Yazidi refugee from Iraq. Farhad had survived the genocide and started up his new life in Paris.
We underwent a training course together with Farhad within the framework of The Obama Foundation Leaders Europe Programme, where we met. Following the Programme completion, we created a joint chat with all its participants to remain in touch.
– His message contained a proposal on organising a platform to look for some housing for those fleeing the Ukraine war. We got in touch to discuss our project concept. We were inspired by the experiences of the people who had fled their home countries and rebuilt their lives from scratch. Therefore, we soon reached an agreement that the most urgent need then was to look around for housing all over the world.
I wrote to my IT expert friend living in Berlin. We began a search for those who would be prepared to develop a platform, where the people fleeing the war could look for some temporary free housing in different countries, while persons from all over the world could host them (or be prepared to accommodate them at their residences on a temporary basis).
We got involved in a local Belarusian IT personnel chat, where we presented the idea and received plenty of support. Many persons rapidly engaged in the platform development process absolutely free of charge.
And so on the fourth day of the war we launched our icanhelp.host platform, a place where the people fleeing the war could find for themselves a temporary free housing all over the world.
27th of February
Force and solidarity
– The i can help project is about a huge force, solidarity and support. The team expanded from 2 persons to 15 or 20, while some 50 persons were involved in the platform roll-out. On top of that, there were some platform volunteers and moderators, which means that the project peaked with a simultaneous presence of about 80 creators.
The team included all kinds of folks, like male and female activists from all over Europe, but the core was made up of technical experts – Belarusian developers who had emigrated from Belarus. They felt solidarity and a powerful need to help other people, which is why they dedicated all the time they had to develop the program.
i can help is a project that can be joined by people from all over the world to become hosts. i.e. persons who are prepared on a gratuity basis to provide their housing to a person or a family who fled Ukraine because of the war.
On the other hand, the people fleeing the war might find on the platform a safe temporary housing at any place of the world where they have found themselves.
– That being said, when we looked into the issue of platform creation, we realized that there had already been in existence the Belarusian Mapahelp. We got in touch with them and their team was only too glad to share with us their basic source code, which we used as a basis to create our platform.
All the above is mentioned to underline the grand solidarity among the male and female Belarusians, which dates back to 2020.
– During the first days we slept for 4 hours to spend the rest of time just working, like processing requests, looking for information or updating it.
My colleagues are simply incredible persons. I can still remember some messages like this one: «Sorry, I’m dizzy and can faint. I’ll zone out for 15 minutes to get some rest and shall be back again».
This is why we used to take an hour-long break during our work to lie down and relax. But it did not come easy, because we had some direct mail coming from the people who needed our help there and then.
I once had a message from a Ukrainian mum with a baby in her arms. She had got stuck in a place of hostilities with no trains or buses in operation; this is why we had to look urgently for a car or people around who could come to her rescue. Yet, on other occasions, people sometimes were in need of support, for example, just writing to them that everything would be alright. Or even just talking to them.
The Napryamok is a website that contains relevant information for those staying in Ukraine or Belarus, relocating to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and other countries, or just willing to help.
It features the centremost relevant information on emergency and healthcare assistance, bomb shelters and safe spots in Ukraine, border crossing regulations for persons with children and/or pets, checkpoints, etc. Besides, it contains information for various vulnerable groups.
In spite of the high rate of operations, I still realized that the war was unlikely to end soon. Proceeding from my 2020 Belarus experiences, I understood that it would be a long run, rather than a sprint. And even if the events took the best course imaginable and the war were to end the next day, the people who had lost their homes, relatives or friends, would have been all the same in need of assistance and support.
– Today the icanhelp.host platform is in operation on all the continents. It has registered about 13,000 hosts, including 6,000 active ones. More than 3,000 families have found a safe temporary housing, which means that the numbers of persons we have helped are even higher, because families do differ in size. All these people are just like myself, like Farhad and like we all are.
It is an incredible number for us. Although, I am sorry that we are not in a position to help just everybody. It is a contribution we have made and which every man or woman can make. By the way, some similar platforms have appeared and we stay in touch with them to share our knowledge.
All of our work, like technologies, the code, the technical support team, communications, the volunteer work or platform moderation is about unpaid efforts. The point is in human enthusiasm and the wish to help others.
As of today, our platform is made up in 95% of the services provided to us by various corporations free of charge, because, when creating the platform, we reached out to businesses asking to share their services within the framework of humanitarian aid. We turned to Airbnb, Google, AuthenTec, MailSender and others.
It mattered a lot to us to design the project as a not-for-profit one completely, just a gratuity-based one. Our salaries take the shape of providing a daily assistance to people.
Our mission remains the same:
«We are helping the people who flee the war in Ukraine»
Moreover, we have developed certain internal non-discrimination policies with some help provided in their development by our partners, including the OEEC.
We did our best to get rid of the hate language or a dehumanising vocabulary. Besides, we excluded from the latter the word ‘refugee,’ which had become widespread among the team members, because the persons fleeing the war do not define themselves as such, but rather wish and plan to come back home to Ukraine.
As to the discrimination issues, these remain keenly relevant till this very day. The hosts keep on asking what documents they are supposed to demand to be presented in order to understand that someone has really fled the war. The painful truth is that there is no such evidence. One either trusts a person and helps, or does not do it. There is no way to prove that one has suffered more than another person, or that one is ‘better’ than the other. There simply exists a gratuitous assistance, that’s, full stop.
As an activist, I used to do a lot for my country, for Belarus, as long as I stayed there. Yet, I had to leave behind forcibly my home, my safe haven, to learn anew how to live under new conditions, what I am still engaged in. However, today it rather seems like something more than one country activism: I am prepared to work for the human benefit irrespective of the human beings’ ethnicity or nationality. Likewise, it is my desire to keep on working in the human rights area and in protection of the LGBTQ persons’ rights.
Well, based on my previous experiences, I have prepared a project, which has now helped some people fleeing the Ukraine war.
– Today our team, including all those who have ever and in any way been involved in the project, amounts to just under 200 persons. Although it is next to impossible to conduct a precise headcount since our ‘flowchart’ is extremely flexible: some people join, while others leave.
We have a technical support team of 8 persons and 7 more leader persons who take key decisions in their areas of responsibility. The website administrators total 25 and they are busy transferring information to the website, each one of them being responsible for her or his operational field. Besides, we have a broad volunteer network.
Our male and female volunteers are engaged in four operational vectors: fact checking (verification of information), editing (adapting information), translation (the website information is available in 3 languages) and PR. We have invited for co-operation a female Ukrainian PR expert to try and find an access to the Ukrainian information channels. We find it critical to have among us a person with an understanding of the internal context and necessities.
Today we are attempting to launch an application, which will be much more user-friendly.
Since the very first days of the Napryamok existence we have clearly articulated that our website is intended for all those hurt by the war, irrespective of their ethnicity or nationality. We are aware of some personal stories of our Russian female volunteers who were helping others, while being stuck in grave situations facing court proceedings or house searches.
During the first days, when we just rolled out the website, some social media wrote about us: «Never use the site, it has been made by people from Russia and Belarus». We have never concealed the fact and stated, in addition, that you are to decide for yourself whether to use the website or never, but it has been developed by the persons who have suffered from the regime. Our objective is to help.
Our mission remains as before:
«Helping everyone, irrespective of geography. Receiving / providing help from / to all, irrespective of geography. And always keeping in mind the vulnerable groups»
The vulnerable groups are a standalone topic, because whatever happens, be it a revolution, or a war, or any other crisis, the vulnerable group persons are forgotten and their needs are put on the backest of back burners.
For example, a standard brochure distributed by volunteers on the border would not be a good fit for a person undergoing the HIV therapy, since it is extremely unlikely to contain information on how to receive the therapy elsewhere.
Or else, I am aware of some cases when certain transgender persons were not let through some of the border checkpoints due to dissimilarity with their documents. Yet, in practical terms there is no information available on where to turn to for assistance, if anything of the kind happened to you.
The same is true of the Russian language on the website. Obviously, when implementing our project, we used the language understandable and accessible for all the volunteers from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The Russians find it hard to understand Belarusian or Ukrainian, but what mattered for us was providing an opportunity to help for all sincerely willing to do so.
The people and the regimes are about two different things. The war was shunned and fled from by the Ukrainians, as well as by the Belarusians or Russians, and by all those who lived in the country or stayed there for the time being. Therefore, distributing information in an understandable language is key, particularly, when people find themselves in a stressful situation. Well, we opted for 3 languages: Ukrainian, English and Russian.
If I come to think of it, for three months now I have been engaged in the Napryamok Project. And so far, it means to me a ‘job’ with no days-off and an ever-active working status. People are in need of help till this very day and I am fully aware how much the Belarusian experience we received in 2020 matters now.
It must be acknowledged that in the 21st century no calamity is local any longer. We all live under globalisation and any difficulties must be handled by all the people jointly.