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A free and democratic Belarus based on the principles of human rights

Interview with Darya Churko, a lawyer active in the protests in Belarus, whose research concerns the repressions of the Lukashenka regime. Interviewer: Arkadiusz Zając.

December 20, 2021 - Arkadiusz Zając Darya Churko - Interviews

Peaceful protests in Belarus September 2020. LGBT rainbow flag during an election protest in Minsk. Photo: Vadi Fuoco / Shutterstock

ARKADIUSZ ZAJĄC: Is there a space for minority groups in a fight against the regime?

DARYA CHURKO: I am sure that yes. The Belarusian protest is diverse as many vulnerable groups joined last year’s marches: pensioners, women, people with disabilities, students and the LGBTQ+ community. It shows that there is an acceptance and recognition that we are different but united at the same time. It is crucial to preserve these feelings. There will be no democratic society if we cannot accept that we are not homogeneous.

In November 2020, Chatham House ran an online survey among Belarusians. According to its results, 62.2 per cent of the respondents replied that homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Based on your experience and activism, would you say that the young generation of Belarusians is different in regard to this issue? Who marched with rainbow flags at the Belarusian protests?

Around 90 per cent of the people who have been brave enough to join the LGBTQ column at the Belarusian protests were women. For me, this is indicative. Recently, my wife and I wanted to attend the Pride Parade in Kyiv with some of our friends. Nevertheless, some Belarusian acquaintances were against going there with our national flags. For instance, a 60-year-old man texted my wife about it. We then met and talked with him. At the third of such meetings, he began to defend women rights. Eventually, he joined the Pride Parade with a Belarusian flag. Therefore, I hope that supporting LGBTQ+ and women’s rights does not need to be limited to people of any age or gender. 

The same Chatham House survey showed that most of the respondents do not agree that the Belarusian society is not ready for a female president (41.1 per cent completely disagree and 31.3 per cent mostly disagree). Would you say that it has always been like that? Or has something changed recently?

I think something has changed. Someone may say that even a chair is better than Lukashenka so that people would have voted for anyone. However, we may also argue that Belarusians were tired of masculinity. When the three female leaders started to co-operate, people got convinced that change could happen. That is why Tsikhanouskaya has received such an enormous trust in society.

However, at the same time, the same survey shows that one in every four Belarusians does not see domestic violence against women as a serious problem in Belarus. Is this the case?

No, the problem is huge. In 2018 Lukashenka said that the bill on combating domestic abuse goes against our traditional values. For that reason, it was not adopted. There is still no law on the issue, despite very worrying statistics. Every third woman has been subjected to violence at least once in their life. Also, almost all NGOs that worked with victims are now closed. The victims are left without help. The state does nothing to change this situation or even creates more obstacles. Simultaneously, there is a connection between the state and domestic violence.

As a lawyer, you are engaged in defending human rights. Together with Maryya Yasenovskaya, you prepared a report on children taken away from their parents who had attended protests. Is Lukashenka still using this tool against the demonstrators?

It is not new that the regime uses children to put pressure on parents. Currently, this is more visible as the group of victims is larger. Repressions are effective. Families either escape Belarus or stop their civic activity. In most cases, it is used against women. Our research group of 24 people had only two men, a father and a child. In Belarus, women are usually responsible for taking care of children. That is why being a politically active mother is risky.

Could you give me some examples of what it looks like in practice?

I will focus on the stories that directly impact children, as in my view, they are the most tragic ones. For example, one respondent in our research reported that someone from the state security service got into her car and told her that her disabled child would not be provided with medical assistance one day. Also, security officers with weapons in their hands went into the houses of some of our respondents. They were taking them away in the presence of their small children. Such detentions at home make children feel unsafe. Later, they have problems with sleeping and develop anxiety.

What about schools? Is it a safe space for children of those opposing the regime?

In one of the schools, a teacher asked their 8-9-year-old pupils to draw a Belarusian flag. Some of them painted the white-red-white one for what they were reprimanded and threatened. In another school, a teacher said to their 12-13-year-old students that people who go to peaceful protests are criminals and fascists. School psychologists or district police officers conduct one-on-one conversations with the students in many schools. One of the women reported that the police said to her 9-year-old they would take him away from his family and his mother. These situations take place without the presence and knowledge of the parents. The parents learn about these facts only from their children.

You had to leave Belarus for safety reasons. Now you are helping other Belarusian refugees. What is the main challenge that you are facing? How could the states that support the Belarusian struggle for freedom (like Ukraine and the EU) take better care of those who escape prosecution?

I will talk about Ukraine because I have been here for a year now. By far, one of the main problems that the refugees from Belarus struggle with is a post-traumatic stress disorder. I think that free and easy access to a psychologist should be provided to those who had to escape. Another issue is that the legalisation of employment is expensive in Ukraine. For instance, doctors who want to legalise their licence need to pay an equivalent of 2,000 US dollars. Also, the refugees often lack relevant information about the procedures. For instance, many people apply for a residence permit for volunteers. However, they are not aware that it does not allow them to work legally.

I think it is essential to be empathetic to the Belarusian refugees and talk about those who stayed in the country. In Belarus, the protests and the cleansing of the regime’s opponents are still ongoing. This topic cannot disappear from the media.

How do you see the future of Belarus?

It is a free and democratic state based on human rights principles – equality, freedom of speech, absence of torture, hatred and discrimination. I see gender and LGBTQ+ equality. I want to go home where I will feel safe as a Belarusian, as a woman, as a lesbian, as a person with her views.

Darya Churko is a Belarusian lawyer and human rights activist.

Arkadiusz Zając is a student at the Russia and Eastern Europe Institute at the Jagiellonian University and an intern at New Eastern Europe.

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