On February 24, 2022, as a lot of other Belarusians, human rights defenders of Our House woke up around 5 a.m. from persistent phone calls and texts “war has started, Russia attacked Ukraine!”.
Later, a young Belarusian deserter, escaped from the Belarusian army to Lithuania to avoid being sent to the war against Ukraine, will share what he saw inside the army on February, 24: “All of us, from a soldier to a commander, were sure that Lukashenka would order to attack, but nobody wanted to do that, nobody wanted to go to war.”
We gathered in our office to think and generate ideas what we could do in that situation and what influence we could make. Yes, of course, we were planning to help Ukrainian refugees, but that was dealing with the consequences of the war, and we wanted to make a strategic impact on the course of it and the security situation in the region.
So, women of Our House set a very ambitious purpose: they decided to steal the army from Lukashenka and to prevent and block the participation of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine.
We understood that we were going to encounter not only resistance from the Ministry of Defence of Belarus (it was clear they would not like our campaign), but also gender stereotypes of the Belarusian society, that toxic masculinity that is believed to be a role model of a “real man”. Deserting and refusal to go to war in our society is uniquely interpreted as a man’s weakness, and not strength, and we were expecting the Belarusian conscientious objectors to be blamed and condemned. Although it has preserved the most horrible traditions of the patriarchal upbringing and initiation of boys that involves violence, hazing, non-statutory abusive relations, extra-judicial executions, incitement to suicide, torture and prison-like atmosphere, the army is still perceived by the Belarusian society as a place where “every boy must go to become a man”.
We decided to call our campaign “NO Means NO”, as it was started by Belarusian feminists, represented by us, who are actively fighting patriarchy and toxic masculinity, and also because the issue involves systemic gender-based violence. We believe that men also have the right to say “No!” to violence, patriarchy and a command to take up arms. We all have the right to say “No!” to the war and to the demand to take up arms and kill people.
Olga Karach turned to the Belarusian men with the appeal not to join the army and not to take up arms. Her appeal was watched by over 100 thousand viewers. In total, the informational materials of the campaign have been viewed by about 4 million users of the social media. Spontaneous Telegram channels were started to help Belarusian conscientious objectors.
The Belarusian Ministry of Defence distributed over 43000 draft notices in February, 2022; but due to the beginning of the war and thanks to our active informational initiative, they managed to collect only 6000 conscripts. It was an obvious failure of the Ministry of Defence of Belarus, so on July 12, 2022, the Major General Aleksandr Shkirenko was dismissed from his position of the head of the main organizational and mobilization department and the deputy head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, placed at the disposal of the Minister of Defence.
The Ministry of Defence of Belarus learned from its mistakes during the spring conscription of 2022, and changed the strategy. Lukashenka started the autumn conscription of 2022 much earlier, on July 4. Besides that, an actual enumeration of the recruitable population started in Belarus; it was conducted by district executive committees by means of by-law decisions. Not only conscripts who received the so-called “personal” draft notices had to show up at the military conscription and enlistment offices, but various pretexts were invented (for example, “documents verification”) to invite there everyone, the whole male population in the age from 18 to 65. On February 4, 2023, a joint resolution of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Public Health was published (and immediately entered into force) which reduced the requirements to the state of health of citizens subject to military duty. Since then, people with myopia of any eye in one of the meridians from 6.0 to 8.0 diopters, with hemorrhoids without prolapse of nodes, with mild form of bronchial asthma (or without attacks for over 5 years), with some forms of platypodia or foot deformity, with diseases of the endocrine system, eating disorders, diseases of the nervous system and heart diseases, skin diseases, spinal diseases and so on are considered to be fit for military service.
The campaign “NO Means NO” provoked a strong dislike in the Belarusian regime from its very first day. Most various attacks started against the organization. Now, looking back, we understand, that we had no chance to survive and cope with that alone. Fortunately for us, an international coalition was formed to help Belarusian conscientious objectors and Belarusian deserters, which started from two peacebuilding organizations: Connection e.v. and BSV, which were later joined by WRI, EBCO, Nonviolenti and other non-violent organizations. Without help and support of the peacebuilding movement, those attacks of the Belarusian special services would have crushed and destroyed us, but thanks to the international solidarity they failed.
On February 20, 2023, solidarity actions of support for Belarusian conscientious objectors took place in different cities of the European Union: from Amsterdam to Berlin. Those actions breathed new life into the Belarusian protest, which had got significantly tired and emotionally burned-out by that time. There weren’t a lot of Belarusians at the actions of February, 20: by that moment, the majority of people participating in the protests-2020 had become disappointed and had started thinking that nobody was interested in us, nobody was thinking about us, that we had remained all alone, and that there was non sense to continue fighting, as all our fight was going unnoticed and without any result. That international action was extremely significant: it showed us that it was not only Ukraine that matters. Belarusians were really touched by Europeans who joined the solidarity actions for the right of Belarusians not to join the army, not to take up arms and go to war. After the action of February 20, 2023, even the most convinced militarists inside the Belarusian protest movement stopped using the term “pacifism” as an insult.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian regime made an attempt to bite our international partners through its channels of influence abroad. Two Belarusian hybrid media, famous for their fake news and spreading militarist narratives, called all those international pacifist organizations “friends of Putin” and brought them into the same associative line with Alternative for Germany, Viktor Orbán from Hungary and the Italian far-right.
At the same time, serious attacks against Our House started, including a massive campaign with attempts to discredit the organization. We are going to list here only some of them.
On May 2, 2022, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus once again recongnized the International Centre for Civil Initiatives Our House and its social media accounts as an “extremist formation”.
On June 10, 2022, according to the prosecutor’s office, the YouTube channel “Olga Karach” and Telegram channels “Olga Karach” were recognized as extremist materials once again.
However, the most unexpected thing was the KGB espionage conducted on us in the territory of Lithuania. From March 2022, a Lithuanian lawyer, Mantas Danielius, joined Our House to help us solve cases with Belarusian conscientious objectors fleeing conscription in Belarus and arriving to ask for political asylum in Lithuania. On September 28, 2022, the Lithuanian lawyer, Mantas Danielius, who had infiltrated Our House under the pretext to help Belarusians, was detained by the State Security Department of Lithuania and the Criminal Police while attempting to escape to Belarus. He is accused of espionage and working for the KGB of Belarus, criminal investigation against him is currently going on. Currently, Mantas Danielius is in Lithuanian prison waiting for trial. That is, our work aimed at helping Belarusian conscientious objectors scared the Belarusian KGB and the Belarusian enforcers so much, they had to recruit a Lithuanian citizen to spy on us in the territory of the European Union.
However, the Belarusian regime did not stop there. Belarusian enforcers started making death threats against us publicly. On October 2, 2022, on the TV programme “Week”, the deputy minister of the internal affairs of the Belarusian regime, Mikalai Karpiankou, made a statement that “the opposition abroad have become mad like dogs and deserve death, because the devil possesses them”. According to Karpiankou, the opponents of the regime of Lukashenka are “surrounded with satanic symbols”, and “the devil possess them so much, that they turned into real rabid dogs which deserve to die”. Our House perceives those words broadcasted during the STV show, as an immediate threat against us, as a specific reference to Olga Karach can be tracked there. Earlier, the host of the programme, the Lukashenka’s propagandist, Hryhory Azaronak, published a photo on his social media and wrote “the devil” on the face of Olga Karach; at the same time, he wrote “angel” on his own face.
The attacks still continue.
On April 20, 2023, deputies of the Seimas of Lithuania received a fake letter with threats allegedly from Olga Karach demanding to vote in a certain mode for a bill regarding Belarusian citizens in Lithuania. It was an attempt to turn the deputies of the Seimas of Lithuania against Our House, accompanied by a hybrid informational attack. We began investigating and understood that the attack had been organized with with the help of Belarusian and Russian special services, and that such a fake newsletter cannot be considered to be a conventional hooliganism. Currently, the investigation is underway.
Inside Belarus, a fierce struggle of young men for their right not to take up arms, continues. Only in 2022, about 400 criminal cases were launched for the attempts to avoid conscription.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who sees the public attitudes which are completely on our side, is getting nervous and is trying to tight strings on the military threatening them even with death.
On February 21, 2023, the parliament under the total control of Lukashenka adopted new amendments to the Criminal Code and introduced death penalty for “high treason” for the military personnel; “high treason” for him is deserting the army and, apparently, running here to us. Also, a criminal liability for any help provided to a deserter has been introduced, called by the law in a twisted manner as “intentional unlawful transfer of a holder of state secrets holding the secrets of the Republic of Belarus or foreign states, disclosed to the Republic of Belarus, outside the Republic of Belarus”. In case a person provides any help to deserters in Belarus, he or she will face 5 years of imprisonment.
On March 21, 2023, Aliaksandr Lukashenka held a meeting with all the uniformed agences of Belarus: the Ministry of Defence, the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the State Border Committee, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the State Customs Committee, the State Committee of Forensic Expertise, the courts of general jurisdiction, and so on, and announced that the gathering of all the uniformed agencies of Belarus was dedicated to “the national security issues and to the situation in the uniformed agencies of Belarus”. “National security” has always meant for Lukashenka the security of his personal power.
It was very noticeable that Lukashenka was scared to lose control over the uniformed agencies and afraid that we, Belarusian women, would find more convincing arguments for the Belarusian enforcers than he. He fears a lot that we can make a deal with the Belarusian army. Lukashenka said the following: “the highest existing level of external threats for Belarus forces us to pay the closest attention to internal threats. Especially since they are links in the same chain”. We, simple women human rights defenders in exile, are flattered to be “the highest level of external threats” for the regime of Lukashenka, the more so because during the meeting Lukashenka made a feeble attempt to play with feminist narratives as well and called on all the enforcers to fight… against domestic violence and for children’s rights. It sounds so ridiculous, because only e few years ago, Aliaksandr Lukashenka publicly called the fight against domestic violence and for children’s rights “nonsense picked up, first of all, from the West”.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka believes in us and is trying to intercept the ideological narratives of the campaign “NO Means NO”.
Sometimes, it seems that he believes in us and in our power much more than we do.