Even though tens and hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have been compelled to flee their country due to persecution by the authorities of Lukashenko, there are still countless dissidents, activists and human rights defenders in Belarus who, despite the high risk of repression and criminal prosecution, are striving to make a a difference. Only recently, Aleh Matskevich, a human rights advocate from Viasna, was among those individuals. In his first interview from a place of safety, the activist talks about the reasons that led to his departure.
What prompted you to make such a challenging decision?
— It was a certainly a difficult decision because, until the very last moment, I held on to Belarus and my town of Barysau. This thought had been lingering in my subconscious for a long time; I understood that sooner or later, I would have to leave. I proceeded from the assumption that the siloviki would not leave me alone, although their pressure might not have been as intense as it was for some others. However, in the last three years, my house has been subjected to three violent searches, with the most recent one being particularly brutal. During this last search, which occurred while I was under arrest and unable to be there, they ransacked the entire apartment within four hours, causing extensive damage, including attempting to break open a wall-embedded safe, breaking off a piece of the wall in the process. While I had anticipated the need to leave, I never expected it to happen so suddenly and abruptly. I had to choose between freedom and prison.
And what was the tipping point that led you to choose freedom?
— On November 8, my friends informed me through a messaging app that I had been implicated in the “extremist” group ex-press.live, and my name was listed among individuals who were allegedly associated with these Barysau media. The decision was made by the Belarusian KGB on October 24. Then, literally half an hour later, I made a decision to leave Belarus. The very next day, taking security measures, he left, as they say, in an unknown direction.
What feelings and concerns did you experience? Did you feel in danger?
— I would argue, with some justification, that everyone who leaves their home country in a hurry experiences the same emotional state. First and foremost, it is two days of absolute detachment. After all, when you realize that it is necessary to take this step, all the strings of your soul resist such a decision, doing everything in spite of it. When I was getting ready for the trip, I had very little time, so I left with one backpack. In principle, it was hardly preparation. Since I was not at home at that time, some of the most necessary things were already with me, and I obtained the rest from the apartment through friends, as it was dangerous to return home. I took spare underwear, socks, a sweater and hygiene products. That’s it.
How do people in Belarus feel about the situation right now, what do they think, is their worldview changing?
— Now, the ordinary lives of regular people have almost entirely gone underground, becoming less public than they used to be. There are still many decent people in Belarus, and despite Lukashenko and his oprichniks having the goal of eradicating everything conscious and pushing normal people out of the country, they will never achieve this objective. There are numerous people like that. Yes, now you need to think about your safety, think about how and what you can say publicly and out loud. Well, maybe I was just unlucky, the circumstances were such that I was forced to leave.
In social networks, as well as in the media, every now and then Belarusians who left their homeland and those who remained there express some resentment to each other, discuss who is a greater patriot and who is a traitor. What did you and your friends think about this, and what do you think now?
— Thank God that my friends and I are not the type of people who would ever ridicule those who have left. No one in my circle had left before and made fun of others. In my opinion, what a person does is important, regardless of where they are.
How do you feel in a new, safe place, what are your plans and hopes?
— Now I’m coming to my senses a little, slowly regaining the peace of mind that was knocked out of me by the recent events a week ago. Now, the first and most necessary thing is to come to my senses. I began to improve my life, and I understand that it will take some time and will cost some effort. I think I will find the strength to adapt here and continue my human rights work. Communication channels remain, and the Lukashists will not be able to prevent me from communicating and providing assistance to those who remain in the country.
— And one more thing… I will return to Belarus anyway, sooner or later.