We all must confront our fears in our lives. Some of us learn to overcome our terrors quickly and then have no need to deal with them. Others face fears time and again, having once overcome them become addicted to the challenge for the rest of their lives. I belong to this group.
I don’t think that I was a shy kid. The issue of fear did not show up very high in my agenda. I was confronted with real fear much later in life when I started working as a journalist in my own home country, Belarus.
At the time I was not any more a Belorussian citizen but living in Ukraine and had a German passport. My coming backs to Belarus had mostly to do with journalistic research for European radio and television. Most of my reports dealt with the political situation in Belarus in the years 2002 – 2010. Alone or together with my colleagues, I reported about Alexander Lukashenko, the Belorussian President and about life under his regime.
Some recent historic background
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lukashenko managed to salvage a kind of Soviet regime in his ‘realm’, the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. It happened because Belarus was one of the most prosperous Soviet states and many people there did not really feel any need in Gorbachov’s Perestroika and Glasnost. So when Lukashenko promised to keep caring for people, as the Soviet state did — with its social care, good pensions, cheap education, people voted for him and so he came into power in 1994.
But it was natural that not everyone in the country was in favor of his Soviet-like regime. The same wage whether you are a doctor or a labourer. Standardized pensions for all – factory workers and University professors. No chance to express your political opinion. No alternative information from independent media. As a former chairman of a state farm, Lukashenko preserved the failed Soviet economic model with no development for the Belorussian culture and language.
As a true ‘internationalist’ Lukashenko considered everyone who was trying to revive the national culture and language as his enemy. The Belorussian language started to be associated with the oppositional culture, and the education in Belorussian language was suppressed. Two best Belorussian schools and high-schools were forced to move abroad, to Poland and Lithuania.
At that time known as ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’, Lukashenko also known as ‘the last master of evil’ on the political scene of Europe. For anyone opposing his regime life was hard. Gradually, all sources of support from abroad for the opposition were cut off. Some charismatic opposition leaders disappeared not only from politics but also physically. Nobody knows what happened to them.
The oppositionist press was faced with lack of money, as behind the scenes businesses were forbidden to advertise in the free media. Journalists were not only beaten in the dark streets, but were also found dead in their own apartments with blood spread over the walls. A lesson to others. Students who were suspected in dealing with opposition were excluded from Universities.
The Belorussian opposition believed that Belorussian dictatorship with its sophisticated means of suppressing all possible freedoms was simply a testing ground for its master and Eastern neighbor, Russia.
Here is only a small extract of my Belorussian adventures.
In September 2006, my Austrian colleague, Katinka Nowotny, European broadcast journalist and I were working at a TV documentary about the Belorussian artists and opposition members. It was to show how they live, work and struggle in an atmosphere where people are not allowed to express their political and social attitudes. For this we travelled across the country, filming in villages, in Minsk and also in Hrodna, a city in the west of Belarus, bordering Poland.
At that time in Hrodna was in a turbulent political situation. The government strongly opposed the results of free elections within the ethnic Polish community of Belarus, located mainly in the region around Hrodna. In Belarus, the Polish minority is considered to be a community of mainly free-thinkers who tend to support European values and much less the suppressive regime of the Belorussian president.
The government tried to install its own candidate, an obedient marionette of the regime as a leader of the Polish community during those elections. But it failed, as a young and fearless woman, Angelika Borys, a Polish language teacher, galvanized her community, with her enthusiasm, her love for the Polish culture and her determination to revive this culture among the Polish community of Belarus. And so was she elected as the chairperson of this community. Her victory was hard to swallow for the central government in Minsk. They tried to persuade her first to start working with the KGB, reporting about other active community members and their political opinions. When they failed, they threatened her with opening a criminal procedure against her. They pushed her and her supporters out of the Polish House of Hrodna and placed her under house arrest in her apartment. But she did not give up.
Katinka and I called on Andzelika Borys in one of the khrushchovkas, the low-cost cement-panelled buildings of Khrushchov era, which are slotted into place like toy building blocks: each next house similar to the previous one. A concrete maze that you can easily get lost in.
In neighborhoods like this everyone knows everything about everyone else. Old ladies, babushkas, are always sitting at the house entrance, observing people coming and going, chatting and spreading gossip. They are no elevators in khrushchovka buildings. So we slowly climbed the stairs to the third floor, inhaling the smell of freshly fried potatoes, meat balls and cabbage rolls which house-wives were cooking for dinner.
Andzelika welcomed us in her tiny entrance hall, shaking our hands with her soft small hand. Then she led us into a narrow living room, furnished only with a TV set, a sofa and an arm-chair and a portrait of the Pope, Johannes Paul II.
Andzelika asked us to sit down and she was about to prepare tea for us, when her phone rang and she apologized for the interruption. Journalists from Moscow asked her questions about the latest events in a phone interview. Patiently, she answered all the questions slowly with a very polite and quiet voice. Those questions were obviously not new to her. As she said later, foreign journalists would call her every day.
While she was talking on the phone, we looked out of the window. It was September. Old high maple trees with red leaves were reaching to the third floor of Andzelika’s apartment, so that we first did not recognize two big guys with wide shoulders, dressed in dark suits, who were keeping watch at the entrance of Andzelika’s house, smoking cigarettes. They would stand with their backs turned to the apartment, watching out, speaking occasionally to each other, then would turn around and stare up at Andzelika’s window. Were they her bodyguards? Knowing the situation in Belarus, we assumed the opposite: KGBechniki! And they did not hide what they were doing! As they not only had to pursue her but intimidate her.
When her phone interview was finished, we asked Andzelika about them. She sat opposite us into an arm-chair and we started our talk, having forgotten the tea. Yes, she said, ‘those guys would stay at my house all day long, and whenever I leave my apartment, they follow me.’ In a nervous and tired voice, Andzelika, then aged 27, described to us her daily life.
While she spoke she rubbed her hands nervously. She explained that the Polish House, the headquarters of the Polish community, was not any more to be entered by her or her supporters. All community life had to be shifted to this small apartment. But it was also monitored by the security services.
We asked her about the beginning of her political career. Why did she become interested in politics? She smiled and admitted her interest in politics was a civil one and it had only to do with the elections. But she never planned to go into politics herself. And she didn’t! As a chairman of the Polish community she planned only to revive their cultural life, helping to make it more vivid and intense, bringing alive the Polish language and culture. But sadly, she added, in Belarus everyone who expresses his or hers political views and opinions openly, is automatically dragged into politics, being called oppositionist, as the central government in Minsk does not tolerate alternative opinions. And anyone considered oppositionist starts to be observed, chased and has problems at their working place.
So was the life of Andzelika. She knew that her phone conversations were recorded and she was followed by the KGB people everywhere. At that time a court process against her was running. Angelika was accused of stealing official money and building two luxury private villas for her family. A lie, which we knew was a usual instrument of the Belorussian government while dealing with any opposition.
We asked her whether she was thinking about emigration. Without any hesitation she replied ‘I’ll never give up and never let anyone push me to leave my country’. I asked Andzelika whether she was afraid of the government or the men sent to intimidate her from the KGB. She thought a bit and answered: “I don’t think I am afraid. I only think my nerves are damaged. I feel I need a break and a time-out”.
When we left Andzelika’s apartment, those two big guys followed us to our car. When we entered our car, they jumped into theirs, which was parked close to ours, glaring into our eyes, staring at us impudently. Of course, all this was unnerving for Katinka and me. We started feeling less and less secure while travelling in this country alone, only two of us. But we consoled each other with two facts: both of us were not Belorussian citizens and we had journalist accreditations. We felt much safer than Andzelika Borys.
Marginalized Artist After our meeting with that brave woman, we moved on to the atelier of an artist with a typical Slavic name, Viacheslav Ivanovski. When we met him, we were taken aback and had to suppress our smiles: He was a spitting image of the Belorussian president, as if he were his brother. What made it funnier was that his favorite motif was President Lukashenko. His workshop was filled with big realistic oil paintings of historic battles and Belorussian landscapes. And then the studio was filled with caricatures of President Lukashenko in different politicalsituations as for example fighting against the Belorussian culture.
The atelier was located in an abandoned factory where some of the oppositionist newspapers and opposition parties had made their headquarters. They all were marginalized and often prosecuted, having regularly deal with tax inspections, having to pay huge penalties and appear in court.
The red-brick building from the beginning of the 20th century was architecturally stylish, imposing, but lacking any restoration. It lay at the edge of the city, abandoned, scary, with broken windows staring with ghost eyes in the rubble of a former industrial landscape. His work was interesting but seemed to have only one value, political. He was marginalized and his exhibitions were prohibited. They frightened, intimidated and attacked him many times in dark streets, but he continued his work. He explained ‘I was born to be an artist, art is my vocation, my life, it is what I do.’
While I was recording our interview with the fearless Mr Ivanovski, Katinka went out to film the building from outside. I heard somebody shouting. Then a loud argument followed. It was the police and the owner of the building. The owner of the building has seen Katinka filming and called the authorities. They grabbed her camera and did not want to give it back, as they said she was filming something she was not allowed to.
I ran down to find Katinka dealing alone with a group of people who did not speak any foreign language. And Katinka spoke neither Russian nor Belorussian. They yelled at her: “If you don’t stop filming and give us the material, we will lock you up!” She, my poor Belarus-inexperienced colleague looked completely lost. I joined the quarrel and grabbed for the camera. While we struggled for it, I screamed ‘What the hell she was doing which could be prohibited?’ I showed them our documents, including our accreditations and explained to them that we were filming a documentary only about artists’ lives. ‘What is suspicious about that?’ They yelled back: ‘We don’t believe you! Are those people artists? They are not artists, they are all criminals!’
The owner of the abandoned factory complained: ‘You are filming my property to make bad propaganda material. You want to show how terrible and destroyed everything in Belarus is.’ What could we say? ‘We were just filming how it is!’ we replied. They then accused us of filming the Polish consulate, an official building you are not allowed to film in Belarus. They waved to the distance showing us that it was about 2 km away. So far from here! But still, in Belarus you don’t argue with the police.
They were actively trying to take away our camera, and accreditation papers were of no help. ‘Now they’ll erase all of our previous work! How can we prevent them from destroying everything?’ All these thoughts raced through my mind. So, what could weaken a man’s heart? A woman’s tears, what else! We had to rely on all we had left. On our feminine power. Aware that no court procedure would help us in this country, I started to cry like a little girl who is having her favorite doll taken from her. I begged, I pleaded again and again: ‘Don’t ruin us!’ I was shivering with tears, asking them not to destroy our work, not to ruin us by taking away our footage. I looked into the eyes of one of the policemen. His face hardened first. I grabbed his hand and begged again. The policeman’s face softened. I asked Katinka for a napkin to wipe my nose. Instead, the policeman handed me one.
Unexpectedly, they caved in. They demanded now only to delete our last recordings and to show them the process of deleting. With shaky hands Katinka took back her camera and made some manipulations with it. We all were looking at her and at her camera. The tension was unbearable. She showed us how she was deleting her last files. Everyone sighed with relief. Only later on Katinka explained to me having managed to save those recordings by pushing a different button.
Life In The Realm of Fears
After this incident, we met and interviewed many other people: singers, film directors, writers and poets. All of them known oppositionists. In our documentary about the life of free spirits working under a dictatorial regime they spoke freely about being frightened, attacked and beaten by the police. About being insulted and accused, put in jail for ‘using obscene language, the regime’s favorite accusation to place a person under arrest for two weeks with no formal charge. They spoke of changing apartments in the dead of night to escape the next police roundup before an upcoming event or a flash-mob with their oppositionist friends.
Finally, exhausted and nervous we completed our filming and interviews. Even though for us it was only a short working sequence of our film. But our subjects had to deal with danger and intimidation 24 hours a day seven days a week for the rest of their lives. Our Belorussian colleagues who work for what has remained of the independent press of Belarus or who report for the Western media from inside the country, must keep living in the Realm of Fears permanently, intimidated at every turn. We admired them as we admired all people we had interviewed.
We packed our clothes, cameras and hard won footage before heading for the airport. Then, Katinka had a brilliant idea: “Let’s film the House of Government with the Lenin statue in front!” My eyes went red. My palms began to sweat. I wanted to strangle her. Filming official buildings in Belarus is strictly forbidden and she knew it. We had almost been arrested for filming a McDonald’s branch in the Lenin street in the center of Minsk! Being arrested for filming a hamburger seemed surreal. The whole city is full of cameras, secretly observing ‘the rule of law and order’.
But Katinka resisted. Nothing would divert her away from this idea! She begged: “Stop so I can at least film from the car window! This one picture of Lenin statue in the center of the capital city would say so much and make our film stronger!” “No, Katinka! No way!” I cried. “Do you want to get arrested and ruin all the work we’ve done? We can’t reshoot anything! Do you really want us to spend our time in the cell under preliminary detention instead of going back to Vienna?” I refused to stop the car and kept driving quickly and directly to the airport where I felt I could at least exhale with relief and put the tension of the past days behind me.
Saving Our Footage
But at the airport the fear hit me again. We realized Katinka could not carry her recordings to Vienna in her luggage! They could easily take them away at the customs. We decided that the safest method would be for me to take them in my car across the border to Ukraine, from where I would send them with a friend, a diplomat, to Vienna. But where could I hide it? In my pockets, under the seat, in the trunk? Custom offices look everywhere!
I had to drive alone from Minsk the Ukrainian border about 350 km and then on to Kiev. I was scared. In every car that did not overtake me, I imagined muscular KGB thugs tailing me, waiting for the right opportunity to arrest or harass me. I felt the footage hidden under the spare wheel burning a hole in the bottom of the car. I could not think of stopping or having a coffee somewhere. The call of nature was the only thing which forced me to stop.
It was a warm autumn evening. The sunset was splashing a romantic birch grove with surreal red-yellowish colors. For a moment I felt I was in paradise in the middle of this beautiful plain landscape with marshy lakes and the surrounding forest. “It is idyllic,” I thought, “but why am I feeling as if I were in the middle of a war zone?” Such a dualistic situation confused me. I had never felt this before. And only then I understood: this is the euphoric feeling that my colleagues told me they experience when covering war.
I drove on. I counted at least twelve cars that I felt were chasing me. My heart raced and my palms sweated on the steering wheel each time I spotted one until emotionally drained and exhausted I came to the Ukrainian border. The officials on the Belorussian check-point scoured my documents over and over. They turned them round and round, passed them from one guard to another, made copies of them, eyed them with an air of mistrust. My heart leaped when they began to inspect my car. I only had one suitcase. Where else would they look? How closely would they search for suspicious objects? I could hardly breathe.
Thankfully, they did not inspect my car intensively enough to find anything they did not like or liked enough to keep. I fumbled the keys into the ignition, turned on the engine and crossed into Ukraine. Our film was safe!
Crossing the border I thought of what my step-father said about the adrenalin and euphoria he would feel whenever he would cross from East Berlin to West Berlin before the fall of Berlin Wall. I understood him now.
12th of September 2016