Olga Karatch. Photo: Connection e.V.

Olga Karatch. Photo: Connection e.V.

Words of welcome on the occasion of the International Day of Conscientious Objection

International Centre for civil initiatives “Our House” (Belarus)

by Olga Karatch

Today, 15th of May, we commemorate International Conscientious Objector Day. Incredibly, there is a war going on in our region today. And I still cannot comprehend and accept it.

A decade ago, if someone had asked me which scenario was more realistic: aliens attacking our planet or Russia invading Ukraine, I would have said that there was no need to think about it; of course, aliens are the more realistic scenario.

I am sometimes told that I am lucky to be a woman. But in Belarus, women with higher education are subject to military duty. I am a teacher, and at our university we also had a military department and we were trained to be military nurses. We took state exams in medicine. This means that if the Belarusian army invades Ukraine, I, like many of my colleagues, could be called to the front to be a nurse.

But I don’t want to fight and I don’t want to take up arms. I don’t want to go to a war.

Today, Belarusian men who are drafted into the army face a very difficult choice - to join the Belarusian army with the risk that Alexander Lukashenko will send the Belarusian army (and the men too) to help Putin in Ukraine, or to fight for their basic human right not to take up arms.

Fighting for human rights when the state does not want to give its is always hard. In Belarus it is three times harder. There are no independent courts in Belarus, and an attempt to refuse to serve in the army leads to criminal liability and prison. In Belarusian prisons there are tortures from which people die. Since 2020, 8 people have died in Belarusian prisons from torture, ill-treatment and lack of medical care, and these are only the people we know. It is unknown how many actually died. In the Belarusian army there are also tortures, suicides and even extrajudicial executions.

In Belarus, if you are a conscientious objector, no one will hire you. In Belarus, it is forbidden to hire a man without showing him a military ID card.

If a young man in Belarus succumbs to militaristic propaganda and goes to study at the Military Academy, and then changes his mind and wants to stop studying, it is practically impossible to do so. Otherwise, he has to pay a fine to the state of about 20-30,000 euros, and Belarusians do not have such money.

After the Military Academy a man is obliged to work in the army for 5 years. It is impossible to quit all these five years, otherwise he will have to pay a huge fine, which is impossible to pay. That is why it is very scary for any Belarusian man to say "no" to this huge repressive machine. Because the price he pays for refusing to serve in the army is high. And many are very afraid.

Nevertheless, there are men who say NO to military service.

I want to remember today all those who are in Belarusian prisons just because they did not want to go to the army. In 2023, there are 400 such cases, but not all names are known. We don’t know our heroes because all trials of conscientious objectors are closed and statistics are classified. Relatives are afraid to make contact because it means KGB pressure on them and risks reprisals already to relatives.

There are Belarusian men who don’t want to put up with the existing situation and run away from the country. They flee illegally across the border, because in Belarus conscripts get into a special database of those who are not allowed to leave Belarus.

They run away from the army, but it’s hard to do it, and most of them are still caught. In the Belarusian army, if a mobile phone is found in a soldier’s possession, he will be put in the punishment cell for 15 days. There is nowhere to get information. Desertion in Belarus can be punishable by death or 25 years of prison under the article "high treason", while helping deserters is a criminal offence - up to 5 years in prison.

Nevertheless, there are deserters who risk their life, freedom and health.

But having survived the horrors of escape and the fear of being caught, having survived illegal escape abroad, Belarusian deserters face the fact that Lithuanian migration refuses them political asylum and says that they are safe in Belarus and can return to Belarus.

This is the real story of a Belarusian deserter, Nikita, who is currently in Lithuania and who is panicked that he may be returned to Belarus by the Lithuanian authorities. I.e. to a Belarusan prison, where torture, a long prison sentence or death await him.

Belarusian conscientious objectors do not receive any status in Lithuania. On the contrary, if they have a history of military service, they are recognised as a threat to Lithuania’s national security and deported back to Belarus.

We really need your solidarity today!

Solidarity with Belarusian men who do not want to take up arms and join the army! Solidarity with Belarusians who do not want to take part in the war in Ukraine! Solidarity with Belarus, which does not support militaristic Alexander Lukashenko!

Help us not to participate in the war!

Keywords:    ⇒ Action Reports   ⇒ Belarus   ⇒ International   ⇒ Olga Karatch   ⇒ Peace Movement   ⇒ Refugees Report   ⇒ Russia   ⇒ Ukraine