Olga Karatch: My exile, shouting out the horrors of the Belarusian regime

Olga Karach is a Belarusian activist, political scientist and director of the human rights organisation ‘Our House’, founded in 2002 as a self-financed newspaper. The 45-year-old Nobel Peace Prize candidate is active in the network of human and civil rights defenders that is oppressed in her country by the Lukashenko regime. She has been imprisoned and even tortured several times; on the KGB website her name is published in the list of terrorists. Today she lives in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania, from where she continues her valuable non-violent activity. In late April, the Lithuanian Migration Department started the process of extraditing her husband, journalist Oleg Borshevsky, to Belarus.

Olga Karatch received the International Bremen Peace Award in 2019.

Your life has been shattered by your commitment in the name of peace. How much courage does it take in Belarus, and in contemporary society in general, to express one's free point of view on non-violence?
Yes, today it takes a special kind of courage to speak about peace, regardless of the type of military conflict in question. Society is polarised and radicalised. As soon as you say something about peace, you start being persecuted, suspected of the worst crimes, and the consequences are not so harmless. The most surprising thing is that this is happening not only in the Baltic countries, which now lean heavily towards the extreme right, but also in the countries of Western Europe. We see what a strong attack is being launched today against the Catholic Church, for example, just because the Pope has said that negotiations are important and necessary. Something seems to have broken in the European system of values and in the already unspoken rules of human rights. Where has the freedom of speech, of which everyone was so proud, gone? Why has political dialogue turned into a dominant point of view, while other points of view are labelled wrong a priori? The worst thing is that we have not noticed how, in two years, European culture has radically changed from a culture of peace and non-violence to a culture of violence and romanticisation of war. Children are militarised, society speaks in military terms. Politicians are trying to manipulate public opinion and inflame the situation. But the scary thing is that many people like it. The culture of violence throws away the need for tolerance, respect for diversity and, in general, acceptance of that diversity. It has become quite normal to justify problems with democracy, lack of respect for human rights, discrimination against certain social groups by saying that ‘we are at war’. Do we have an economic crisis? Here comes the answer: ‘What do you expect? We are at war. Don't you have enough money for basic expenses? ‘What do you want, we are at war’. Discrimination against refugees? ‘But we are at war!‘ And so on. This is a simple explanation and a simple answer to all questions, which leads to the fact that existing problems are not solved, but frozen. Tensions are rising in European society and I see that without actively promoting a culture of peace and non-violence, many problems will never be solved.

Why is it so complicated today for a section of the public to express their opinion against the return of wartime in Europe? Don't you have the impression that Europe is denying itself?
I think the answer has to do with many factors. Let us go to the argument about Europe denying itself. Firstly, society has embellished the concept of war for many years, including through various computer games. The romanticisation of war and violence is facilitated by social networks. I observed how, at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many young Russians went to war because, in their heads, war ‘wasn't real’, it was something fun: it's fun if you kill everyone and win. It's like a movie or like everything is ‘fake’. Secondly, but strangely, it turned out that a large part of society (not only Russian, but also Ukrainian and European in general) wants to fight. They like war a lot because it makes everything very trivial, without depth or awareness. In military logic, he who is stronger is right; he who has more weapons is right. War brings us back to those patriarchal and archetypal attitudes against which women in particular, but also Lgbtq+ groups, have fought so long and so bravely. Instead, in wartime, everything is schematic, delineated, without nuance. In the romanticisation of war, the pattern is this: A man fights with a weapon in his hand, a woman inspires him to war. Man and woman are defined and distinct. Simplified and reduced to pure force. For many, war gives relief, because you become someone in a certain role with certain functions, you don't have to decide anything, you don't have to choose, everything is already defined. You do not become a person, you become a role and you have no freedom of choice. But apparently, freedom of choice is a heavy burden and society is tired of it. War takes away that freedom of choice and many people are relieved. So, going back to your question about Europe, we can say that yes, Europe today denies non-violent resistance, the role of peace, the complexity of thought.

What kind of country is Belarus today?
There is no war in Belarus, but there is no peace either. There are brutal repressions against peaceful citizens, including priests and parishioners. The Belarusian regime uses all levers and instruments to repress dissent and is even more violent against women. Every day someone is arrested; we do not even know the exact number of political prisoners. Officially about 1,500 are known, but in reality there are many more.

What about the repression of religious people you mentioned?
It is not just about arrests. For example, religious political prisoners are not allowed to be visited by priests in prisons. Catholic believer Nikita Emelyanov had to go on hunger strike in prison to protest against the fact that he was not allowed to see a priest, until he was able to receive a visit from Bishop Aleksander Jaszewski. In remand centres and prisons, the administration is not allowed to send prayer books, the Bible and other religious literature.

Has the Nobel nomination helped you in your initiatives and in spreading your message?
It is a great honour to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as to receive the Alexander Langer International Prize in 2023. It is a unique opportunity to talk about the situation in Belarus, violence and torture and to raise the issue of conscientious objectors in our region. It is a strategically relevant campaign: war cannot continue if people refuse to go to war. Everyone can do so, and everyone's personal choice has a colossal impact on war and militarisation. It also takes courage to refuse to go to war, because society is structured for war. But I believe that today the conscientious objectors and deserters have the last word, and our task is to help them and those who hesitate to become conscientious objectors today. It is not easy, because conscientious objectors from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are not welcomed anywhere; it is difficult for them, especially Belarusians and Russians, to obtain legal status, and today conscientious objection is criminalised by governments.

Is there anything you would like to say to the younger generation and young women?
I say this to every single person and every single woman: Do not back down and do not give up, even if the majority does not agree with you. The situation is very difficult: Talking about peace has become toxic. Organisations fighting for peace are under attack. Even in Western Europe they are denied conference space and financial support. I think that many people want peace, but are afraid to speak publicly. We must be the voice of reason and non-violent resistance for those people who are tired of war and want peace in their homes.

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