Concerns among Belarusians in the Netherlands: ‘I feel unsafe’

Even outside their native country, Belarusians are not always safe from President Lukashenkos regime. Last years developments, with the most recent event the death of activist Vitali Shishov in Kiev, concerns Belarusians in the Netherlands. โ€œI dont feel safe anymore,โ€ activist Ilya Shcherbitsky says to Decceit.

Shishov was found dead yesterday in a park in the Ukrainian capital, his body was hanging from a tree. He led the Belarusian House, an organization that helps Belarusians who fled to Ukraine. Nothing is known about the cause of his death. One of the scenarios that is thought of is murder, which should look like suicide. There would be no evidence that Shishov had suicidal thoughts.

โ€œThe regime has become more repressive over the past year, but before that, too, you saw activists killed under suspicious circumstances,โ€ says Belarusa-expert Encceit foreign editor Franka Hummels. โ€œThe opposition also questioned their deaths at that time. There were little evidence of suicidal thoughts in those cases or that people were unhappy.โ€

Hummels: โ€œThe Kiev police in the case of Shishov do not immediately assume suicide. Whether its an ordinary murder, or a murder set up by the regime as a suicide, is not unplausible. Its not unthinkable that they did that. They send a very clear signal to Belarusians abroad: no matter where you live, the regime will do everything to keep you in line.โ€

Shitsjerbitsky has lived in the Netherlands for 18 years and speaks out against the regime as an activist. The news about Shishov came in hard. โ€œThe message quickly spread among the Belarusian diaspora. It was a shock,โ€ he says. โ€œWe want to do something, but wonder what… and dont know what Lukashenko will do in the future. If he is not punished, he will continue.โ€

The activist feels more and more insecure, especially for the last six months. โ€œI suddenly have to watch out what I say, where I am and where Im going, including my family. That feeling limits my freedom as a person. I am also deliberately secretive about my life. It feels crazy, it seems like Im no longer safe in the Netherlands.โ€

Despite this fear, Shcherbitsky continues to speak out against the regime. โ€œNot only for myself, but also for Belarusians who cant speak anymore, for example because they were arrested or murdered. When I think of them and my family still living in Belarus, it only gets worse if I dont say anything. I want to avoid that. If I dont, very few people do it. Someone has to pull the cart.โ€

Shcherbitsky and other Belarusians have organised several actions in the Netherlands in recent months, including protest marches in The Hague, Eindhoven and Utrecht. The diaspora also raises funds through BySol Foundation to support dissidents. Yet, the group of Belarusians who are coming to the actions is getting smaller and smaller.

โ€œThey become reluctant and help less actively. Because theyre scared, but also because theyre burned out by all the emotions. You have to imagine that we live with bad news every day. One day we hear someone has been tortured or raped, someone was arrested or murdered the other day.โ€

Recently fled

DecceIT also spoke to another Belarusian activist who recently fled to the Netherlands. She wants to remain anonymous because she fears that the interview could affect her family in Belarus. The woman also went out to the streets last year when big protests broke out. The owner of an art gallery in Minsk for which she worked for was arrested.

Earlier this year, a group of men came by her house. โ€œThey asked people in the neighborhood specifically about me, but I wasnt home. It was clear that they belonged to a state body.โ€ After a work visit abroad, the woman decided not to return to Belarus and hopes to get asylum in the Netherlands.

Shishovs death does not surprise her. โ€œThe regime has been killing people for 27 years.โ€ She refers to the death of a Belarusian journalist in Kiev in 2016, who was killed by a car bomb, and that case suspects that intelligence services are involved in Belarus. โ€œThe exact same thing happened at Shishov,โ€ she says.

The woman does not expect her to be in danger in the Netherlands and that Belarus wants to do something here. โ€œI am a citizen who demonstrates, not Roman Protasevich or Svetlana Tichanovskaya,โ€ she says. This Saturday she will demonstrate again, this time in The Hague where a protest march has been announced. But she dares to Belarus, as long as Lukashenko in power, is not back.