On a sunny day in early fall 2023, a group of people are sitting in the premises of the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future in Berlin, and are having an animated discussion about conscientious objectors from Belarus. The people around the table are the organizers of a youth meeting, which is part of "Human Rights in Times of War", a project funded by the EVZ Foundation, as well as by the EU. The driving spirit behind it are the Berlin association "Vereinigung für Vernetzung Partizipation e.V." and the Belarusian human rights organization "Nash Dom", which is currently based in Vilnius, Lithuania, due to political persecution.
This is exactly where the first part of the youth meeting took place: 14 German participants met young Belarusians who had to flee their country. "For the Belarusian participants, it was the first opportunity to get to know real Germans," says Olga Karach, a human rights activist and founder of "Nash Dom". The NGO has been considered extremist in Belarus since 2021; Karach herself is considered a terrorist in her home country and fled Belarus in 2020. For the Belarusian participants, this project is more than just conscientious objection, she says. It is also an opportunity to tell the shocking stories of their persecution by the government back in Belarus. "Most of our participants from Belarus had traumatic experiences: they were tortured by the police or the secret service, and they all had to flee. Such a youth encounter also helps them find their way back to normality," says Olga Karach. (There are about 5,000 Belarusian conscientious objectors that face criminal investigations at this time. In practice, of course, there are more, but no criminal cases so far.)
Amadeus from "Vereinigung für Vernetzung Partizipation" was also present in Vilnius. For the 20-year-old, it was a valuable experience, and it also became clear how little people in Germany still know about Eastern Europe in general and about Belarus in particular. "In German schools you still learn more about France and Spain, and far too little about the East", says Amadeus. Also, during the encounter in Vilnius, it turned out that the crimes of the National Socialist era in Belarus are not well known in Western Europe.
That is precisely why the next round of the youth exchange is taking place in Berlin. "It is for this reason that we arranged for the German and Belarusian participants a visit to the "Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Centre"," Amadeus says. Olga Karach agrees that this visit is very important for young people and helpful for the Belarusians in addressing their traumas. Talking about the past can help to deal with today's traumas and thus pave the way for a better future. In this respect, it is all the more important for the Belarusian participants to learn from German history, which could give them hope for positive change.
But the main focus of "Human Rights in Times of War" in Berlin is to raise awareness of the conditions in Belarus with regard to human rights in general and Belarusian conscientious objectors in particular, in Germany. It is easy to underestimate how difficult it is for people from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine to even exercise their human rights by not going to war. "People are constantly talking about the war at the moment, but in this context actually very little about conscientious objectors. That's absurd!" explains Amadeus. If it was up to the co-organizer of the project, this topic would be a much more central topic in German society.
For Olga Karach and the Belarusian participants, this project is also a chance to talk not only with civil society, but also with German politicians at the Bundestag about how to help conscientious objectors. "Because most of them fall through the cracks and do not get the right of residence in the EU, even though they fled the country to avoid going to war. There are even cases of deportation", says the human rights activist Karach. "That’s a suicide mission".
As part of the program, young participants also organized a graffiti-performance in front of Bundestag: with messages about the status quo of conscientious objectors and an info-counter for interested members of the Bundestag and passers-by. "The undefined status of Belarus is a huge issue", explains Olga Karach. Officially, no Belarusian soldiers are fighting on Russia's side against Ukraine. Nevertheless, this could change quickly, the human rights activist says. "That is why it is even more important to support conscientious objectors and grant them asylum", she says.
As the project is coming to a end, the participants agree that they gain the most valuable experience through joint discussions and meetings, both sides are able to broaden their horizons and get out of their own "bubbles". "It was very interesting to see how you can break the language barrier by communicating and learning to understand each other, sharing experiences, and simply doing things together," says Amadeus. That's the best way to learn to show solidarity and to change something using the resources you have.
What makes Amadeus particularly happy is that everyone has learned something: something that made them stronger, something that gave them a better understanding about themselves, or about the other person's culture. Olga Karach hopes that friendships and this new network would last beyond the project. Either way, both "Vereinigung Vernetzung Partizipation e.V." and "Nash Dom" have the idea on how to continue this project next year in one form or another, and hope that the topic of conscientious objectors will receive more attention than before.
Read more about the project in this blog
MEET UP! German-Belarusian Encounter "Human Rights and Conscientious Objection in Times of War and Crises" (2023)
A project of Vereinigung für Vernetzung und Partizipation e. V. Berlin (engl. Association for Networking and Participation e. V. Berlin) and the Belarusian International Centre for civil initiatives "Nash Dom" (engl. Our Home), Vilnius
Olga Karach is the head of the Belarusian Human Rights Center "Our House" in exile, actively working since 2005 in the field of human rights protection. The main areas of activity today are women's and children's rights with a special focus on marginalized and vulnerable groups of women and children, including refugees and rights of Belarusian conscientious objectors and deserters. She is awarded with several prizes, including: the MacBride Peace Prize, the Human Rights Award of the City of Weimar, International Bremen Peace Award and Radebeul Courage Prize in Germany. In 2007 the Belarusian group of Amnesty International declared her the Human Rights Defender of the Year.
Written by Anastasia Gorokhova
Anastasia is a freelance journalist and screenwriter, based in Berlin.