When the KGB comes knocking at your door

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I remember that day to the very detail. A room with a myriad of half-packed boxes. The echo of my voice in an empty apartment. The leaves of a lonely weeping fig by the window, casting shadows on a wooden floor. It was a year ago in a country far away, Belarus.

As person with an astonishingly weak sense of time, I’d just miraculously submitted my Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship application – several hours before the deadline! And in the face of this glorious achievement, all I could think about was the devastating fear that I might never see the view from our balcony in Minsk again…

Some two months before, the militia came to arrest my husband. He was at work, producing a TV series for the independent Belarusian TV channel Belsat. This by itself is a crime in my country. You are not allowed to work for any media other than the ones that praise the man who has been calling himself the Belarusian president for the past 28 years, Mr. Aliaksandr Lukashenka. At that point, his forces had already killed dozens and put over a thousand innocent people behind bars. People, whose only crime was their desire to have their voices heard and counted fairly.

My husband, Yauhen Shapchyts, during one of the protests in August 2020

In August 2020, following yet another rigged Presidential election, Belarusians took to the streets. It was the most beautiful and heartwarming expression of the human spirit, longing for freedom, independence and accountability, I have ever seen. For several months hundreds of thousands of protesters, led by Belarusian women in white dresses with flowers in their hands, confronted fully armored Belarusian special forces with powerful backup in the Kremlin.

And there I was, a year later. Having seen how with each passing month, more and more of my friends and colleagues got arrested. I checked my watch first thing upon waking. The KGB usually comes to arrest people at 5 or 6 in the morning, so if at 8 you wake still in your bed, chances are you have a whole day of freedom ahead of you. My husband had managed to escape and was safe in Poland at that moment. I stayed to take care of all the unfinished matters.

I was screaming at all those half-packed boxes in desperation, overwhelmed with the amount of stuff to deal with on my own. I was trembling with fear, hiding our documents, money and shot footage every other day, awaiting a possible arrest. I was saying goodbye to my parents, with whom we lived in different countries for ten years and had just reunited in Belarus after they retired. We only had a couple of months to enjoy each other in our daily lives. I was hating myself for not being able to provide a safe and happy childhood for my own kids. My home was falling apart. My family was falling apart.  My life was falling apart…

When I look outside the window now, I can see a nice small Japanese pond that is so pleasant to sit by as the hot Arizona air starts to cool off. I need to prepare for a class tomorrow at the most progressive university I have ever been to, where students can decide what to study. There are diaper changing tables in the men’s bathrooms and you won’t get arrested for wearing socks in the wrong color.

And I get to attend this class with a dozen of other Humphrey Fellows, outstanding professionals from all over the world. When I hear their stories, it feels like the whole world is pouring its wisdom at me. From witchcraft camps in Ghana to the never-ending corporate rat race in South Korea or the challenges of teaching a film class without a camera in Zimbabwe, the complexity of humankind is unfolding right in front of me. No one ever has it easy, it is never a straight path anywhere. But when I hear their stories of struggle and love, the best feeling on earth slowly starts making its way back into my heart. The feeling of hope for mankind, despite all the demons we have to fight on a daily basis.