It was still Wednesday, February 23 in New York when I got the New York Times alert on my phone about Russia carrying out “a full-scale, multi-directional attack” on Ukraine.
Earlier in February, up to 30,000 Russian soldiers were moved to my home country of Belarus for “military exercises”. The Belarusian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty service shared satellite photos showing troop positions and wrote about fighter jets, ballistic missile launchers and other war machines, clearly not intended for exercises, cluttering Belarusian forests . Russia was using Belarus as a launching pad for its war against our southern neighbor. And as soon as the invasion began, we knew that the whole world would see Belarus as an aggressor and an accomplice in Russia’s war crimes.
For more than a month now, I have woken up every morning with news of air raids on kyiv, devastating images showing the aftermath of heavy bombardment in Kharkiv, Kherson and Chernihiv, stories of immense human suffering in Mariupol. Every morning I search for a new video address of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make sure he is still alive, that kyiv is still standing.
This war, waged by Russia against sovereign and democratic Ukraine, under false immoral pretexts, is one of the darkest chapters in the recent history not only of Russia but also of Belarus. Russia is destroying our present and our future, and it has completely eviscerated our shared past. Although bombs aren’t raining down on Minsk yet – at least for now – and Belarusian troops are still on stand-by, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko have already brought this bloody war into our homes.
On March 6, Orthodox Forgiveness Sunday, Lynsey Addario of The New York Times posted photos on social media of a family killed by Russian soldiers as they tried, alongside other civilians, to flee Irpin, in the outskirts of Kyiv. The image of the mother and her two sons, blood pouring from the nose of one of the boys, was heartbreaking. It was shocking to see death so close and so real.
I sent the photos to my mother via WhatsApp. “Why are you sending me this?” she asked, upset. I told her that she needed to see for herself what was happening in Ukraine.
Like the overwhelming majority of Belarusians, my mother is shocked by the war next door and she fears for her safety. However, his understanding of what is happening in Ukraine is very different from mine.
“I know what is happening in Ukraine,” she retorted. “Use your brain, Russians don’t kill civilians,” said my mother, an ethnic Russian. “Who did it then? I exclaimed in disbelief. “The Ukrainian fascists, the Nazis,” she said. She said the word “nazi-ki,” as popularized by talk shows that made my stomach turn. “Armed Ukrainian hooligans took Irpin hostage,” she said. “They fired on the inhabitants who wanted to leave!” The story my mother told seemed surreal, but to her it was the truth. Because my mother gets her news from Russian TV channels and Facebook.
In my family, we try very hard to avoid being rude, often at the expense of sincerity. That day, I lost him. “Mom, you’re a fool,” I said and hung up. As the anger and desperation still mounted, I texted, “I don’t think we have anything else to discuss.” I burst into tears and went to take a shower. As anger gave way to shame and guilt, I deleted the text before she could see it, and called later to apologize.
We continued to exchange platitudes and weather reports for a few more days. On March 11, Ukrainian photographer Evgeny Maloletka – whose name is familiar since we worked with the same journalist not so long ago – photographed a maternity hospital in Mariupol after being targeted by Russia. Moscow claimed that it had been evacuated by patients and doctors, and occupied by Ukrainian nationalist fighters from the “Azov” regiment.
In one photo, a heavily pregnant woman is carried on a stretcher by a group of men amid smoking ruins. In another, a woman in polka-dot pajamas walks down the stairs of the destroyed hospital, her face bloodied.
As the photos went viral, the Russian Embassy in London tweeted that the photos were fake. He identified one of the pregnant women as beauty blogger Mariana Podgurskaya and accused her of staged the photo. The post was later removed from Twitter for violating policy. Mariana Vishegirskaya was indeed a pregnant beauty blogger from Mariupol. She was in the hospital as a patient during the attack. The next day, she gives birth to a baby girl. I followed the information battle on Twitter almost in real time. It was frightening to see how ingenious and persuasive disinformation messages could become.
I sent the photos to my mother hoping to be able to explain to her how the propaganda worked. She cut me off. “That’s not true,” she said confidently. “Stop sending me those photos, stop harassing me. You live in your reality and I live in mine. I couldn’t agree more. Our realities are very different indeed.
“Why are you still trying to talk about it with her?” asked my best friend, another Belarusian, who lives in Vermont. We met as teenagers at the Belarusian High School of Humanities, which is now closed and banned. We started attending protests against Lukashenko’s dictatorial regime when we were barely 15 years old. These days, we often call each other to talk about the war, to cry and to vent on our mothers, who repeat the same phrases, as if reading a script: “It’s all lies, you don’t understand .”
“All of a sudden, it doesn’t matter that I have a doctorate, and that you are a journalist,” sighs my friend. “Someone must be wrong in this situation, someone must be a fool.” And if it’s not our mothers, then it must be us. Indeed, we felt like fools talking to them.
Another friend of our cohort, who now lives in Canada, is being bullied by her Belarusian cousins, who bombard her with malicious messages and photo collages of ‘Ukrainian fascists’ posing in front of swastikas . It seems, in their eyes, that our friend is the embodiment of the evil West, and that Lukashenko and Putin are liberators.
Our parents are not bad people. They are well-educated professionals who have spent their lives, as far from politics as possible, building the proverbial “bright future” for their children. They get all their news from television, and Belarusian state television is flooded with Russian content and Russian propaganda. Without any other source of information, our parents are misinformed and, for lack of a better term, brainwashed.
Journalism has come under fire from critics in Belarus since the early years of Lukashenko’s presidency. Today, independent journalism inside the country is almost non-existent. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in one year between the August 2020 presidential election and August 2021, 497 Belarusian journalists were arrested, 68 injured, 119 suffered administrative arrests, 10 outlets were closed and more of 100 blocked online resources. Thirty-four journalists remain behind bars today, many of whom are serving lengthy sentences simply for doing their job. The very few independent media that try to break the blockade survive by operating from abroad, via Telegram and YouTube channels. According to the medium, the public needs VPN to access it. Our parents do not use VPN or Telegram.
The 2021 World Press Freedom Index ranks Belarus 158th out of 180. We are slightly better than North Korea (179), but worse than Russia (150).
Russia’s ranking is about to drop, however. When TV Rain, the independent online TV, was still running, I sent my mom links to their special wartime feeds. On March 1, TV Rain and Echo Moskvy were shut down, Meduza and other online media were partially blocked for reporting on Ukraine. Russian offices of international media have also been cleaned. The Deutsche Welle and BBC websites were shut down, as were Facebook and Instagram.
Since March 3, calling the “special operation” in Ukraine a “war” has become a criminal offense in Russia, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. On March 4, the Novaya Gazeta newsroom closed. Around 150 journalists left the country, including BBC and Radio Liberty reporters. On the western side of the resurrected Iron Curtain, online platforms have rushed to cancel Russian state-sponsored media accounts, limiting their reach.
To the Western world, the unbelievable narrative of Russian war propaganda seems absurd. However, propaganda and disinformation have long been used by Russian authorities to fight their enemies and shape public opinion. And Putin’s echo chamber seems to be working. According to recent polls, almost 60% of Russian citizens support the war. This number is considerably lower in Belarus, where only 3% of people support the country’s involvement in the conflict. But that doesn’t mean they are aware of what is really happening to their neighbors to the south.
Without access to free and objective information, Russia and Belarus have become Orwellian states where history is rewritten and the news is fiction. This information blockage is old news to us. This is how we lived in the USSR, trying to make sense of the outside world by piecing together snippets of information heard in someone’s kitchen, over short radio waves. The USSR lasted 70 years. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began just over a month ago, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
To my fellow journalists, both inside and outside Russia and Belarus, I would like to say: “Let us not give up trying to break their silence on this war, even though our attempts may seem vain”. To the editors, I would say: “Hire us Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian journalists who have been covering our region for far longer than many foreign journalists who are currently in the field. Yes, we are good fixers and translators, but we deserve to tell our own stories, and we can do that well. Let us be creative and resourceful in our ways and means. We owe it to the courageous people of Ukraine, and to the Belarusians and Russians who never wanted this war, especially those who refuse to be told about it. Personally, I owe it to my mother.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.