This October, my colleague and I spent a few days in Hrodna, Belarus’s fifth largest city and a key cultural hub, documenting abuses against migrants, mainly from the Middle East, who came through there on their way to the Polish border.
Central Hrodna is charming, with beautiful churches, coffee shops, and terraces. It might have once been bustling with tourists. But no more. A young woman overheard us speaking English and asked, wide-eyed, “What are you doing here?”, “We’re visiting,” I said, vaguely.
“We still have foreign tourists?” the woman whispered breathlessly, then wilted. “Between you and your friend, I guess we have two.”
It’s no news that Belarusian authorities are effectively eviscerating civil society. Dozens of activists and journalists are behind bars, and many more have been forced to flee the country for fear of prosecution. The government has shut down over 300 independent groups and media outlets. Thousands of peaceful protesters have suffered arbitrary detention and other abuses.
One may think that if you’re not an activist or a journalist, you can go about your business unaffected by the crackdown. Wrong.
The woman who approached us on the street, a local English teacher, used to supplement her income by taking foreigners on guided tours. “We had tourists coming from Poland, Lithuania, and other European countries; many of them, every day,” she sighed. “But now, obviously, no Europeans come here …”
Our landlord made similar comments when handing over the apartment keys. “When tourism was flourishing, I and quite a few others took out mortgages, invested in interior design… but now our livelihood is pretty much destroyed.”
A souvenir shop owner on a little square whispered that not only was business almost at a standstill, but she actually had to remove from display all merchandise with the red-and-white stripe pattern of the now banned, inter-war Belarusian nationalist flag. The pattern became one of the key symbols of the 2020 public protests, so the authorities view it as a manifestation of dissent, and retaliate against those who dare to wear or exhibit it.
“Police detained my husband for having the pattern on his socks, imagine that! So, having that stuff on display is off limits, to say the least. I only wish you could see my shop before the purge,” the shopkeeper smiled sadly. “This is no life.”