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Sasha had long dreamed of living in Kiev, and after the protests in Belarus she moved to Ukraine. However, a few months later the war broke out. This is how Sasha ended up in Portugal, where she found a job on a cherry plantation….

Sasha, 28 years old.

I left Belarus in 2021, but I feel a big gap between me and other emigrants. We should be united by a common situation, common grief, but we are not, because nobody forced me to leave. I was not criminalized, there was no threat of prosecution, although everyone who lives in Belarus has fears. Of course, I went to the rallies, of course, the law enforcement agencies had my face in their databases. But I left on my own: nobody stood under my door and I didn’t run away with a backpack. Although, in general, it was a forced decision: forced by the previous experience of living in Belarus.

I don’t have such feelings as many emigrants have: “Belarus, my Belarus…”, “I miss you, I feel so bad, I want to go back”. I don’t have that. I miss my mom, I miss my apartment. I miss our dacha, which I loved in the last years of my life in Belarus. But for everything else – no. I have no friends left there, no one or something that would keep me there.

I always felt pressure in Belarus, I realized very early what was going on. Many people stopped giving themselves hope after 2020, but for me it happened much earlier. The first rallies I took part in were in the early 2010s. I was 15 years old at the time. During the protests I was grabbed by a law enforcer, but I managed to break free and run away. It was in the summer when everyone was clapping their hands.

There was also a moment when my father gave me his vote in the 2010 election: I couldn’t vote then. My father registered the ballot, let me into the booth and I voted as if on his behalf: I voted against Lukashenka.

Sasha, the photo is “not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

Then I hung out with “marginal people” (from the point of view of the Belarusian state) who smoke weed. Although, what does it mean with marginal people? My neighbor once killed his wife with an ax, went to jail, got out, got married again. And again decided to repeat his experience, apparently his new wife was standing on the landing ringing my doorbell, asking me to call the police. And there is a friend of mine who had a big impact on me. He went to jail in 2016, for selling hashish. Yes, it’s criminal, yes, he was doing it illegally, but it’s just hashish! Which one is the bigger marginalized? By the way, now my friend has had his sentence reduced by amnesty, now apparently pot smokers, not the most serious extremists. Several other friends of mine went to jail under Article 328. And all this put pressure on me. I lived my whole life, like most young people, under Lukashenka. And I was always against it.

I traveled a lot, as for a person who lives in Belarus. I traveled to festivals, volunteer projects, and saw how people live. My stories that I told about Belarus were like stories from the crypt for Europeans. And I always had a desire to leave. I was looking for a person with whom I could emigrate, but I never found such a person. Then I met my current husband. We decided to get married, to take the money given for the wedding, but not to buy a car with it, but just to leave the country.

Everything related to Belarus is blocked by my trauma. A couple times a week I have a dream that I’m locked there, that I can’t get out of there. I wish I had the opportunity to work through this trauma, to return to this place.

I decided to go to Kiev, this city I loved very much. Probably many people love Ukraine because it is something like Belarus, only free.

We moved in August 2021. It was hard for me, because I had never gone anywhere, I had lived in Minsk for all my 25 years. It was not easy for my husband at first either, but I managed to charge him with my love for Kiev.

Shortly before my departure, an almost mystical story happened. We had already found accommodation, booked tickets, but then I had a panic attack, I didn’t know if I should leave. I went to bed and at night I dreamed about my cat, who died a couple years ago. And in the dream she told me that everything would be fine and I should move. When I left Minsk I had a feeling that I would not come back again.

In Belarus I studied at the Academy of Arts. After graduation, all my classmates went to Belarusfilm, and I stayed to work as a laboratory assistant. I didn’t manage to get into the movies.

It was easy for me to find a job in Ukraine. Kiev was a natural habitat for me. One day I went to buy an electronic cigarette and asked if they had any vacancies. The director was there that day, I impressed him and they hired me.

I remember well the week before the war. We were sitting at the Heroes of the Dnieper station, drinking jägermeister. I often revisit photos from that day, the last calm one. The next day I woke up at 7 a.m., turned on the Internet, and my mother wrote to me that the war had started. I didn’t panic: I started to wake up Misha, then decided that I had to eat and withdraw money from my card. I went outside: ashes were falling from the sky, smelling of cinders.

Kiev, the first days of the war, photo from Sasha’s personal archive

Then I went to my store: the first week of the war I continued to work.

I did not sit in the bomb shelters, because it seemed to me that it would be even worse for me there. The second night I started sleeping in the corridor. Sometimes the windows in the apartment shook because of the shelling. I just had some emotional coldness at that period, but Misha, I think, was in a daze. One of the most terrible days of the war, when there was fighting in the city, and he did not want to wake up and go to the corridor, he slept right next to the window. I was very angry with him, afraid something would happen.

We decided to move when a rocket hit Babi Yar. It was very close to us, everything was literally rattling. And one more reason – they blocked our cards as citizens of Belarus. We realized that we had to leave.

Interestingly, I had phantom siren syndrome for two more weeks: sometimes I couldn’t understand whether there was a siren or not. I confused it with the sound of cars, for example.

We went to Poland. I had a lot of acquaintances there, but strangely enough, I got more help from strangers. We couldn’t find a place to stay for at least a week. So we decided to go further, to Berlin, because Warsaw was very crowded with refugees. A friend of mine lived there, but we stayed with him for only three days. The last time I saw him was five years ago and I didn’t know what was going on in his life. I think he was just a traumatized person who was really trying to help us but couldn’t keep up. He had addictive behavior, maybe he was even on the verge of psychosis. One morning he yelled at us for allegedly not cleaning something, even though we cleaned the apartment all the time. I think it was more of an excuse. He told us to leave. It was a very stressful situation for me.

We went to the train station, where there were Roma with Ukrainian passports. And a woman, having heard our story, helped us get a free SIM card by standing in line for it. It was impossible to get a SIM card with a Belarusian passport. That’s what I mean: sometimes absolutely strangers help. Then I went to different organizations, looking for help. The LGBT community in Berlin helped me a lot. A social worker talked to me and I was relieved. Because I was completely out of my mind.

Eventually a girl helped me find a room in an apartment. The Germans we lived with supported us, shared food. But we had no right to work in Berlin. It was also unrealistic to find something there illegally, plus we could get into trouble because of that.

So we decided to go to Portugal to pick cherries. The Germans gave us money for a ticket to Lisbon. There we got temporary protection and found a job on a farm. We were promised an 8-hour work day and many other things. But in reality it was complete shit, it turned out to be quite different.

The problems started almost immediately. We were told the job was in a small town. And so, we were met,And so, we were met, we went, we went, we passed this city … and we went further. This alarmed me. The atmosphere on the farm was unhealthy, slave-like, in a way. The forewoman was yelling and insulting all the time. She may have had some sort of PTSD of her own, but history doesn’t tell us. She was originally from Donetsk.

I was prepared to put up with it, it was harder for Misha, but I told him: “Hold on! But look at the sunset.” It was very beautiful there. Sometimes flocks of storks came. We also lived in an old house with antique furniture.

Portugal, plantation, photo from Sasha’s personal archive

We managed to make friends with many of the workers, there were young Ukrainian women from Sumy. We drank wine with them sometimes in the evenings. But the bosses treated us with prejudice.

We never knew in advance when we were going on shift. Sometimes it was announced at 12 at night, and we had to get up at 4. The Portuguese were treated a little better. They could take a smoke break, nobody touched them. We were constantly yelled at, although we worked like everyone else, we did not relax.

We were told that we had to collect a certain amount. But at first they announced one figure, but in fact it turned out that we had to collect much more.

One day I had a heat stroke. There were rumors that this happened often, someone almost died there, but no one called an ambulance. I felt very sick and crouched down on the ground. A woman, from the Roma, poured water on me to make me feel better. We drove home. I couldn’t even close the door to my room, I lay there in some kind of semi-delirium while Misha went to the pharmacy. When he came back, the forewoman came back to us and said we had to get out. Someone took a video of me sitting on the ground and not working when I got sick. That was the reason. In the morning we left.

A Portuguese man gave us a ride to the nearest town and we went to the police because we didn’t know what to do. Social services were supposed to help us, but I didn’t count on them. I had experience of volunteering in Sicily, I know how these organizations work in the South, everything is relaxed there. When, of course, I probably should have gone to Lisbon and looked for something there, but as they say “Smart on the ladder”. It’s about when the decision comes afterwards.

The first policemen were nice enough, and sympathized with our situation. They found us a place to go and told us to come at 8. I asked again, the policeman confirmed that it was 8. Turns out he didn’t speak English well and meant 18. When we got back, we ran into another shift, they were already angry because we were late. They searched us and took us to another region, just so we wouldn’t bother them. There we were sheltered by some acquaintance of theirs in a hotel. So it wasn’t even social assistance, they just gave us a place to stay.

Sasha, the photo is “not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow”

Then we hitchhiked out of the region. We went to the social service and we spent the next two weeks in the hotel they put us in. We tried to find work, but they wouldn’t take us anywhere because we had to know Portuguese. We returned to Berlin, in utter despair. This experience in Portugal had a worse effect on my mental state than the first days of the war in Kiev. In the end we decided to go to Poland. I don’t really want to be here, Warsaw reminds me of Minsk, and that makes me feel worse. It’s like I’m not in my place now, like I shouldn’t be here. I don’t feel at home here, unlike in Kiev, where I felt that it was mine.

But I’m trying to find my footing, to adapt somehow. My plans for the future? I just want to live like a normal person and, frankly speaking, forget that all this was happening to me.