“Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” continues to tell about Belarusian women activists (and not only) in the section “Women’s Activism”. This time we talked to the social activist, the head of the project “Politvyazynka” Evgeniya Dolgaya about her project, women’s prisons and the possibility to help those in captivity.
Hi! Tell us a little bit about your activist path: where did it all start? What did you do in Belarus?
– In Belarus I was engaged in social journalism. I wrote about quite heavy topics: domestic violence, the human immunodeficiency virus, drug addiction and its criminalisation, prison, alcoholism, problems of homeless people. I also volunteered at a psycho-neurological boarding school, came to distribute food for the homeless.
– Why did you choose these topics for your articles?
– Probably there is something like a hole inside me, which is drawn to rescue and still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that the world is unfair. But seriously, there is a lot of xenophobia, discrimination and other horror in Belarus. For example, if a child in Belarus is born with HIV+, there is a high probability that his/her diagnosis will not be a secret for the school, because the education system does not protect such children in any way. I am not even talking about the fact that the child grows up and nobody talks to him/her about the fact that people with HIV+ can take therapy, and then they will be fine, they will live a normal and happy life.
Domestic violence is a very scary phenomenon, especially in Belarus, where it is not punished practically in any way. A case is opened only when there is a dead body. Either the one who was abused was killed, or the one who was abused was killed. It was important for me to show that there is a lot of violence. If only for the victims to read and realize that something bad is happening to them.
– What was the attitude to your articles and topics you raised in Belarus?
– Very different. I remember when a “comrade policeman” called me and asked me not to write about LGBTQ+ anymore. He said that it was a forbidden topic. Of course, there was a lot of hate from the propaganda side, among other things. I remember the topic on 328 (criminal code article for drug addiction) bombed the propagandists in general. They made people who had been locked up for years for a couple grams of weed look like drug lords.
– Why did you have to leave Belarus?
– In October 2020, I was detained. I stayed in the detention centre for three days and went on hunger strike. Then there were strange conversations – interrogations with people in civilian clothes, who did not introduce themselves and threatened me directly.
I left Belarus in November with the idea that I was going away for a month. This month stretched for three years.
– Could you tell us about the project “Politvyazynka”, for those who don’t know it?
– I position “Politvyazynka” as a media project, first of all. I tell about women political prisoners, their prison life, and their problems. That is, I make Belarusian women visible.
– How did the project “Politvyazynka” come into being?
– In Kiev, I met with my Ukrainian colleague Lesya Ganzha and told her about the situation in Belarus. Lesya was impressed by the women’s marches at that time. She asked me an important question: “Why is there still no initiative to highlight the experience of a politically imprisoned Belarusian woman?”. We started to come up with a project and Maksym Butkevych, a Ukrainian human rights activist who helped Belarusians a lot at that time, joined us. Now Maksym is in captivity, and Lesya is at the front. When the war started in Ukraine, I thought that the project was no longer relevant, because a prison is a prison, but war is still scarier. But I was persuaded by my relatives. The artist Anna Tatur had already painted portraits at that time and showed them at her art college in France. The teachers were shocked and delighted by the Belarusians. So I collected portraits and began to publish them on Instagram.
By the way, the word “Politvyazynka” – it’s made up. We were looking for a feminitive to the word “Politvyazen” (political prisoner). I heard a lot of outrage about why we should divide political prisoners. But my goal was not to divide them, but to show what a women’s prison is in Belarus. How easy it is to put pressure on a Belarusian woman who contributed to civil society. It was important for me to show and make visible women’s contribution to the struggle for democracy.
Political prisoners say that Belarusan prison is one of the worst places on the planet. For example, female political prisoners in Belarusan prisons are forced to lift a sanitary pad glued to their underwear during a body search. Many of the political prisoners are mothers of small children. Nowadays the time is such that children don’t know their parents’ handwriting. So they don’t understand who wrote them letters and don’t believe it. They think that mom is dead, and they are deceived and write fake letters.
-How many women political prisoners (“politvyazynok”) are there in Belarus now and what is the main difference between a women’s prison and a men’s prison?
– At the moment there are 198 women in prison. Since 2020, 600 women have been imprisoned in politically motivated criminal cases.
Women’s prison is different because unfortunately men leave the families where women are imprisoned. If in the men’s prison the visiting rooms are occupied, in the women’s prison there are always free ones.
In Belarus, a female prisoner is obliged to work in a sewing factory, where they sew uniforms for law enforcers. You can’t refuse to work – it is forced labour. If the shift at the factory is over, the woman goes to clean the territory of the colony. And so every day, exhausting and absolutely meaningless work.
–As far as I know you are constantly expanding your project: for example, recently there was a series of photographs about what women in the colony use. Can you tell us about it?
– I introduced the rubric “Survival” to show how many things that are familiar in freedom help to survive in a detention centre or colony. I was surprised that the rubric enjoys a response actually. I was surprised to see that the column has been well received, actually. It is difficult to preserve oneself in prison, but a well-organised life helps. After all, in our prisons, living is very bad. Of course, it is aimed at destroying a person’s personality. So women spin around as best they can, they want to have at least some control over their lives..
– What is the first thing that women in prison need?
Justice, of course. But I will go down to earth and say that support. Support not only for political prisoners themselves, but also for their loved ones. Especially children and elderly parents, and even animals…You can support them with parcels, letters, and money on their account.
– What other ideas would you like to realise regarding the project?
I would very much like to start a tik tok explaining what a women’s prison is in Belarus.
I understand that you started your project on a volunteer basis. How hard is it to run the project on your own?
Very hard. I didn’t realise how much the prison theme burns you up inside. It’s like you’re putting yourself in prison. I’m sure nothing will help you burn out in all of this. I’ve wanted to close the project many times, but that would be a betrayal to those in prison. I’ve decided for myself to choose a gentle regime. Not to kill myself, but to take a very ecological approach. Not to take on everything in a row either. For example, I never write about torture. Because it is not my field of work and I am not competent in it. But writing about torture is hard for me too. And also, I try to publish materials not later than 20.00, because if I publish later, I already dream about prison and have no strength.
The project does not plan to help women after imprisonment?
In isolated cases we can help. But our main assistance is aimed at those who are serving their sentences.
– How can we help the project?
You can repost, subscribe or donate. Every contribution is very important.