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Elena, together with her teenage son, was fleeing from Belarus from criminal prosecution. Like many people, our heroine thought that it was temporary, that it was only necessary to wait a couple of months. But the emigration dragged on. Elena created a shelter in Kyiv for refugees from Belarus and stayed in Ukraine.

“Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to Elena about life under the shaheds, trips to the front, and how to find strength in difficult times.

Elena, 36

“We prepared for the worst…”

We knew in advance that there would be a war. We had no illusions that the army was standing near the border just to “intimidate”.

In early February I was at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border: I was helping a guy with autism spectrum disorder to get documents from the border guards so that he could apply for refugee status. The atmosphere was very tense, there was a bad feeling.

Many Belarusians from the diaspora urged their fellow countrymen to leave Ukraine. We even wrote a letter to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about it. Besides, on February 21, Putin started evacuating people from the so-called “LPR/DPR”. So, we were preparing for the worst.

On February 24, I was in Kyiv, there were a lot of people in the shelter. We found a car and started evacuating families with children.

Elena. Photos from the heroine’s personal archive

Later, I took my son to the Polish border, but I stayed in Ukraine myself.

For the first month after the full-scale invasion, I was a volunteer in Lviv, helping people to leave Ukraine. Many Belarusians were not put on buses and trains. The Free Belarus Center was engaged in evacuation, they rented transport, but many Belarusian men gave up their seats for women and children. There was a big demand for evacuation, so I also started taking people to the border. Sometimes three times a day, as people had nowhere to sleep. We also brought food and water to the border.

I had no doubts: I decided that I would stay in Ukraine. After Lviv, I went to Poland for a couple of months, helped my son with his documents and came back to Kyiv again.

“Five guys from our house went to the Kalinouski Regiment…”

Even before the war I helped Belarusians with legalisation. When it all started, I realised, how much can one run away? I had already escaped from Belarus once and to this day I feel the pain of that loss. My acquaintances are in prison, and I can’t help them, but I can do something for those who stayed in Ukraine.

Besides, five guys from our house went to the Kalinouski Regiment. At that time we didn’t know that they would receive a salary from the AFU, we thought that we would have to help, bring food, buy equipment.

In May 2022, my volunteers and I bought a car for the warriors … and since then we have been travelling to Kherson, to Kharkiv, taking cars, equipment. Mostly for the Ukrainian military (because we work with Ukrainian funds), but sometimes we help our own. For example, recently we bought a car for the battalion “Bogatyr” and “Terror”.

A year later we registered the organisation “Meet”, through which we help Belarusians to legalise in Ukraine. We have already won two courts and saved people from deportation.

“My son is proud of me…”

The closest person to me is my son, and he is proud of me. My son realises that Ukraine has become our refuge, our second home, and now it’s time to help. The parents realise all the dangers. But I was able to explain to them that I am staying because I cannot do otherwise.

In order not to burn out, I try to rest more. Although my understanding of rest is peculiar: I pick up cars for soldiers and drive hundreds of kilometres to take them to the front. For me the road is a rest.

Of course, sometimes fatigue appears. In Belarus there are endless arrests, in Ukraine our guys die at the front. I know everyone who died since 2022.

At such moments, I try to cry, give myself time to grieve … and get on with my work. Once I was resting at the sea and every minute I thought that I was wasting my time, that I could do something useful or give money from the vacation to the warriors.

Such a paradox: if you don’t rest, everything is fine, but as soon as a free minute appears, you start to reflect a lot, and then it becomes more difficult.

It is important that we tell Ukrainians about Belarus. Last time I was in Chernihiv region, which is 40 kilometres from the border, and I heard from children that it was as if the Belarusians came, that “we were occupied, we were hiding in the basement from them”. And I understood the necessity to explain what was really happening. That there are Belarusians and there is Lukashenko’s regime. After half an hour the children were not so wary of us, not so afraid. They said that it was Lukashenko who was shit, not the Belarusians. Such cases inspire us to continue our work. Our acquaintances are in prison, and sometimes we get news from them that they are proud of our work. Then you realise that you can’t stop, you have to move forward.

Kherson. Photo from Elena’s personal archive

“Under shelling, you still had to go to work…”

You get used to war very quickly. I was in a bomb shelter only once, and that was at the very beginning.  Sometimes I am in Kherson, there is shelling almost every day. But even to this you get used to it. The other day I came to Lithuania and I am very unaccustomed to the fact that there are no air raids here.

I have to go to work even under shelling. The only thing that is hard to get used to is fighter jets. When they fly, it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes at night I hear shaheds. Yeah, it can be hard to sleep, what can I say.

One time I was in surgery. My son came to visit me in Kyiv, he was alone in the apartment. The shelling started to get pretty intense, and it was really awful then. I was very worried, but not for myself, for the child. Then I took him to Poland and I never wanted him to come here again.

Responsibility is a scary thing. When you’re responsible for another person, war becomes the most frightening experience.

Did the war change me? I wouldn’t say that my principles, my values have changed. On the contrary, they were strengthened. The only thing I regret is that I worked a lot in Belarus and because of that I spent little time with my family. Now it is not known when we will see each other. Material values have become unimportant. Recently I was asked: “Elena, how much money do you need to be happy?”. I don’t even know how much money I need for all this to end: the war and repression in Belarus.

I am going to help Ukraine as long as I have enough strength. Of course, I dream of returning to my home. I understand that there will be no military coup in Belarus, but I am ready to do everything to free political prisoners and destroy the regime. I realise that when the war in Ukraine ends, it doesn’t mean that the regime will fall in Belarus. It is also possible that everyone will shake hands with Lukashenko and everything will be as before. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything. We should unite and fight back against injustice as far as possible.