Illustrative photo – Ukrainian soldiers near a destroyed army vehicle in Irpini on the outskirts of Kyiv, April 1, 2022.
Kyiv/Prague – In his native Belarus, Pavel Marjeuski and Hleb Huňko participated in protests against the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. When the war in Ukraine started a year ago, they immediately decided to go to help the Ukrainians fight against Russian aggression. They joined the Belarusian volunteer Kalinousky Regiment, the then eighteen-year-old Hleb was even the youngest fighter in the unit.
Photo gallery: Russian invasion of Ukraine
“When evil happens, it doesn't matter what nation it is. Evil needs to be fought. If there had been an aggression not against Ukraine, but against the Czech Republic, I am sure that not only I, but also others would have gone to help the Czech Republic in the fight for its freedom. Helping a smaller country that is not at all to blame for being invaded,” said Marjeuski in an interview with ČTK.
Pavel Marjeuski is a trained political scientist. In 2020, he met Belarusian presidential candidate Sjarhej Cichanousky and liked what he had to say about the injustice that he felt was taking place in Belarus on many fronts. When Cichanousky was arrested, he joined as a volunteer the campaign staff of his wife Sviatlana, who had decided to run instead of Sjarhej, and they organized various events in support of her.
“During my work in the election staff, I got to know many interesting Belarusians, people who stopped being afraid, stopped submitting to Lukashenko's regime and were concerned with how to change it. Unfortunately, many of them lost their freedom because of this struggle and are now in prison,” says the 33-year-old Belarusian. “When I felt that the noose was tightening around me and there was a big risk that I would also be detained, I went to Poland. That was in the summer of 2021. Then in March 2022, Hleb and I got to Ukraine via the Belarusian House in Warsaw,” he adds.
As Marjeuski explains, the Belarusian House in Warsaw is a building provided by the city to the Belarusian community. It serves to organize various Belarusian events and meetings. One of the spaces within the house then began to be used for various organizational matters connected with the recruitment of people to the Kalinousky Regiment, which is a Belarusian volunteer regiment fighting on the side of Ukraine. “I left for Ukraine on March 8, there were 14 of us then. First we went to Lviv, then to Kyiv,” says Pavel.
Hleb Huňko got to Poland in the same way as Pavel, but he also came with his brother. He was arrested and imprisoned in Belarus for participating in protests. “The way they treated me can be called torture. I filed a complaint against it with international organizations dealing with children's rights. In response, they immediately summoned me. I got kicked out of high school for that. It became clear to me that if I stayed in Belarus, I would not be able to leave the country. So I quickly went to Lithuania, where I spent a week, and then to Poland,” says Huňko. “I started to learn Polish, I was accepted at the school and I applied for international protection. When the war started, I just had my birthday, I was 18. I got asylum on March 8, when I went to war,” he adds.
In Ukraine, they first went through training, on the third day of their stay they received a gun and learned to shoot, but also a lot of other things. Then the first combat task awaited them. As part of the Belarusian unit, they fought in the northern suburbs of Kiev, then also on the front near Kherson and in the vicinity of Mykolaiv.
“If a person wants to live a certain conscious life, then, in my opinion, he should follow his dream. And my dream is a free Belarus. Belarus without violence, without dictatorship, with an educated society, with a developed economy and a healthy police force. For me, the journey began with participation in protests against Lukashenko's regime, and then continued with the fight against Putin's regime, Putin's aggression,” answers Pavel when asked why he decided to go help the Ukrainians. He did not want to say how many members the regiment has in total, but there are hundreds of them. And there are women among them. They have finance and equipment both from the Ukrainian army and from donors from among the Belarusian diaspora around the world.
Were they not afraid that they would die in the fighting in Ukraine? “Of course, fear is part of it. One is afraid to die, one is afraid to see one's friends die, but it would be much worse for me if I had to live in a lie. Knowing about some injustice and pretending it isn't. It is also necessary to realize that we did not perform military tasks there all the time, there was a lot of space where we just spent time together, tried to be cheerful, joke, talk about normal things,” says Marjeuski.
“Now I remember the end of March. Buča, Irpiň, footage from these liberated places went around the world. We were there and saw it all with our own eyes. The destroyed cities, the burnt human bodies. At one point we all gathered at the entrance of one of the houses, it was a multi-story building and all the apartments were open because they had been looted by Russian soldiers before. We saw a guitar there, which I don't know why they didn't take with them. Maybe they thought it was too cheap, or they weren't as interested in it as they were in toilet bowls,” says Bělorus. Then one of his colleagues, who is no longer alive because he was killed in the fighting, picked up a guitar and started playing. And various songs were played – Ukrainian, Russian and English.
“We all sang, even though we knew that death was next to us, that there were battles going on next to us. Such moments raise the fighting spirit very much. When I talk about it now, I get goosebumps again,” he adds.
Hleb says that he tried not to be afraid. Not to have thoughts in his head that would somehow demotivate him. But later, everything came back to him, with even greater intensity. He started having panic attacks. In addition, as a result of being in the vicinity of the explosion, he also suffered a brain injury, a so-called contusion. Other psychological problems were added, he started hearing voices and needed psychological help. He only got it in Poland, where he now lives and says that he already feels better. He spent five months in Ukraine, despite the consequences it left on him, but he does not regret it.
Pavel spent three months in Ukraine and decided to leave the unit, among other things, because the regiment's leadership decided that he would go into politics. “I couldn't relate to that. Then, of course, there were other reasons. For example, the death of our commander affected me a lot. He was very experienced and an authority for all of us,” he says.
He also began to suffer from panic attacks, first in Kiev, then several times in Warsaw. A psychotherapist and sports also helped him. “The psychotherapist recommended that I start doing something to distract myself so that I could better integrate into a quiet life. When a man returns from war, he cannot get used to not hearing explosions and not being threatened with death. So I go to practice a lot and try to leave a lot of energy there so that I don't have room for bad thoughts in my head anymore,” explains Bělorus. “When the war ends, and we all believe that it will end with the victory of Ukraine, hundreds of Belarusians will return from it, who will need at least psychological support and help,” he adds.
For that reason too, Marjeuski, together with his colleagues, decided to establish a fund for Belarusian veterans, thanks to which they would like to help those who return from the battles. Whether with the search for housing, work, or just with psychological care. The fund should take the form of a foundation, and Pavel hopes that they will be able to get contributions from the Belarusian diaspora from all over the world.
In addition to these problems, the Belarusian veterans are dealing with another one, which worries them perhaps even more. “Because of the war and the sanctions that were imposed on the Lukashenko regime, it is now almost impossible for Belarusians to get a visa and travel to, for example, Lithuania, Poland or the Czech Republic. So veterans can't meet their family and they, in turn, can't go to Belarus, because they would face prison there,” explains Pavel. That is why they are now trying to negotiate with the politicians in these countries and are trying to ensure that the families of Belarusian veterans can meet.
When asked if they still plan to return to Ukraine, Hleb answers with a clear 'no'. Pavel describes that he is in contact with other Belarusian veterans through various groups, and some of them have already returned to Ukraine. “The rest of us stayed, but as part of our debates, we said to ourselves that if Lukashenko's regime invades Ukraine, we will return there and defend it again,” he concludes.