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Belarusian Fighters Remain Committed to Ukrainian Victory, and to Their Own

Among the various groups of foreign fighters currently serving on the Ukrainian side in its war against Russian aggression, Belarusians have perhaps the most to gain from a victory over Vladimir Putin’s forces.

After peaceful protests failed to top the regime of Kremlin-aligned Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko following disputed elections in 2020, thousands of political exiles left the country. At least hundreds of them have since joined the ranks of Ukraine’s International Legion, where they say they are gaining the skills necessary for executing regime change back home.

“We now have more experience in actual combat than most Belarusian officers do,” Oscar, a current member of the all-Belarusian Volat unit, told Newsweek in Lviv, Ukraine, on the sidelines of a museum exhibition opening dedicated to the Belarusian volunteers who have given their lives fighting in Ukraine.

“The Lukashenko regime really is afraid of what we’ll be able to do the next time there is a political crisis in the country,” he added.

Oscar, who is in his early 20s, fled Belarus following the country’s most recent wave of political upheaval, which occurred following disputed elections in August 2020. In that vote, Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed to have won a sixth term in office with an official vote total of 81.04 percent.

Oscar served as a volunteer election monitor in that vote, and many of his current comrades in arms were arrested and beaten in the wave of protests that followed it.

“There were five days of early voting, then election day itself, and I spent the whole time counting how many people came into the polling station,” Oscar said. “It was necessary to make an accurate count in order to prevent officials from adding false ballots for Lukashenko at the end of the process.”

In the end, however, Oscar’s efforts had no impact on the election’s official results.

“On the final day of the voting, while I was walking home on my lunch break, four men in plain clothes jumped out of a civilian car and arrested me,” he said, “and so I was in a jail cell when my polling station submitted its official results, which of course showed an impossibly large majority for Lukashenko.”

That night, while Oscar remained in his cell, protesters began joining him.

“A lot of the people that the police put in with me had been beaten black and blue,” he remembered. “They had us so packed in that everyone had to stand up. They didn’t feed us.”

Oscar was released after a few days, and he immediately joined the protest movement that in the weeks following the election brought hundreds of thousands of Belarusians out onto the streets all across the country. The street demonstrations only abated after Lukashenko’s security services cracked down, with Moscow’s full support, arresting at least 30,000 demonstrators and beating hundreds of them. Oscar and several of his current fellow fighters were among them.

“I knew it was time to leave the country when an investigator called me in as a potential witness to a crime,” he said. “They did that when they wanted people to show up at the police station voluntarily, and so I gathered up my things and went to Ukraine.”

By every indication, Oscar’s suspicions about the Belarusian authorities’ intentions were correct.

“After I’d left, my mother found out that there was a warrant out for me,” he said. “I was being charged with ‘Organizing Participation in Mass Disorder.'”

For over a year, Oscar worked as a cook in the Kyiv area. Although he had no military experience, on February 25, 2022, the second day of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he and a few friends voluntarily appeared at a military recruiting office in order to find out how they could get to the front. They ultimately found a route to the fighting via membership in the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment, an all-Belarusian unit in Ukraine’s International Legion.

“I had already lost one homeland, and if I didn’t do anything, then I would lose another,” Oscar said. “I couldn’t just stand there, and I couldn’t run away again. You have to defend what’s important to you, and fighting is the only way we can get the experience we’ll need if Belarus is ever going to change for the better.”

Oscar’s comrades-in-arms agreed in attendance at the exhibition opening.

“After Ukraine’s victory, Lukashenko must be prosecuted as a war criminal along with Putin,” Dzianis, who also fled Belarus after being beaten in police custody during the 2020 protests, told Newsweek. “Lukashenko didn’t just repress his own people; he also allowed the Russian aggressors to use his territory as their launching point towards Bucha, and he must bear responsibility for that.”

“I was in Bucha immediately after the liberation,” he explained. “I also fought in Bakhmut for months, and I don’t know which place was worse. They were both the worst things I’ve ever seen.”

It is not only the opposition-minded young men of Belarus who have taken up the Ukrainian cause. Among them, also dressed in camouflage, was a tall, broad-shouldered young woman going by the nom de guerre “Dasha,” whose specialty on the front is the use of rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Among the various groups of foreign fighters currently serving on the Ukrainian side in its war against Russian aggression, Belarusians have perhaps the most to gain from a victory over Vladimir Putin’s forces.

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