“No Means No” is a quite unique campaign

Speech by Olga Karach, Nash Dom, March 22, 2024

Sometimes you meet someone, and even if you don’t realize it, the meeting is fateful and can change your life forever. In 2001 I met Bjorn Kunter from the peace organisation BSV. At that time I was very depressed because I felt that something was wrong in Belarusian civil society. I talked a lot with Bjorn Kunter and we started to realize many ideas of non-violent resistance in Belarus. He put me in touch with other wonderful people from the BSV – Christine, Ute, Sine and others – and together we carried out many advocacy campaigns in Belarus. According to the results we achieved, there were situations where people came with guns to arrest us, but they backed off and we were not arrested. After that, I believed much more in the power of people from below than in weapons.

In 2020, there were mass protests in Belarus, and at that time, we organized a hotline for victims of repression. But at the same time, it was very important to me that the protests remained peaceful. It wasn’t easy because we had many voices advocating for violence, saying that protests should be met with violence in response to police brutality. I spent many hours trying to convince people that we still needed peaceful protests. Our YouTube channel “Our House TV” had 40 million views. You have to imagine the audience at that moment. But at the same time I understood the huge responsibility of the world, of people, because it was an incredible power. I knew very well that if we called on people to go to the barricades, to kill policemen, they would do it. But of course we didn’t. And of course it was a really big responsibility to ask people to continue peaceful actions and to understand that somebody could be arrested, somebody wouldn’t go home, maybe somebody could be killed.

And of course, with that kind of pressure and responsibility, it was easy to lose your mind. BSV also helped me, and I spent many hours with them, working together on a non-violent strategy.

When the full-scale war started, our lives changed, of course, like many others in our region. We started our “No Means No” campaign to support Belarusian conscientious objectors, because we believe that this is the only thing we can do as Belarusian civil society – we can prevent the Belarusian army from taking part in the war in Ukraine. Again, it’s not easy because even we didn’t know exactly that the man had the right not to go to the army, not to kill, not to take part in the war, to be a conscientious objector.

Our second historic meeting was with the organisation Connection e.V. We met Rudi and other people from Connection e.V. and it was very serious support because we got a lot of advice on how to build our campaign and they gave us a lot of arguments about human rights and what we could do in the campaign. And after we started the campaign, it wasn’t very easy because, as you can imagine, Lukashenko doesn’t like our campaign perhaps even more than many of our previous campaigns.

And “No Means No” is quite a unique campaign for me, because it’s the first time in my life that I’m defending men’s rights, not women’s rights or children’s rights, but specifically men’s rights. I used to complain a lot that when we campaign for women’s rights we come up against so many gender stereotypes. But now I understand that even when you are defending men’s rights, you also come across a lot of gender stereotypes. It’s very connected.

We have started to be part of the big peace movement and we are very grateful to many peace  organizations that I have met in these 2.5 years. This is War Resisters’ International, this is the International Peace Bureau (IPB), this is EBCO,  this is WILPF (a feminist peace organization), feminist Stiftung Umverteilen!, peacebuilders and pacifists from Germany, Italy, from France, from Finland, from many other countries. These people teach us and they give us a lot of strength and power to continue our advocacy campaign.

I would like to tell you a little about the challenges we are facing as we continue our campaign. For example, I have now been declared a terrorist in Belarus. And in Belarus terrorism is punishable by death. There is a risk of the death penalty in Belarus if the Belarusian regime is able to send me back. When we started the campaign, we got a Lithuanian lawyer, Mantas Danielius, to help us with the legal status of Belarusian conscientious objectors in Lithuania. After a few months the lawyer was arrested and is now in prison on suspicion of spying for the KGB. So the KGB hired a European citizen to spy on us, completely peaceful women.

A few days ago, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened three new criminal cases against me, and according to these three new cases, I could be sentenced to a total of 22 years in prison. One charge, for example, is for discrediting Belarus, because they think that I can’t speak about the situation in the Belarusian army, about the problems with conscientious objectors. Twenty-two years in prison for three new cases – that’s what I’m facing now. But in reality, I don’t know how many criminal cases I have, because I had some criminal cases for our participation in peaceful protests in 2020. The situation is not completely clear.

I also spent 17 days in a shelter in Lithuania under the protection of the Lithuanian police, because the Lithuanian police had received information that someone from Lukashenko’s team wanted to kill me. With my family members, including my children, we had to move from town to town, staying in different rooms without the possibility to even go near the windows, due to the risk that somebody could shoot us.

Unfortunately, as we continued our campaign, we realized that conscientious objectors were not welcome anywhere. In Lithuania we also faced many threats, and unfortunately Lithuania declared that Belarusian conscientious objectors were a threat to national security. As Rudi mentioned earlier, my application for political asylum was rejected, as was my husband’s. This has caused a lot of trouble. Nevertheless, we continue and I would like to share with you some of the lessons we have learned during these 2.5 years.

First of all, I’ve been thinking a lot about what peace means to me. For me, peace is not just an agreement between Zelensky and Putin. It’s something deeper, because, as we see in our region, we have a lot of ultra-right movements and a lot of politicians who are starting to offer a dilemma: either you choose protection or you choose to defend human rights. And it is not only in Belarus or Russia. It’s also in the Baltic countries and it’s also in Ukraine. This is something we strongly disagree with. Also, when we talk about peace, it’s not just the absence of war in space or time. Because in Belarus, for example, we don’t have war, it’s true, but at the same time we don’t have peace. And of course our way to peace in our region will be very complicated because our families are deeply divided. This war is very unique for Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, because each of us has relatives in the other countries. Now relatives can’t communicate with each other, and very often they even hate each other. Of course, I understand very well that it will be very complicated to restore peace in our families.

If we’re talking about the Belarusian case, unfortunately I think it’s very similar in Russia. We have many cases where relatives report their own family members to the KGB. And in a situation where you’re imprisoned because your mother or another close relative reported you to the KGB or the FSB for your opposition activities, of course it’s very difficult to communicate and talk with your mother, your brother or your children. Unfortunately, we need to rethink the new definition of what peace means to us. Peace is not just the ability to live, it’s the ability to live in safety. Unfortunately, I haven’t felt safe all my life in Belarus and Lithuania. And in my opinion, that’s not peace either. We need protection, the defence of our human rights. It’s a very important issue, because I think it’s impossible to have peace only for some parts of society and no peace for other parts of society. For example, if there’s a very strong anti-migrant movement in a country—no matter where—it’s impossible to build peace for the citizens without also building peace for the migrants who are already in the country.

Another thing that is perhaps new to me is that peace is very much linked to social justice and poverty. If we look at who goes to war, I have to say, unfortunately, that 99% of them are poor men from very depressed regions. Rich men don’t go to war. In Ukraine, in Russia, everywhere, poor men who don’t have money to pay, who don’t find any kind of protection, very often have to go to war because they don’t see any solution to avoid participating. But also, when we talk about social justice, this is my opinion about Russia: very often, Russian young men, especially at the beginning of the war, started to participate because it was the only way for them to have some kind of social benefit – to exchange their willingness to use violence for the possibility of climbing the social hierarchy. And this is also a very important question for us: how can we increase the education, the opportunities for these young men, how can we fight poverty, how can we fight the social injustice that we have now in our countries?

And finally, my lesson from this situation over the last two and a half years is that peace is solidarity. In war, as a refugee, as a soldier, you are always alone; you have to survive and you have an incredibly difficult dilemma – either kill or be killed. In peace you don’t have that dilemma and you don’t have that choice. So I have received a lot of solidarity in the last 2.5 years. I always say that without your solidarity we wouldn’t have been able to survive, we wouldn’t have been able to continue without your support and protection. And thank you very much to the International Peace Bureau for nominating us for the Nobel Peace Prize; this is really a very important protection for us, for organizations working with conscientious objectors from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. And thank you very much for your attention and for this Award.

Olga Karach, Nash Dom: “No Means No” is a quite unique campaign. Speech at the award ceremony of the International Peace Bureau, Berlin, March 22, 2024. Nash Dom is one of the three award winners of the Seán MacBride Prize 2024.