Cinema and Medicine: How Belarusians Protect Human Rights in Belarus and Ukraine
“Between resting and reflecting”—this is how the civil society organization Zvyano describes cinema, one of its main tools. It organizes film festivals and produces documentaries—and it also provides medical humanitarian assistance to the military in Ukraine.
“They imagine that the dictatorship in Belarus is similar to the one of Yanukovych’s time.”
“1084. On the border” is the name of a documentary film festival organized in Ukraine in 2022. This was six months after the start of the full-scale invasion by Russia. The name refers to the length of the border between Belarus and Ukraine, and it holds more than one meaning. The first refers to the fragility of relations between people on the two sides of the border after some of the Russian invaders came from the territory of Belarus.
The film festival was created as a platform where Belarusians and Ukrainians can build a dialogue to learn more about each other. No less than 3,250 spectators from the two countries attended in 2022. The festival included two programs: offline screenings for Ukrainians accessible with donations and free online screenings for Belarusians. The organizers also brought to the Ukrainian cities of Irpin, Odessa, and Ternopil an exhibition of works by the famous Belarusian modern artist Vladimir Tsesler.
“We would like to increase Ukrainians’ awareness of the realities in Belarus after 2020. They know a bit about the protests and imagine that the dictatorship in Belarus is similar to the one of Yanukovych’s time”, says Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorska, a human rights defender who heads of the civil society organization Zvyano (“Chain”).
“Taking the stage, we said: ‘Good evening, we are from Belarus’, and we were ready for anything. Neither I nor my friends faced such hatred as we can see in social media”.
To a Belarusian audience, especially those who have a “neutral” stance on the war, the organizers of the film festival want to show Ukraine’s realities. To do so, they showed films about Donbas, about people living in the occupied territories, and about the consequences of the war, as in the case of former soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Zvyano also wants tell Belarusians about Ukraine and its culture, about how it is a country more diverse than Belarus, about how Kharkiv differs from Kyiv and Odesa from Lviv, says Hatsura-Yavorska.
Courage, directed by Aliaksei Paluyan, was among the films featured during the festival. The fictional story takes place against the backdrop of documentary footage filmed in Belarus in 2020. This footage shows torture, the deprivation of the right to life and personal freedom, and the refusal of medical care to prisoners.
Such human rights violations have persistently occurred since 2020. They have been documented by Belarusian human rights activists working for the International Committee for Investigation of Torture, and the Zvyano team are among the committee’s founders. As of July 2023, the committee had collected more than 1,700 testimonies from participants of the 2020 uprising. Now Zvyano is involved in analyzing and preparing documents for the United Nations and for future legal investigations in Belarus.
Liquidated in Belarus, Re-Emerged in Ukraine
Zvyano’s other activities are also spread across Belarus and Ukraine. Hatsura-Yavorska left Belarus in March 2022 due to being targeted in a repressive criminal case. She settled in Ukraine to “be with them in this trouble” and was looking for a way to help.
At almost the same time, a court in Belarus liquidated Zvyano. In April 2022, the organization was registered in Ukraine. Now its charter includes two names: Lanka in Ukrainian as well Zvyano in Belarusian. Both are featured in the logo.
Part of Zvyano’s work in Ukraine is to provide legal information to Belarusians who moved to the country. But most of its efforts are related to providing medical aid and rehabilitation to veterans.
“A lot of innovations emerged with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For example, most surgeons weren’t familiar with special bone cement in their work”, says Hatsura-Yavorska. “Then humanitarian aid came, and they realized that this cement was super effective. Now everyone needs it. The same was with V.A.C. [vacuum-assisted closure of a wound] machines: they reduce the pain of wounds, eliminate the risk of infection, and help prevent sepsis”.
Zvyano delivers humanitarian aid to hospitals in Ukraine. With the help of two partners—the Association of Belarusians in Italy Supolka and the Medical Solidarity Fund of Belarus—it acquired 24 Italian V.A.C. machines. Part of the money for the devices—about €1,000—was raised at the film festival. The organization has also been supplying consumables for the devices for more than a year.
Another medical initiative of Zvyano is a rehabilitation center near Kyiv for veterans and serving soldiers, which opened in June 2023. The center’s team consists of about ten people, which is about half of all people involved in the work of Zvyano in Belarus and Ukraine. It accepts online applications from people with any citizenship and status. Soldiers can apply after being wounded or after completing their service.
“When active soldiers return from the combat area to vacation, often their psyche continues staying in a ‘military’ regime. They are not ready to rejoin their family or relax, for example, in relatively peaceful Kyiv”, says a volunteering doctor who remains anonymous because of security reasons.
“Peaceful life makes them indignant and angry. People in this situation require help. Psychologists call it ‘decompression’: the transition of the mind from a military state to a peaceful one. Decompression assistance is one of the options provided by our psychologists”.
Before the war, the doctor explains, nobody expected this problem to become so widespread. Now, the number of people in military roles in Ukraine is estimated to between 700,000 and one million.
Zvyano’s rehabilitation center offers a free program, including medical, psychological, legal, and social assistance. The decision about fitness for military service remains with the military doctors in individual units.
The center’s work is funded in approximately equal proportion by permanent subscriptions and by one-time donations via the Internet.
Showing the Problems in Belarusian Healthcare
Cinema has long been a cultural tool used by Zvyano. Until Hatsura-Yavorska had to leave the country, it had been holding the Watch Docs Belarus festival in Belarus for eight years.
“We know how to work with this instrument—how to encourage a dialogue through cinema. I would say that a feature of the cinema is its accessibility to a wide audience. Conferences are interesting mostly for the expert-level audiences while the cinema is between taking rest and reflecting”, she explains.
The organization is in the final stages of producing its own film, on the problems in the Belarusian healthcare system. It is a television-format documentary rather than artistic or festival-oriented cinema. The target audience consists of doctors and ministry officials.
“The purpose of the film is to show that the king is naked, and his path is unpromising”, Hatsura-Yavorska says. “Of course, you cannot receive comments from the Ministry of Health, but we found a creative solution. We had a recording of a conversation with the chief physician of Hospital Number Three in Minsk. In this, she explained how the system works”.
Hatsura-Yavorska continues. “Equipment can only reach the hospital if its ‘political situation’ is stable. Doctors do not have the right to express their position, and dismissals take five minutes using a medical history of patients, even if there are no complaints against the doctor. She also talked about the high workload for employees. In short, we have a comment from an official. It was a fragment of a conversation in the office when she fired the doctor”.
The film also uses open-source documents and comments from Belarusian doctors who left for Germany, Poland, and Ukraine.
Zvyano has several goals with this film. The first is to prevent Belarusian officials from closing their eyes to the inefficiency of the system and other problems. The second is to let Belarusian doctors recognize that, if they perceive something as wrong, it is likely the case. For example, that it is not normal to work for one-and-a-half or two shifts, or to let interns work alone.
“They openly write about such a case on the website of Gomel University”, says Hatsura-Yavorska. “An intern goes to the town of Brahin to work and says that there is no one to help, so he will work alone. Although Article 57 of the healthcare law prohibits this. Thus, the text describes a direct violation of the law. This is becoming a norm”.
Making Plans but Prepared To Improvise
Developing the rehabilitation center, completing the film, and organizing the documentary festival in the autumn are among its immediate plans. This year (2023) the “1084. On the border” festival will be held for the second time, with its offline part taking place in Lviv in Ukraine.
But Zvyano is ready to improvise too. “Well, we will look at the situation,” says Hatsura-Yavorska. “Perhaps, an emergency will arise and, instead of rehabilitating veterans, it will be necessary to take away children from the Zaporizhzhia region, for example. We have to understand there is always a chance that plans won’t come true”.
How is it possible for a Belarusian civil society organization to work also for Ukraine when there is a lot of hate toward Belarusians on the Internet? The head of Zvyano argues that comments on social media are not representative. She says that, in reality, Ukrainians approach Belarusians with caution and try to understand what kind of position a particular person has on the issue of the war. “When people clarify it and what a person is doing, the attitude becomes normal, kind, and grateful”.