In 2010, if you asked Belarusians who Iryna Khalip was, many would have said she is a muckraking journalist who works for independent media. Her stories, they would have said, provoke many of the online discussions in Belarus.
“She could easily do a very tough and unpopular evaluation of an event or a person,” said Nicolai Khalezin, one of Khalip’s oldest friends. “But that’s what makes her a good journalist.”
That quality has been recognized internationally: she has won a chest full of journalism awards, including a 2010 Golden Pen of Russia award while in prison, a 2009 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, and in 2005, she was recognized among the “Brave Hearts” in Time magazine’s “European Heroes” special edition.
But for Khalip, life as a journalist would catapult her into life as a public figure, one who represents the hope, risk, and sacrifice Belarusians encounter when they raise their voices against their entrenched, Soviet-style government that still calls its security apparatus the KGB.
On Election Day 2010, life fundamentally changed for Khalip. After that, people saw her in a new role: the loving wife and supporter of opposition politician Andrei Sannikau, ready to risk all for his cause. Many Belarusians remember seeing the couple together on the main square of Minsk that night, protesting against elections they and many others had reason to believe were rigged. They also remember that night, 19 December 2010, when the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka started rounding up opposition protesters. Khalip and her husband were among the more than 700 people who were fined, arrested, or beaten, according to humanrightshouse.org.
‘All her phone calls are monitored’
Liberal Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio broadcasted Khalip’s frantic Election Day reports that police were beating her husband, who had earlier had his knees smashed by a riot police officer’s shield, The Telegraph reported. So much did her report anger Lukashenka that to refute it, he admitted, “All her phone calls are monitored and nobody was beating her. …”
Lukashenka won a fourth term with an official tally of nearly 80 percent of the vote, but international election monitors reported they could not observe counting procedures at one-third of the polling stations and “noted clear indications of ballot stuffing,” according to a report by the primary Western observation mission.
Danik was almost taken away from his grandmother and put into an orphanage, but the government released Khalip on a two-year suspended sentence, allowing her to once again care for her son under house arrest. In 2012, Sannikau was pardoned and traveled to Britain, where he remains.
Khalip says she didn’t go looking for a fight years ago when she started what would become a crusading journalism career.
It was 1994, the year Lukashenka came to power, and she was working for the Soviet Byelorussia newspaper, which she said was “influential, strong, and normal.”
Normal, too, is how she described her professional life until one day in November 1994, when “for the first time in my life, I saw a newspaper with white patches in it because some material about corruption was forbidden and censored the night before it was printed,” she said.
Sometime later, “Lukashenka’s main spin doctor came to our office and said, ‘From now on, this newspaper is part of the ideological apparatus of Belarus,’ ” she said. When the newspaper’s staff said they disagreed, “He smiled: ‘The decision is already made.’
“I wasn’t interested in politics until politics started to be interested in me,” Khalip recalled during a recent interview shortly after a government-permitted trip to visit her husband in Britain.
Sitting for coffee near Danik’s preschool, she spoke calmly but had moist, tired eyes.
Born in Minsk on 12 November 1967, Khalip graduated in 1989 from the journalism department of Belarusian State University. She began working as a culture journalist and in 1993 joined the staff of Soviet Byelorussia. Since 1995, Khalip has worked in various independent media and participated in many street protests.
For the past seven years, she has been an editor and reporter for the Minsk bureau of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper.
Khalezin, who is the art director for the underground, roving Belarus Free Theater, has known Khalip for almost 25 years. He said she has “always been principled and curious, but over the years her principles became harder and more manifest.
“The reason is simple: our existence under the dictatorship is bringing people to terms with hard moral choices,” he said.
A match made in turmoil
In 1996, while working at Imya, an independent newspaper that has since shut down, Khalip met her future husband.
“He was a deputy foreign minister in Belarus at that time and I was a journalist at long, boring press conferences with him speaking. In a couple of years, we met again and became friends and then got married,” Khalip said.
She became pregnant with Danik in autumn of 2006, after that year’s presidential elections. It was so unexpected for them both that they immediately went to the hospital for tests. They discovered they both had a relatively uncommon blood group, prompting doctors to declare they were made for each other.
When she and her husband were detained, they faced judgment as political activists as well as criticism for leaving their child to take part in a dangerous political action.
Khalip insists neither she nor Sannikau expected that night to unfold as it did. After being freed from jail, Khalip said she pored over pre-election analyses and found nothing to predict what had happened. What trumped many fears, however, was her duty to support her husband. “My husband was supposed to be there with people; so was I, because I love him,” she said.
Marina Zolotova, editor in chief of tut.by, the most popular website in Belarus and a mother of two, said it was up to Khalip to make that call. “It is her personal choice and her will. Each person is allowed to do whatever he or she thinks is necessary.”
An inquisitive son
Khalip said she realizes that Danik doesn’t have a normal childhood. There was a time when his mother and grandmother covered up the trouble her parents were in. They told him that all those men in black were protecting them, that his father was working somewhere far from home and that he would come back home soon, Khalip said.
But after a while, Danik started asking questions. And then Khalip said she decided to sit down with him and to tell him everything.
“I told him about the constitution, about the elections, about the protests, about prison. And you know what? I think he understood it. He has these phrases from time to time … ‘Mom, when will Russia give us an apology? – What for? – For us speaking Russian, not the Belarusian language!’ ”
On 13 February, Khalip was allowed to visit her husband in London, where they celebrated his birthday on 8 March. With her high profile, she represents enough of a headache for Minsk that it would probably like to be rid of her. Sannikau told Britain’s Independent newspaper this year that “It’s a concern always” that she might not be allowed back into the country after a trip abroad.
She is determined, however, to obey the rules and not be forced to break ties with her homeland.
“If the authorities hope that I’ll never come back, they’ll be disappointed,” she told BelaPAN, an independent news agency in Belarus. “I’m an exemplary prisoner. My probation period will be over in July, and I’ll wait for the court to hear my case.”
On her return from Britain in April, she said the guards seemed to be waiting for her. “I think they recognized me even without the passport,” she said, smiling.
Out of the darkness
Nata Radina, editor in chief of the website for Charter ’97, an opposition group, said what makes Khalip different in Belarus’ politically vanquished society is her tenacity.
“Unfortunately, most people gave up a long time ago and have given in to what is happening in Belarus,” she said.
Likening Khalip to the hero of Maxim Gorky’s story Danko’s Burning Heart, who sets his own heart alight as a beacon for benighted poor people, Radina said, “She’s trying to get us all out of the darkness.”
But that tenacity will be tested when it comes to the next presidential election, scheduled for 2015.
“My husband will have a prison conviction, and since we don’t have any procedure for rehabilitation of political prisoners, there is nothing we can do about the next elections,” she said, sighing.
But Khalip said she understands one thing clearly after 2010: one can never predict what will happen next in Belarus.
“Maybe, we will have a military government by that time. Maybe – democracy!” she said, laughing. “So I don’t have plans for more than the next 24 hours. I’ll just follow my heart. …”
Christina Karchevskaya is a journalist and social media activist in Belarus. She blogs at kryscina.com.
Originally published: www.tol.org