In the tiny village of Aliaksandrauka, 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Minsk, ex-convict turned Catholic Alaksey Shchadrou bought three huts with donations from the church and turned them into a homeless shelter. Several times a month he drives to big cities to bring homeless people to the shelter, where he gives them food, a bed, and basic medical care. For this, he faces up to two years in prison.
In December 2011 the local KGB raided the shelter and confiscated all religious books, including Bibles. That turned out to be a warning: 18 months later prosecutors charged Shchadrou with running an organization without official registration. The shelter continues to operate pending the outcome of the investigation.
Article 193-1 of the Belarus Criminal Code makes it an offense to run any kind of organization that is not registered with the Justice Ministry. The measure was introduced on the eve of the presidential elections of 2006 to scare off opposition and civic activists from organizing anything unsanctioned, drawing opprobrium from an expert European commission on legal matters. Now it has become a handy tool for controlling charitable activity in Belarus.
Not that Shchadrou didn’t try to make his organization official. “For three months they would send me back and forth between the local council and the bishop,” he said. “Eventually I gave up and just started helping people without the registration. Then the local police came and told me to go start a shelter somewhere else. They didn’t know how to register my initiative, didn’t care about the people. They just wanted me to be someone else’s problem.”
Shchadrou and others say his project disturbs the authorities’ carefully constructed picture of a prosperous Belarus. In a state with free health care, plenty of social housing, and a low crime rate, the homeless seem an irritating reminder that, for whatever reasons, not everyone shares in the good fortune.
In October, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka boasted to Russian journalists, “You practically don’t see any beggars in Minsk. Here we have luxurious homes where we keep these people, wash them, give them clothes and the chance to spend the winter. We don’t throw these people in jail.”
To serve that population, Minsk has one state-run shelter with about 90 beds. Outside the capital, there are several government shelters in regional cities with a combined capacity of about 100. A shelter run by the Catholic Church in the southeastern city of Homel has about 200 beds.
Those who sleep in the Minsk shelter must leave at 8 a.m. the next day, whatever the weather. And while the homeless might not be locked up, some who live on the street say the police have other ways of dealing with them.
Stsiapan Bialauski, 51, works as a janitor in a Minsk government building and has been homeless for 10 years. He said a few weeks ago he was walking to a night shelter with his monthly pay of 250 euros ($334) in his pocket when he was stopped by the police.
“They beat me up and threw me in the trunk of their car, unconscious. I remember being left in the forest and waking up at the hospital with a concussion and no money,” he said. “The police came to see me once to see whether I remembered anything and was going to press charges.” While he was in the hospital, he said, the shelter operators checked him out and threw away his winter clothes.
Even if he were willing to incur the wrath of the police, Bialauski said he could not report the incident because he doesn’t know the names of the officers who allegedly assaulted him or their car’s license plate number.
Nevertheless, Bialauski can consider himself lucky. Registered at the state shelter and still fit for work – despite a growing tumor on his prostate gland – he has a job. Not only can he provide for himself, but he has a legitimate place to be during the day.
That was not the case for Sasha (who goes by her first name only), until Shchadrou opened his shelter. “It was so terrible, looking for a place to hide all day long,” she said, recalling her five years on the streets. “You can’t be in the open or a police officer comes and tells you to leave. I ask him, ‘Where?’ He doesn’t care, as long as I’m out of his precinct. So I had to walk to another place until an officer in that part of the city spots me. I’m 60 years old but sometimes I would have to walk all day. But the worst was the hunger. Thank God there were the students.
By “students,” Sasha means another unregistered initiative, the local chapter of an international movement, Food Not Bombs. It is the only group distributing food to the needy in Belarus on a regular basis.
Alena, a Food Not Bombs activist, said the group hands out food every week at three spots in Minsk, but they are often detained by the police. She asked that her real name be not be used so she would not to be singled out by the authorities.
“They claim that people from the neighborhood are complaining that we’re spreading gems and disease,” Alena said. She scoffed at the assertion, noting that volunteers distribute food in parks, not on residential streets. "It’s because we try to attract attention to the fact that inequality and poverty in the country and in the world do exist.”
Food Not Bombs activists feed the homeless mostly out of their own pockets – public fund-raising procedures are onerous. Further, Belarus allows few international charities or donors to operate in the country.
“The problem lies with the authorities, who forbid anything outside of their understanding,” said Yury Chavusau, a lawyer who advises a coalition of pro-democracy groups. “Additionally, the Catholic Church is not registered itself so it is dependent on the good will of the state and therefore extra careful.”
Shchadrou said a priest who had been allowed by the bishop to conduct Mass at his shelter had seen that permission subsequently withdrawn.
Attempts to reach church officials for comment were unsuccessful. A call to the Minsk archdiocese was referred to the Hrodna diocese, where Shchadrou’s village of Aliaksandrauka is located. Calls to that number went unanswered.
In the meantime, Shchadrou is still trying to register his shelter. If he manages to do so, the charges against him will likely be dropped. But if the case proceeds to court, the odds are against him, as the conviction rate in criminal trials in Belarus is nearly 100 percent.
If acquitted, Shchadrou plans to go to Rome, become a priest, and get permission from the pope to be a missionary. “It will be a much faster way than going through the bureaucratic hell here. And maybe if I have that permission from the pope, they won’t try to stop me from helping those in need.”