Returning by train from Belarus: life and death in Iraq, Belarus

By Bessma Momani

Reuters photographers, who have arrived in Irbil, Iraq, for another embed with Iraqis returning from Belarus

Photographer Bakhtiar Amin, who has recently returned from Belarus and who is taking the pictures for this project, was invited to cover these transfers, after becoming acquainted with one of the Iraqi journalists who began covering such transfers last year.

Tours can be legal if the government allows them, but once in Belarus they are not recognized as legal visitors and could be sent back to Iraq.

“The first people I met were the journalists,” Amin told Green Left Weekly. “They were living on a police truck after they found themselves in a catastrophe.

“When I arrived in Belarus they were grateful because they knew I was doing this project, and they told me that many journalists had tried to go and were arrested.

“And they appreciated what they found in Belarus, the democracy, the way everything is legal,” Amin added.

“They welcomed the fact that we were on this project.”

READ MORE: Amnesty: Why Belarus keeps blocking news stories

One of the complaints of journalists in Belarus is that they are denied access to the media. Reporters Without Borders, a French-based media watchdog, ranked Belarus one of the world’s most repressive nations for the third year in a row in 2018.

“The interviews were conducted in Belarus, but the journalists told me they did not see any Russian presence,” Amin explained.

“We did manage to see the place and the general surroundings of the railroad, that we didn’t get to see in the previous visit. However,” he added, “I got sick with altitude sickness. The place was under very severe pressure and low pressure.

“The other journalists who were here had expected that if it [moving] had been ordered, it was ordered. Some of them showed me these articles that suggested that the government allowed this to be done.”

Journalists who have interviewed Iraqi citizens who are leaving Belarus say the condition of the train was inhumane. These journalists say they were previously treated like criminals after providing the Belarusian government with information about a case, about violence against journalists, that has been pending with the Swedish police since 1998.

“When I first arrived there, it was really like a wake,” Amin recalled. “It was a longer event than I expected.”

“For me it was a camp. They were asking questions about all the activists I had worked with in Iraq.

“They were doing interview in order to fix them [the trip]. One man broke his leg, he did not want to go to the hospital because they wanted to take his passport.

“He is one of the activists they had arrested and locked up,” Amin added.

Alexander, one of the two protesters who led the way out of Russia, said he will probably go back to Belarus in the future, unless the government frees one of the activists who was also arrested and charged with belonging to the pro-Kremlin club.

“I left due to the human rights situation in Belarus,” Alexander explained. “At least when we were talking to journalists I was very much safe.

“They had done nothing against me in Belarus,” he added. “But coming to Iraq was very difficult. I was afraid and I had to go.”

Alexandra and Alexander have been waiting two years for the results of their case in Sweden.

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