Belarus was created in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR. As a founding member and former president of the Center for Human Rights in Belarus, Vera Stremkovskaya is one of that country's most respected legal practitioners, known for her willingness to take up the defense of politically unpopular clients. In retaliation, she has been harassed, threatened, and charged with libel. In March 1999, the Collegium of Advocates (the government-controlled bar association) issued a "stern reprimand" to Stremkovskaya because of her outspoken advocacy for human rights, threatening disbarment if she continued her work. The country's current Soviet-style regime maintains strict control over the media, restricts circulation of the independent press (when it is not banned altogether), and controls all broadcast media. Street demonstrators can expect mass arbitrary arrests, beatings, and long prison terms, while plainclothes state security agents carry out threats and kidnappings in the street with total impunity. In the Belarus police state, this courageous woman seeks justice for the few who dare speak out against injustice. Her bravery and courage are exemplary.
"I feel an obligation as a member of society. I turn to the Bible and to Jesus Christ and question why he did what he did for human beings, even those who didn't believe in him. There is a line from a Russian poem, 'Go alone and help the blind to face at the moment the repression, the indifference of the crowd and the sarcasm of the crowd.' In my opinion, this is everyone's obligation. This is the meaning of life for me.
"I am a single mother. My parents died and I am bringing up my child alone. We are a family unit. We feel and think the same way and view life in a similar manner. Since I have a lot of friends and my home is a meetinghouse, my son is always meeting creative people. At the same time, he sees how tired I am when I come home from work. He realizes what I am doing, and, more and more often, asks me very particular questions about my cases.
"Life for me is one process. I cannot be one person with my kids and another at work. These worlds overlap. My clients often become my friends. They visit my house and my son meets them and sees who they are. He is attracted to this type of person. I think that I am happier than those who work from nine to five and pretend to do something important, when in fact they just exist.
"In my opinion, courage comes from doing something despite the difficulty of the circumstances. You do it because you feel it is right, because you should. The feeling of inner strength is like a metal cord inside of you that helps you to go forward. It originates from a vision of the future, from the belief in God, from a consciousness of destiny, and from knowledge of history. Likewise, it comes from the people who surround you, like my friends and my son. In the United States and other countries, people understand and support me. This gives me a great deal of strength.
"People in Belarus are no longer afraid. The fear that once gripped them has begun to dissipate and they have become creative in their protests. These protests may be local and small but are a sign of resistance. One inmate organized a protest against the rats in his cell. Although a prisoner, he defended his dignity and protection of his rights. In another incident, he hung his underwear and dirty clothes out the window so that the people working on the streets could see it. In doing so, he hoped to pressure the warden for more sanitary conditions.
"At times these protests are quite funny. An artist by the name of Pushkin put a pile of manure in front of the presidential palace. In it, he placed President Lukashenko's campaign slogans, along with a sign reading, 'Results of your presidency.'
"There is also a newly formed presidential youth organization called the Belarussian Patriotic Youth Union. Once, on AIDS Prevention Day, the Democratic Youth Movement formally presented the pro-Lukashenko Presidential Youth Organization activists with dozens of condoms on which the analogous message was written, "So that there will be no more like you." The idea was to stop the group from spreading.
"I am sure that the democratic process in Belarus will prevail. I am sure of it. We don't have any other choice. Belarus is a European country in the very center of Europe. Just as changes have taken place elsewhere, so they will happen in Belarus. I see our history as part of the development that is happening throughout the world. The history of the world proves that humanity is the whole union of people. We are united in moving toward democracy, toward justice, and toward a more open society. I believe that these democratic changes will take place in Belarus because there is a plethora of smart, industrious people who devote themselves to this cause on a daily basis."