20 October 2018, Saturday, 8:16
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My Love Story

Iryna Khalip

It's an incredible feeling of youth and upcoming changes.

My story with Charter'97 started with radio. To be honest, twenty years ago I did not understand very well what kind of Charter it was and how we fit together. The phrase "civil initiative" sounded like a foreign language. I remembered only the phrase of the school Komsomol organizer: "An initiative is punishable!" So, however, it happened. And, judging by arrests and murders, the civil initiative is much more punishable than any other.

I remember how I was surprised with visits to the editorial office of the Imya newspaper of Zmitser Bandarenka. I only knew that he was a successful PR man who graduated from the Institute of Physical Education. And here he comes and talks for hours with Mikalai Khalezin, our genius, and Pyotr Martseu, our publisher. "What is this sportsman doing here?" I sputtered. They looked at me with regret: they say, you did not get anything, poor thing.

I really did not get why an excitement around a collection of signatures under the declaration with eye-catching, clever, but such seemingly common words. And only later I started understanding the meaning of that.

Then political prisoners-children appeared in Belarus. On August 25, 1997 young opposition activists Aliaksei Shydlouski and Vadzim Labkovich were arrested for political graffiti. Aliaksei was 18 years-old, and Vadzim was only 16. Fearless boys not only painted the Staubtsy District Executive Committee with slogans "Long Live Belarus!" and "Paznyak is our president!", but also managed to replace the red-green flag on the building of the executive committee with the national one, and also to cover the entire city with national flags. It was so provocative and so bold that even the age of Labkovich was not an obstacle to his arrest. Vadzim and Aliaksei spent six months in the remand center. In February of 1998 they were sentenced to a year and a half in a colony.

Then Labkovich as minor was given a respite for two years. And Lesha Shydlouski was jailed.

When Vadzim was released from the court room, the Charter'97 had been already signed. And I finally understood how it worked. Zmitser Bandarenka came to the editorial office again. There was no Internet in houses, it was a rare thing in editorials as well. Everyone then used to listen to Svaboda radio. (By the way, the newspaper of the same name was closed in the autumn of 1997). Dzima told that Labkovich needed support. And we decided to buy him a good radio receiver to surf all types of waves, so that the youngest political prisoner in the country whose rights were mostly limited with the respite could listen to free radio in the Belarusian language.

And in October, a month before the creation of the Charter'97, Vadzim Kabanchuk was arrested for taking part in protest actions. In the spring when Vadzim was imprisoned for almost half a year, I gave money to his family. By that time, thanks to the radio, I already understood what the civil initiative was and how the Charter worked. And then Vadzim was released and he said: "If you need to mess up someone's face, just tell me." And, imagine, it was the phrase for me, to some extent, that became the quintessence of the Charter'97. Not in the sense of a face, of course. Just because it was important for me to know that we all are somewhere near and can help each other at any moment. This is the civil initiative.

Yes, there appeared many other components and many new people in the story of the Charter'97. The website was created, it could become the most popular in Belarus, there were dozens of cool events we still remember of, outstanding people the country can be proud of joined us.

But for me the Charter is the same radio. And those words of Vadzim Kabanchuk. It is also a huge banner "Dictatorship is shit!" unfurled in the middle of the Yakub Kolas square by Mikalai Khalezin and Aleh Bebenin together with Belarusian rock musicians about twenty years ago. It is also Vitsya Ivashkevich, alive and joyful, in the editorial office of Rabochy.

It's an incredible feeling of youth and upcoming changes. As in youth, when you do not want to fall asleep at night not to miss something very important and beautiful. And there is no doubt that it will certainly happen tomorrow, early in the morning. And all are still alive, and no one will ever die.

And, of course, the Charter'97 means love for me. After all, thanks to the Charter, I married Andrei Sannikov. Because it was the person, a stranger, I brought with the radio to Vadzim Labkovich. Then we waited for a bus. And in the end they got married.

However, several years passed before we got married, but still the love story for me is also the story of the Charter'97.

The Charter, I love you.

Iryna Khalip, specially for Charter97.org