Belarusian sprinter who fled Lukashenko tells Euronews about her new life in exile in Poland
While the life of Belarusian Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya would have been more difficult at home, her situation in exile in Poland is far from perfect.
The 24-year-old, who fled the Tokyo Games after Belarusian officials tried to force her on a return flight, told Euronews she now has bodyguards with her around the clock .
Tsimanouskaya, living with her husband in Poland after they both received humanitarian visas, says they check her every move, all day.
“I can’t meet my friends because the guards don’t know them,” Tsimanouskaya told Euronews. “We can do interviews if they are planned in advance, and I can go to train or swim.
“They say it can be arranged, but I can’t go to the stores or to the park. Every time I want to go out, I have to get permission.”
She is grateful for the added security – the price to pay for feeling safe – especially after a heart-wrenching experience in Japan and the death of another Belarusian dissident Vitali Shishov in Kiev, which her widow blamed in Minsk.
Nonetheless, she misses parts of her old life, especially freedom.
“I would like to go back to normal, visit the city and enjoy the summer, but I understand that it is dangerous,” she said. “I got messages from people saying if they saw me they would tear me open. I know now it’s better to be safe, I understand it wouldn’t be smart to show up in front of a lot of people.
Tsimanouskaya made headlines after claiming that Belarusian officials in Japan tried to force her to take a flight to Belarus.
The drama, however, had started during an argument with her coach after she was told to run the 4x400m relay, a distance she was unfamiliar with.
“When I found out I had to do the relay, I contacted the head coach to ask him what had happened,” Tsimanouskaya said.
“They saw my posts but didn’t respond, so I posted a video on Instagram. Then they said I would be fired if I didn’t delete the video.”
“I had a conversation with the coach who told me that they had received an order from above to withdraw me from the Olympics.
“I had to say I was injured and go back to my parents in Belarus without giving any interviews. They hinted that I would go to jail there.”
Tsimanouskaya said authorities gave him 40 minutes to pack his bags. She was then taken to the airport in a car for a flight back to Belarus.
Fortunately, she said, Tsimanouskaya was able to make contact with Japanese police, including using Google’s translation app to communicate her plight. A suspicious Belarusian official asked what was going on, but she managed to pick up the phone saying she forgot something at the Olympic Village and needed to go back. Eventually, the police removed her from Belarusian team officials and she returned to Europe after Poland intervened to help her. She now lives in a house donated by the Polish state, Tsimanouskaya added.
Threats and acknowledgments
Tsimanouskaya is now a celebrity all over the world, especially among the Belarusian diaspora.
Every day, she receives messages of encouragement and support from people like her who fled the authorities in Minsk.
“Anytime I want to give up, I can just read a few of these posts and I feel better and stronger,” she told Euronews.
“A lot of people tell me that they support me and want to help me and I’ve learned that a lot of people are in my situation.”
Thousands of Belarusians have left the country after a crackdown on dissent over the past year. It came after huge protests last fall following the contested re-election of longtime Belarusian President Alexandar Lukashenko. He was announced the winner of the August elections with 80% of the vote. His critics say the poll was rigged in his favor.
However, not all the messages Tsimanouskaya receives are positive. About 100 contain threats or harassment.
“I try not to take it into account. I try not to pay much attention to it,” Tsimanouskaya said. “When I go to the accounts of the people who threaten me, I see that they are supporting the authorities. What can you expect from these people?”
What are Tsimanouskaya’s future plans?
Returning to any form of normalcy is going to be difficult for Tsimanouskaya, especially given the presence of bodyguards.
But she is determined to try. First, she wants to relaunch her sports career and get back on the track.
“I want to continue my career,” she said. “I would like my plans for the years to come true. I want freedom and security for my country. People stop fleeing Belarus. I want freedom of speech. And I want to come back to Belarus and train I think I’ll go back someday, but I don’t know when. It could happen in a year. In two years. In five years. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
While her fate has drawn her into Belarusian politics, she has no plans to change careers.
“I will always give priority to sport, I am not going into politics,” she said. “I want to stay in the sport. I don’t understand politics, and I don’t want to say anything that could hurt my parents. I try to support other athletes who are going through the same situation, and I hope that will motivate them to speak up. Maybe if they speak up, the country could be free more quickly. “
It’s not just sports stars. Tsimanouskaya also urges everyone to have the courage to stand up against the authorities in Belarus.
“I understand your [the people’s] situation. I would like to tell them to find the strength and courage to speak out even if they are afraid.
“You can go to jail for saying the wrong thing, but if we work together and support each other, we can win.”
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