“I was sure the baby was dead”
Escape from Belarus: heavily pregnant through forest and swamp
By Uladzimir Zhyhachou
05/01/2023 1:31 p.m
Polina Leschko is seven months pregnant when she has to make a difficult decision – give birth to the child in the Belarusian prison or escape. The woman decides to flee. The route runs through deep forests and swamps. It’s only a year and a half later that she’s ready to talk about it.
It was a gray day last December when Polina Leschko found out about her brother’s death. The 35-year-old Belarusian lives in Warsaw, just a four-hour drive from her hometown of Brest. The woman still doesn’t come to the funeral there – a year and a half ago she had to flee her country and she can’t go back.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Belarusians, Leschko took to the streets in August 2020 to protest against dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Together with her husband, she took part in daily peaceful demonstrations. That ended in mid-September – the mother of two received a summons from the police. Criminal proceedings have been instituted against her and her husband for taking part in the demonstrations. “When I asked, legitimately, whether we had done something illegal, the officer during the interrogation showed me a photo of me and my husband at a demonstration and said: ‘You are bloody criminals, your children are being taken to an orphanage. And you will rot in prison,'” the woman recalled in an interview with the opposition news portal Mirror. With the kind permission of the editors, their report is now also appearing in an abbreviated form on ntv.de.
Several months later, in June 2021 – Leschko was now pregnant with her third child – the couple was sentenced to a year and a half in prison. The two appealed, gaining valuable weeks of freedom to consider what to do. Sending the children to a home and giving birth to the daughter behind bars was not an option for the family. The couple decided to flee.
“We didn’t have time – I had to give birth in two months”
“We already knew there were routes across forests and rivers and were looking for someone who could help us find them and cross the border,” recalls the 35-year-old. “Of course I couldn’t cross a river with such a big belly. There was a risk that the baby and I would die.” Eventually, the couple found a way to get to Ukraine through a forest. “It was the fastest and at the same time the most dangerous way. But we didn’t have time – I had to give birth in two months.”
A few days before the escape, relatives brought the couple’s children to Kiev. There they should wait for their parents. Leschko – now seven months pregnant – and her husband went into hiding and looked for a smuggler. “Eventually someone got in touch. On his instructions, we drove to a certain town and sat there in a certain place.” The 35-year-old does not want to name the city for security reasons. “He came from behind, took our jackets and led us into the car. These people were very careful about their identity. But as far as I know, they were caught and are now in prison,” says Leschko.
“The man who was helping us was absolutely stunned when he saw me. I understood that he hadn’t known before that I was pregnant. I asked: ‘Do we even have a chance of arriving on the other side in Ukraine ?’ And I knew from his look that things were bad. But he said, ‘Let’s try.'”
“I can’t run away if they start shooting”
“It was very scary. When we went into the forest at night, all I thought about was seeing my children again. I had doubts about whether we would even get out. I was in a kind of shock,” said the 35-year-old. “I told my husband to watch the kids if anything happened to me. We both knew that if they started shooting, I wouldn’t be able to run far with this belly.”
As a woman from a big city, Polina Leschko had no idea what it meant to cross forests. “It was only there that I understood what it means to struggle, run, fall and get back up through all this. We didn’t walk, we ran, and when we heard noises we lay down. We crossed ditches and Swamps. My elbows, legs and hands were scratched. I fell on my stomach several times,” the woman recalls.
Because there were many mosquitoes in the forest, she and her husband wore jackets despite the high temperature. “But these creatures kept biting us in the face,” says the 35-year-old. “The heat was terrible, we were completely wet from sweating and from walking in the swamp. It took about four hours.”
“I was sure my baby was dead”
When they finally saw a Ukrainian border guard, she was no longer fully conscious. The Ukrainian officials helped the refugees: “We were put on a motorbike and drove for another hour until we arrived in some village,” the woman recalls. “I was barely alive, almost unconscious. There we got on a bus and went to Kiev, where our children were waiting for us.”
The family spent the next few days in a rented apartment in the Ukrainian capital. “I had no appetite, no energy, my blood pressure was low. My baby wasn’t moving. I cried the whole time because I was sure it was dead.” The Leschkos contacted volunteers who tried to organize a doctor’s visit. “But that turned out to be very difficult, I couldn’t get an appointment,” says the woman. Only after a week and a half did she feel movement in her stomach again – “I knew then that my child was alive and I finally got better”.
A few weeks later, the woman gave birth to a daughter. The family now lives in a hostel in Warsaw – they have applied for asylum in Poland. Despite the joy of the offspring, the woman describes this period as terrible. “I want to forget her and never remember it again.” Only now is the woman ready to tell her story. “The last year and a half has been so hard for us. We had to fight to survive. But thank God we got through it.” Despite everything, she feels “an all-encompassing joy that we are together, in freedom and not in prison,” says Leschko. “And now we have to fight our way through every day and face new challenges.”