Pro-democracy Belarusian dissidents are conducting war games and learning how to fire a pistol and other guns in Poland. Under the watchful eye of a police officer turned private shooting instructor, recruits are preparing to join Ukraine's resistance.
Poland has become a safe haven for many Belarusians looking to escape President Alexander Lukashenko's Soviet-style autocracy. The long-time leader has maintained a tight grip on power since 1994.
For Belarusians, who consider Ukrainians a brethren nation, the stakes feel especially high. Russian troops have used Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine since the early days of the war, and Lukashenko has publicly stood by his long-time ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, describing him as his “big brother.” Russia, for its part, has pumped billions of euros into Lukashenko's state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans.
Some of the Belarusian fighters are only passing through on their way to Ukraine, while others have remained for training.
"We taught tactics, the use of weapons during an attack, defence. In general, we started from the beginning, that is, we taught these people the basics of shooting, how to hold a weapon, how to reload, how to change magazines, how to work together as a team, and how to react to an attack or an ambush" says Dariusz Tomysek, a Polish military instructor.
Another man Vadim Prokopiev heads a unit called “Pahonia” which has been overseeing new recruits in recent days.
“We understand that it's a long journey to free Belarus and the journey starts in Ukraine,” says Prokopiev, a businessman who used to run restaurants in Minsk. He fled the country after a rumour spread that he would be arrested for saying publicly that the government wasn’t doing enough for small businesses.
“When the Ukraine war will be eventually over, our war will just start. It is impossible to free the country of Belarus without driving Putin's fascist troops out of Ukraine,” he says.
The 50-year-old wants his men to gain critical battle experience, and he hopes that one day soon a window of opportunity will open for democratic change in Belarus. But he says it will require fighters like himself to be prepared, and for members of the security forces in Belarus to turn against Lukashenko.
"This entire battalion is people who, like Vadim, are tired of Lukashenko," says Matthew Parker, a former member of the US army who is also on site in Poland. "They hate Russia because of their interference and they see the Ukrainians as their brothers, and they say, 'look, if we help Ukraine, and we beat the Russians, we teach our own people that you can resist.'"
Massive protests broke out on the streets of Minsk after the President won another term in the 2020 election. While the opposition say the election was fraudulent, ensuing demonstrations were met with a brutal crackdown, leading to Prokopiev's belief that no “velvet revolution” can be expected there.