'Everyone is worried': Belarusians hope for peace between neighbours
In the quiet Belarusian town of Zaslavl, families carefully tread an icy path under the winter sun to an Orthodox church.
The white-walled church blisters from bright rays in the picturesque town outside Minsk, the capital of Russian-allied Belarus.
Ahead of a religious holiday, many prayed for peace between their two neighbours, countries they are closely intertwined with: Russia and Ukraine.
"We pray for a peaceful time," said Olga Filipovich, a 35-year-old widow, watching over her young daughter.
"Every person here is worried by this situation."
In Belarus, dependent on Moscow financially and politically, fears have grown that its troops, too, will be sent to fight alongside Russia in Ukraine.
A year after allowing Russia to use Belarus as a launchpad for its Ukraine offensive, longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko said he was ready to do so again if Minsk felt threatened.
The reclusive state invited some of the Western press for a rare visit, keen to show that there was a threat from the south and that its alliance with Moscow was strong.
But outside controlled tours with the military, AFP found that ordinary Belarusians had compassion for both sides and feared being dragged into the conflict.
Many felt helpless.
"We are a small nation, we cannot do much," said Filipovich, who lost her husband to the coronavirus.
She watches the news with her elderly grandmother, who survived World War Two, which devastated Belarus.
"When she watches this about Russia and Ukraine, she cries and it makes me cry too."
While officials blasted Kyiv and defended Moscow, AFP did not find the kind of strong anti-Ukrainian sentiment that exists among Russians.
- 'This should never have happened' -
The conflict in Ukraine has in some ways strengthened Lukashenko's grip on Belarus, three years after he suppressed mass protests against his rule, with some crediting him for peace in the country.
"Despite what is happening all around us, things here are safe," said Yuliya Skachko, a 32-year-old looking for work after maternity leave.
"The government makes us feel secure," she said.
She did, however, worry about Belarus entering the conflict, with fears rising of a Russian-style mobilisation.
"I don't want to worry that I am raising my son to go to war. I hope everything will be fine."
Lukashenko has sent mixed messages on this, saying that while he did not want to send "my people" across the border, his army was nonetheless testing its mobilisation abilities to be ready.
AFP heard reports of people being called up for military training and of some leaving the tightly-controlled state in fear of being drafted.
In central Minsk, 64-year-old Yevgeny Presterev said he was "of course" worried Belarus would enter the conflict.
He watches both Russian and Belarusian television, but also retains some sympathy for Ukraine.
"This should never have happened," he said, while fishing in a Minsk park.
In his Soviet youth, he served as a conscript in Ukraine's Odesa port on the Black Sea and stays in touch with fellow servicemen in Ukraine.
"We are not divided, the states are dividing us," he said.
- 'I feel sorry for everyone' -
Belarus's more than 1,000 kilometre (600 mile) southern border with Ukraine, which Russian troops crossed last February, has been shut for a year.
But many have relatives on the other side, struggling to comprehend Belarus's role in the conflict.
Outside the 16th century church in Zaslavl, two elderly women hold on to each other in order not to slip on the ice.
"It's best not to ask me about this (the war)," 72-year-old Valentina Lapko said, visibly emotional.
"I am Ukrainian."
A retired accountant, she has lived in Belarus since she was 19.
She calls her brother in Kyiv every day and struggles to get information in a country where the media is tightly controlled.
"My friends have a friendly attitude to Ukraine," she said, adding that she had never felt any angst from Belarusians towards Ukrainians.
"I feel sorry for everyone. There should be hope for the future. And now? What hope can there be?"
Her close friend, Yekaterina Rakoshina with whom she worked with for 30 years, has also lived in Belarus for decades but is from Russia.
"She is Ukrainian, I am Russian, we are all worried," she said, looking lovingly and with concern as her friend walks off to church.
"There is not a single person here that is not worried about this," she said.
"The only thing we hope for is peace."