Inside Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship

Belarus has recently made the global headlines with the hijacking of a Ryanair flight to arrest the opposition journalist Roman Protasevich. To gain an inside view on Europe’s last dictatorship, I decided to talk with A.T., a Belarusian girl who is studying in Italy. She took part in demonstrations against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko after her brother was arrested for no apparent reason and was detained for 5 days in inhuman conditions. This is her story:

5 days that changed my life.

<<I would like to tell you my story. The story of a young woman from Belarus. Before summer 2020 I was not interested in politics. In the previous years I just went to the elections, voted and nothing more. Last summer I was inspired by the presidential candidates. For the first time Belarusians had hope and I was sure that everything would have changed. Never in my life I had seen so many Belarusians joined together in the election campaign. That year the alternative candidates developed the instruments to control the election using Telegram, Viber and the platform Voice. All we needed it was to answer the bot and send the photo of the ballot. Thus, there was a chance to see the truth.

On August 9th I voted in my village and returned to Minsk. Most people were going to wait for the results near the polling stations. A few weeks before some people were detained, most of them were independent observers. We knew that there was a risk. Internet was switched off, the government was trying to prevent any communication among people and used their old methods. Only mobile calls and SMS were available. I was at home after 9 pm when the nightmare started. Sounds of bombs, and shootings began. We were able to read (the largest independent media) and NEXTA (a Telegram channel) using some tools like VPN and apps to get access to the sites without Internet. The news said that there were a lot of soldiers around and that they opened fire.

At 23:00 my little brother called me and said that he did not know how to get home, because the underground was closed, public transportation did not work and without Internet he could not call a taxi. To reach home (he rented a room in Minsk) he needed to walk more than 13 km after the working day. He was scared and called me for some advice. I could not advise him anything useful besides to try to walk or find some place to wait. He decided to walk. Till 2 pm I checked him each 30 min sending him SMS, then he asked not to call and text him because he had only 3% of power. He said that everything would be OK, and he was near home. I went to sleep. In the morning I started to call him, but I received no answer. I went to his flat (in another side of Minsk) and I did not find him there. I called my sister, we started to look for his friends and colleagues.

I called the police, they said that they had detained a lot of people and they did not have the list (more than 1.000 people were detained at that night, as I knew later). At the end of the day, we found that he was at the prison on Okrestina street by geolocation of his mobile. No official confirmation. Next day I went on the Okrestina, I was so stupid that I planned just to take him. My brother was innocent, he did not do anything wrong, just walked home alone. I thought that I would show our messages and they would have released him. But I was wrong, completely wrong. Near Okrestina there were about 100 people who were looking for their relatives, friends, or colleagues. Then I knew that the prisoners can be transported to other prisons. I could not get the confirmation from the police about the location of my brother. They did not manage to make the list of detained people, as the number of detained was so high, that they did not have the capacity to process them. At the end of the day the surname of my brother appeared in the list of Viasna Human Rights Center and I discovered that he was in another prison located in Zhodino, 50 km from Minsk. To get there was not easy. People were afraid to leave their flats after 18.00. The militaries were in the city. When I got to Zhodino they again did not have the list of prisoners. The next day I came again to Zhodino to get the confirmation and to bring some staff to my brother. But again nothing.

At that time videos appeared showing the police beating the detained people and putting them on the knees near fence for hours. Near the prisons loud screams were heard. I should mention OMON  – a special division of the police the purpose of which is to crush protests. They are the “dogs” of Lukashenko and are mainly responsible for tortures. I hate them. They are not much better than the Nazis, and they torture fellow Belarusians who simply have a different opinion. Some information came from released people, some from people living near prisons in the apartment buildings. The most horrible place was at Okrestina.  Released people had blue skin from systematic beats. OMON did not allow to call the emergency and did not permit the doctors with white bracelets (symbol of the fair election) to help prisoners.

On the third day women in white and with flowers walked out to stop violence. And it worked. On the fourth day after elections state factories went on the strike. The main request was to release people and to organize a new fair election. Then the government announced that all people would have been released.  The process of realizing started.  A lot of volunteers came to bring food, drinks, clothes, and blankets for the relatives as well as for the free prisoners. There were a lot of citizens on their cars ready to help everyone. Some taxies provided cars to help people to get home. Some people just gave money. At that time I looked so bad, that one man proposed me money thinking that I had been a prisoner. I refused.

Me and my father were near Zhodino, waiting for my brother. We were not still sure that he was there. But we prayed to find him in Zhodino, only not at Okrestina. We were waiting about 24 hours. But he did not appear in the list. My family, like dozens of other people, stayed near Zhodino just to know if my brother was alive. Finally we learnt from the news that he had been condemned to 10 days in prisons for resisting arrest, but his location was still unknown.

On the fifth day my brother appeared in the list of Slutsk prison, about 100 km from Minsk. I went there with my friend. I asked my father to stay at home: he did not sleep and eat for more than a day, he was exhausted and could not stop crying. My strong father … he always supported me. That time I needed to be strong to support him and my brother. I realized that the people who were in Slutsk were transported there from Okrestino. Those were the most difficult hours in my live. I could not stop crying and screaming for an hour, then I had to pull myself together. I could not stop thinking about tortures and my little brother. My brother managed to give the number of my mother to his “roommate” (many released people drew out tiny pieces of  paper with numbers of relatives to call) , and he called to say that my brother was alive. I could not imagine that my family could get such kind of message in the 21st century. My brother sending a message to say that he was alive. I could not stop thinking about what he could have endured and if he had thought that his life was in danger after being brought to the police station. I do not remember how much time I spent near Slutsk waiting for my brother.  The relatives were staying about 200 meters from the fence (that prison was in the forest) and prisoners had to walk that way on the sand road. I cannot forget that image: people being released part by part… About twenty people were walking head down, hands behind, in shorts and T-shirts despite the cold and in shoes without laces. Some of them were smiling, but some of them had so empty eyes. It was obvious that they had experienced something terrible. I was afraid to see the eyes of my brother.

Finally, I saw my brother, without glasses, without laces, in dirty white t-shirt. He was OK, I did not notice any evident injuries. I should mention that when ex-prisoners were asked if they had been beaten, no one said that no, they said they were lucky and were beaten “softly”. My brother answered that he was lucky, the OMON beat him on the head and broke his glasses during the detention. Before Slutsk, he had been at Okrestina, where there were 38 people for 4 sleeping beds, without enough space even to seat. The prisoners did not get the food for 3 days, on the fourth they got 4 pieces of bread for 40 people.

My brother that day was brave and he even joked: “Why do you take me so early? I will miss the dinner!” My parents could not wait and came to Slutsk to check their little boy. In the next days I brought my brother to hospital for medical examination. There were other men with terrible injures. The private hospital did it free of charge for the prisoners. Lawyers also provided their services for free. Friends of our family, relatives and just acquaintances offered their help. Me and my family are very thankful for this support. In the next months the psychologist helped my brother to learn how to live with that experience, also for free.

After those 5 days I decided that I would do everything that I can to help others to find or release their relatives. Before i took active actions, I believed and still believe that researchers can help change the situation. I know that Belarus needs reforms, and I was working in an economic research center studying the education system in Belarus and its problems.  Now, however, I understood that I needed to do something more. Me and my friends went on marches each weekend from September to December: on Saturday- women march, on Sunday – general march, on Monday – march of pensioners, and on Wednesday – march of people with disabilities.

Going to the marches was dangerous. Each time I prepared to be detained and I was scared. But I was more scared to stay home and keep silent. It would mean that nothing would change, and people would be tortured in the prisons.  It also meant that people who walked out were in the higher risk to be detained. I missed only 2 weekends when I got COVID and I had to stay at home. I felt blame and some relief. It was really difficult to walk out each weekend. I was emotionally exhausted. During November and December marches I had to run from the police and hide in the flats of strangers.  People helped each other, they invited unfamiliar people in their flats to keep safe from the police. Sometimes I had thoughts that it would be better to go to prison to have some rest.

The police did not start any case about tortures. Nothing! Now there are 449 political prisoners [1 ]detained in horrible conditions and the number continues to increase. As you have certainly heard from the news, the opposition journalist Roman Protosevich and his girlfriend are the new political prisoners. A week before the political prisoner Vitold Ashurak died in the prison. The conditions for political prisoners are horrible. The same week Dzmitry Stakhouski, a 17-year-old targeted in a criminal investigation for “mass riots” of August 9-11, 2020 (Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code), committed suicide in the evening of May 25th by jumping off a 16-storey building in Minsk. Before killing himself, the teenager posted a suicide note on his VKontakte account, blaming the authorities for his death.

My story has a kind of happy ending, but many Belarusians have lost close people or are still waiting for their relatives from prisons and cannot do anything about that. The law does not work, the police is on the “dark side”. All independent media have been closed. Each day I learn about new detentions. Belarusians are suffering in the prisons, and the reason for it is the silence: the silence of people in Belarus, the silence of foreign countries. Now I am in Trento, I feel safe, but my family is still there. Many people think to move another country, but why are Belarusians forced to leave their motherland to feel safe? >>

[1] Here you can find the list of prisoners:

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