Losing fear in Belarus

Written by Tatyana Movshevich

The first time I ever visited Belarus was in October 2008. It was for a student conference outside Minsk. I travelled there with a friend and in the evenings the two of us went to the city with a group of Belarusian students. At the time two things surprised me above all – how safe the Belarusian capital felt late at night (safer than my provincial city in Russia, much safer than Moscow which at the time reminded me of the Wild West) and how reluctant people were to talk about the regime and their individual freedoms.

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On our last day we went wandering around Minsk. On the way to the newly-built and already renowned National Library my friend asked the taxi driver about Lukashenka. He looked nervous and didn’t reply but when we arrived at the Library he got out with us. ‘Let’s walk a bit further away from the car,’ he said to us quietly. ‘I worry they listen to me while I drive’.

We stopped by a random fence on a busy street and the taxi driver said: ‘I can’t bear the regime. It caused a lot of harm to my family. All I want for my children is to move out of the country. Belarus has no future’. The weather was cold and as he shuffled back to his car shivering from the biting wind, he seemed crushed by hopelessness and fear. And so did people walking past me – minding their own business, trying to stay out of trouble at all costs. I knew this atmosphere very well, after all I myself grew up in a society ruled by apathy and people’s distrust of each other. But this seemed to be on a completely different level. In fact the whole afternoon in Minsk didn’t seem real.

Twelve years later things in Belarus have changed drastically. Overnight Belarus was transformed in a way that for many had been impossible to imagine. After the presidential elections which have widely been condemned as rigged, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets to denounce Lukashenka’s regime. Their bravery and moral strength in the face of widespread police brutality and torture has fascinated millions around the world. But what’s interesting is that just a few months ago many of these people, if not most, had not imagined themselves even talking about freedoms and democracy, let alone becoming protesters. They had not anticipated that they would be helping torture survivors. They had not anticipated returning to the streets again and again, despite fear and emotional trauma.

Drawing upon the stories of new Belarusian activists, I tried to shape together with the timeline of the August events and the weeks that followed. These interviews were often recorded in a rush as the activists moved around the city, answered phone calls from other volunteers or families of survivors and struggled with internet shutdown.

Many of the first names have been changed for security reasons.

Presidential election – Sunday, August 9

Yulya is an accountant living in a town outside Minsk and prior to the presidential elections she had never voted in her life.

‘At the beginning of this year I didn’t even know when the presidential elections would take place. I lived my life focusing on my family and close friends and wasn’t interested in politics,’ she says. ‘But when I learnt that Babaryka and other presidential candidates were imprisoned, I could no longer stay out and signed up to be an independent election observer’.

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On the day of the presidential election Yulya arrived at her polling station in a village school, well on time. There was only one other observer there and she seated herself preparing for the day ahead. However as soon as the head of the election committee saw Yulya, she became nervous and called other observers to urgently enter. Twenty minutes later Yulya learned that she was no longer needed and that they had no space for her due to Covid-19 restrictions, hence she had to leave the room.

‘The whole situation was absurd. I asked a pensioner who also volunteered as an observer and who clearly didn’t want to be there whether I could take his place. But the committee head overheard our conversation and kicked me out. Of course I didn’t leave. I sat on a chair on the school porch and continued counting people. Soon enough the committee head noticed me and my chair was taken away, so I sat on the floor instead,’ says Yulya.

‘Many voters asked me why I was sitting on the porch floor and my story quickly spread. People brought me food and drinks and in a few hours’ time I had a pile of snacks mounting in front of me.’ She thinks for a moment and adds, ‘This support must have infuriated the authorities as at 4pm the school principal told me to leave the school premises’.

Yulya left without arguing but lingered behind the fence, continuing to count voters. As soon as the election was over, she went in to see the turnout numbers and preliminary results compiled by the election committee of that polling station.

‘It didn’t match my own observations at all. It stated that in total approximately 200 people voted but I counted over 400,’ Yulya said.

‘On the way home that evening I felt both upset and hopeful about the future. Little did I know…’ she pauses and begins to cry. ‘What I witnessed in the following days was beyond awful. I close my eyes and I see all this violence vividly, as if it’s happening now. Those were the worst days of my life’.

Presidential election – Sunday, August 9, night

Dance master and film maker Natallya from the town of Borisov, 77 km from Minsk, was returning home after the elections late at night:

‘As the election closed I came to a polling station to see the preliminary results and saw how the police was taking away independent observers. Next I headed for the town centre where I met lots of friends and acquaintances. Everyone came out onto the street but all seemed quiet and peaceful. I talked to a few people here and there and went home. But as soon as I entered my apartment, I heard shouting’.

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Natallya rushed to her balcony from where she saw peaceful protesters and random passers-by running away from riot police and unmarked men dressed in black uniforms. They closed in on unarmed people in big numbers. Anyone caught was beaten up and dragged into a police van.

‘There were two young men running past my balcony. They were covered in blood. I told them to come in and hide in my apartment but they just wanted to get home, to their families. A few minutes later I saw the police surrounding a couple in their early twenties, a man and a woman. They were trying to speak to the police sincerely – explain how important it was for them to participate in peaceful protests. But the police shouted obscenities back at them and took them somewhere. I have no idea what happened to all these people,’ says Natallya.

Despite the internet shutdown she began to painstakingly collect information about what was going on and share it on social media and directly with friends within Belarus and abroad. In the following days she also photographed and made video recordings of peaceful protests and together with other volunteers coordinated help for families of the detained.

‘We have put people in touch with a human rights organisation called ‘Vyasna’, we have written appeals to the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor, we are trying to recall our local deputy. Everyone now knows how all branches of government should work and what our rights are,’ she smiles bitterly.

August 10 and 11

Andrei who works in the arts and culture sector has been participating in peaceful protests in Minsk from the very beginning.

‘I carried bottles of antiseptic and bandages to treat people’s wounds because we couldn’t rely on any help. Luckily there were lots of doctors and nurses amongst the protesters. Once I saw how an ambulance approached injured protesters but instead of medical workers riot police jumped out of it,’ describes Andrei.

‘I saw people sharing masks with each other when tear gas was used against us. It was done in such a casual way as if nothing awful or extraordinary was going on. People didn’t show their fear,’ he adds.

Minsk has been the epicentre of the events but the movement has united people fighting for freedoms and accountability all across Belarus. Artists and factory workers, farmers and state officials, even some police officers have joined forces with protesters. Valery is a good example of someone who prior to the August events did not consider himself an activist. A factory engineer, he decided to get involved in the movement after witnessing police brutality first-hand:

‘The riot police organised a provocation. One of the policemen pretended to be an injured protester – he ran onto the city square shouting for help. People sprinted towards him and suddenly dozens of policemen appeared. They attacked people violently and pushed them into vans’.

Valery pauses for a moment but pushes himself to continue:

‘I was never interested in politics or protests. In fact I thought that protesting was quite an extreme measure. But I could not imagine that I would see such things in my life. And so it became very clear that I needed to be useful and help families of the detained. I believe that no one should be alone. We are the first generation growing up without fear of the totalitarianism and it’s up to us to define our future,’ he says.

The first weeks after the election  

‘For the first time in my life I volunteered this spring. Belarus was the only country in Europe which did not recognise the Covid-19 pandemic and the government offered no help or protection. So initiatives to make PPE for medical workers have sprung up and I joined one of them,’ says human resource specialist Alyona.

‘After the presidential elections a few of my friends, including fellow volunteers, were detained and I went to the Akrestsina detention centre where thousands of the arrested people were held’.

Outside the infamous prison Alyona met with families of the detained and disappeared protesters. No names or other information was provided and people were desperately waiting outside the prison walls.

Alyona acted quickly. She started gathering names and compiling lists of the detained. The information was published and updated through a Telegram channel and very quickly transformed into one of the main databases for imprisoned protesters.  Together with other volunteers she also set up an aid camp consisting of tents with medical, psychological and legal assistance and food trucks.

All throughout August 10, 11 and 12, Alyona heard people screaming inside Akrestsina but she was still not prepared for what she saw.

‘In the early hours of August 13 the first detainees were released. The Akrestsina guards told them not to speak to anyone, threatened that if they did, they would go back. So when they came out and saw us, they started running away. They weren’t dressed, they didn’t wear shoes. They were severely injured. I remember one guy who cried while running away. ‘Why did they do this to me? I didn’t do anyone any harm,’ he was saying through tears. Some people were trying to run away on broken legs,’ remembers Alyona.

Eventually the police realised that the volunteers could be useful and asked them to sort through confiscated belongings of the detained peaceful protesters.

‘It was sickening to be next to the Akrestsina guards but I bit my tongue and kept going. I was doing it for the detained,’ Alyona says abruptly.

Flashbacks now follow Alyona everywhere she goes and she encourages all volunteers to access psychological help. But she is clear that not helping others would feel far worse.

‘I can’t think about the future. Not now. I only think about the immediate tasks ahead of me – how can I be useful to the survivors and their families, how to get on with my day’.

54 km from Minsk on the confluence of two rivers lies the old town of Zhodzina. But it’s not the picturesque location or its big automobile factory that have recently put it on the map. Zhodzina hosts the prison where many peaceful protesters were transferred from Akrestsina. In a similar way to Akrestsina, in the first days after the election volunteers set up a big camp by the prison walls.

IT specialist Anton was one of the volunteers there. His responsibilities included registering released detainees, looking for disappeared people, communicating with waiting families.

‘The first few days there was complete chaos – thousands of detentions, no systemised help, no internet. But I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t work. I needed to be useful. On August 14 early in the morning I drove to Zhodzina and ended up staying there for four days. We worked day and night,’ says Anton.

Some released detainees were so shocked and traumatised that they weren’t able to process any information. Anton gave them water, offered cigarettes and put an A4 print-out about how to access different forms of help in their pocket.

‘They say that Akrestsina didn’t send the most severely injured people to Zhodzina but I saw some. One guy who was released had pulp instead of face. Other detainees even gave him a nickname ‘Panda’ because his features were so dishevelled. I was standing next to his parents when he walked out and I will never forget their facial expressions. Their horror and anger, their suffering’.

Anton tries to support people who are affected by what they saw and is hoping to one day get over his trauma himself.

‘The other day I was speaking with another volunteer when her friend ran into us. We were laughing and joking and then somehow Akrestsina was mentioned. Her friend looked at us and started sobbing uncontrollably. I realised that he had been there’, says Anton. 

Today

All across Belarus the stories of torture and harassment are passed from one home to the other. Stuck in their pain, people find it difficult to proceed with their daily lives. And possibly because repressions against peaceful activists are so widespread, more and more new people flock to the cause. They line up streets with flowers and balloons, they take off their shoes before stepping on public benches, they denounce violence. And they come up with initiatives that inspire millions and change people’s relationship with fear and detachment irreversibly.

One such initiative is an online platform that delivers free groceries for people affected by state repressions. It is founded and funded by the young businessman and environmentalist Yuka.

‘I was in the middle of developing a food-saving initiative when the protests broke out. And it immediately became clear to me that everything else had to wait and I needed to be helping. So I bought a load of groceries and brought them for people waiting outside Akrestsina. But there I understood that help need to be provided directly to people’s homes,’ he shares. ‘Many families lost their livelihoods – some were fired or became incapacitated; others couldn’t work due to psychological traumas. So I launched the website of free groceries for those affected by the current crisis’.

It took some time convincing people to place orders. Some were scared to provide their personal data, others were ashamed to ask for help. But eventually the word of mouth spread and orders began to arrive.

‘At first I was buying and delivering food on my own. Now I have a team of volunteers. One of them is an activist who ordered free groceries when he lost his job. A week later he called me back and asked to get involved,’ says Yuka proudly.

The initiative has since widened and the website now has a section where anyone can buy groceries and therefore help out a charitable cause. All the profits go towards survivors and their families.

‘At the moment most forms of crowd-funding are not allowed in Belarus. But our initiative seems to work. At least for now,’ smiles Yuka.

‘I believe that everyone is at risk but I don’t like living inside my fear. Sitting around and not doing anything is far worse,’ he adds.

And just like every story of an activist is similar yet different, so is her or his relationship with fear.

‘I reject fear. I step into it but I do not let fear bother me. I believe in the power of peaceful protest. Even if the aggressors arrest and imprison us, new people will take our place and eventually they’ll run out of spaces in their prisons. The resources of violence are limited and eventually their system will collapse,’ says Andrei.

‘We need to figure out how to live, having witnessed all of it. Every evening I feel scared – I think about riot police roaming the streets. It’s like in the silly game: ‘Night falls, mafia wakes up’. I’m scared of people in uniforms, even ticket inspectors on public transport. This dreadful fear has seeped under my skin. I’m scared that soon they’ll come for me. And I’ve got nothing to lose – no money, no property, no power. But I have millions of friends in all corners of the country. The future belongs to us,’ says Natallya with a spark in her eyes.

Natallya was arrested on 17 September and charged with participation in an unauthorised mass event. She was accused of standing in line with other protesters and shouting anti-government slogans while holding balloons. No evidence was provided. Natallya spent 24 hours in detention and was later fined.