Alexander Lukashenko, the 26-year-and-counting president of Belarus, won his country’s recent elections with a final tally of 80 percent of the vote. While it’s unknown what kind of response Lukashenko expected when Belarus awoke to the news, the election results beggared belief to such an extreme that the country exploded.
As recently as Sunday, that explosion saw an estimated 200,000 Belarusians flood downtown Minsk clad in white and red, the colors of the flag that predated Lukashenko. Lukashenko’s response? Predictably Lukashenkian: police violence against the protesters.
Straight from the streets of Minsk, we bring you four of the most crucial of True Stories, born from blood, sweat, tears and the desire for freedom after a quarter-century without.
My husband, Raman Zaitsau, went out to join the crowds the evening of Aug. 9, right after the preliminary election results were announced: 80-plus percent for Lukashenko. Complete disbelief.
Raman marched with others in a peaceful protest demanding a recount. Those demands echoed that night through every city in the country. Initially, there were no signs of a violent police response. Within seconds, though, it all turned. In what looked like an organized military operation, there were water cannons and lots of laser-like lights.
Raman ran to help his friends, who were surrounded. He was hit in the chest by a stun grenade. The damage was so severe that he needed immediate surgeries to keep him alive. A week later, he is still in the hospital. Several more surgeries are already scheduled. And all he wanted was justice.
I was detained for participating in a peaceful protest for fair presidential elections in Minsk. I spent more than 24 hours in the notorious detainment facility at 36 Akrestsin Street and I cannot remain silent. I witnessed people dying there.
I’m not a medical doctor and therefore not able to formally diagnose conditions, but I saw people losing consciousness and not helped in time. We have recorded these people not breathing and having no pulse. Let me explain in detail what people here are going through, starting with arrest.
First, any interaction with OMON [Russian abbreviation that stands for Special Purpose Police Unit] officers, including negotiating, passing by their block posts or simply being anywhere around them, is dangerous. They do not evaluate who you are or what you have done. Active but peaceful protesters, those who run, clap their hands and/or shout mottos are shot with rubber bullets.
At times people are taken out for profilaktika, or “preventive measures.” This includes systematic beatings with batons.
Beatings of the hands and legs with batons happen to absolutely everyone, even those who were not taking part in the protests. This is done to choke any form of resistance. You are beaten up all the time: As you are taken into custody and during transfer in the avtozak, or police van, to the detainment facility. The scariest part, however, begins at the facility itself.
All detainees — except for those who are underage or journalists, who are released almost immediately — are packed into cells of roughly 25 square meters, or about 269 square feet. I have seen cells with approximately 120 people in them. There was barely enough space to stand, let alone sit.
There is no water, no toilet, no roof, no food. Everyone spends at least 24 hours there. At times people are taken out for profilaktika, or “preventive measures.” This includes systematic beatings with batons, during which the officers explain that we must never shout Zhyvie Belarus [“Long live Belarus,” a motto widely used by the protesters], clap or carry out the orders of our “commanders.” Profilaktika also accompanies those rare cases when people are allowed to use toilets.
Listening to the officers talk, I realized that they are trained not to see detainees as people. This dehumanization goes hand in hand with the fact that they are seemingly misinformed about the reasons why people got there.
They believe that every detainee has actively resisted and is part of an organization whose sole aim is to “destabilize the situation in the country.” The “commanders” are the supervisors of this organization, which, to my knowledge, does not even exist. The protest movement in Belarus is grassroots and inherently decentralized.
“Bitches, I’ll teach you who to vote for.” On Aug. 9, peaceful protesters, including me and my friends, were detained by the police. We were told we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They didn’t separate boys and girls; their attitude was the same toward everyone.
They beat people, behaved like animals and at some points it seemed that they were actually having fun: They laughed when a girl was dragged by her hair and they also laughed as they beat people with clubs.
We were put on a bus and taken to Akrestsin Street. It was clear from the very beginning what would happen to us. The policeman at the entrance shouted, “Faster, bitches!” They grabbed us by the neck and threw us against a wall. There were 33 girls in a cell intended for six people.
We slept on the floor in shifts. We were starved for more than a day. There were no personal hygiene products. It was very hot and we felt sick. The doctor came to us after two days like this.
We were forced to sign a protocol in which it was said that we were at the demonstration, that we were beating the riot police officers, that we were shouting, “Stop Cockroach!” [Lukashenko is frequently compared with a cockroach.] They threatened me: If I don’t sign, then … We saw how half-naked guys were kept outside all night, and when one of them moved, he was beaten.
That’s not all that happened to us, but my eyes are full of tears when I remember everything. I don’t want bloodshed or violence, and it hurts me to watch acquaintances and friends being beaten, and now I hear they’re getting ready to start shooting people. I’m for a peaceful solution, and I hope that other countries will help us.
I am still in disbelief. And I am so angry. I was an independent observer at one of the polling stations in Minsk. The election day was over and we were waiting for the final protocols to be posted at 8 p.m. The polling station results were delayed, and I only saw them at around 10 p.m. Lukashenko won in a landslide.
What a joke, I thought. I needed to get home but realized that public transportation had been shut down, so I started walking to get a cab. As I approached Nemiga Metro station, my heart stopped. In front of me was what resembled a military formation. They weren’t regular police. They were well-equipped, masks on, no indications what type of forces they were. I was terrified.
I hid in a nearby courtyard, waiting for it all to be over. People were screaming. Then, gunshots.
I was forced to read a statement recorded on video by a KGB officer. “Yes, I am guilty. Yes, I orchestrated the protest…”
Finally, I ran in the opposite direction of the chaos before bumping into a street patrol. I felt safe asking them how I should get home. They pointed me in the direction of the Belarusian State Circus building, where there were more police and an inconspicuous yellow bus, the kind used by the public bus system.
“Any advice on how to get home?” I asked an officer.
“You are home, brother,” he said as several other officers approached and grabbed me. I was thrown into the back of a fortified military truck. There were people with broken limbs. I heard a girl crying and saw the beatings that followed.
“We will rape you one by one if you don’t shut up,” the officers said.
Then they put their gas masks on and let gas into the back of truck. The laughter that followed — they were having so much fun. Next was the Akrestina jail: a long hallway, police dogs on both sides. And clubs and beatings. Lots of beatings. Day and night.
Three days at Akrestina. A cell for three with 17 people in it. We were begging for water and fresh air. Through a tiny window, I saw people stripped naked in the courtyard. Most beatings were taking place in the middle of the night.
Three days in, I was forced to sign some papers. That was followed by a court hearing that took place in the same building. It lasted less than a minute. I received a 15-day jail sentence for participating in mass protests and transferred to a prison in the town of Zhodino.
This time, six beds for 47 people. We had to sleep in shifts. Windows were covered; we received food in a way to make us lose sense of time. I saw a 16-year-old. I saw a 74-year-old. Similar beatings in the courtyard. I saw snipers above us.
“I got this one, you cover the one in black.” Voices on their radios.
More beatings followed in the next two days. By the way, doctors were there. If anyone passed out, they would step in, only to pass the people back to the police for more beatings.
“We will teach you freedom” was a common theme.
Eventually, we started getting randomly released. I was forced to read a statement recorded on video by a KGB officer.
“Yes, I am guilty. Yes, I orchestrated the protest …”