By Anastasia Ovcharova
Published Sat Sep 05 2020
Photo Credits: Olga Shukailo, tut.by The last free and fair elections in Belarus occurred long before I was born. I always knew that the system was repressive and harsh, that the police was violent and torture was wide spread. Year after year the regime was becoming more rigid: the dictatorship, Lukashenko’s family owning everything in sight and the police actively prosecuting the dictator’s opponents to sentence them to capital punishments in closed secret court trials. As an expat in another country I mostly disliked coming home to visit my family, because I felt strongly opposed to the toxic air of a militaristic dictatorship. The ‘stability’ that the regime offered, and publicized as its most important virtue, came at the price of the lives and freedom of many political prisoners. The police and the judiciary are used primarily as a means to capture and kidnap people. The whole government is constituted by one person, and that person’s success story is drenched in blood. His intricate propaganda apparatus and fine system of repression resulted in everyone who opposed him to succumb to a learned helplessness. Those who disagreed with the regime felt disempowered, a minority. I used to think that my family and friends, who opposed the regime, were an exception. But this year, after the pandemic hit the world, something changed.
I came to Belarus in April when my university closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. I was self-isolating and reading the news non-stop. The dictator decided not to impose a quarantine, he not only down-played the seriousness of the virus but also actively restricted access to information about it. He turned a blind eye to the people dying. The hospitals were prohibited from testing for COVID or discussing the inflow of patients. Doctors who complained about an unbearable work-flow were fired. Any deaths from the new coronavirus had to be attributed to ‘acute pneumonia’. With cases rising, Lukashenko famously proposed that everybody cure the virus with vodka, saunas and working in the fields on a tractor. I believe some people lost ever more trust in the dictator once someone they knew died, or was fired, since they realised his rule was neither adequate nor competent.
As the 2020 election approached a few opposition candidates were gaining popularity. In order to register as a presidential candidate in Belarus one needs to collect 100.000 signatures. Belarusians were standing in multiple-kilometers-long queues in order to put their signatures in support of these opposition figures, which were soon after violently repressed, together with their families and extended acquaintances. The protests started already then, and many journalists and telegram-bloggers covering these happenings were arrested or fled the country.
With everything that was happening, I thought it was worthwhile to register as an independent watcher at the election, so I gathered the necessary signatures and applied at a local polling station. I wanted to count the people coming in to vote, and especially those wearing a white bracelet: a symbol of the alternative candidate’s supporters. All independent watchers and the active civil society communicated via telegram. A telegram-based initiative aimed at protecting the ballots of the Belarusians from the government’s influence later helped obtain the irrefutable evidence that Lukashenko lost the election.
I always had a feeling that our elections were fraudulent, but for the first time in my life I witnessed the systematic nature of this electoral fraud, and how it is facilitated by many people at many levels. I witnessed how most independent watchers were denied accreditation, how even the ones with a registration -like me- were often restricted from entering the building. I could enter only under the condition that no other watcher who appears sooner than me on the official list had arrived yet, where most names appearing at the top of this list were those of individuals from pro-governmental organizations. I spent many hours sitting right outside the polling station getting all kinds of side looks and comments from the police, which always passed by me wearing their batons.
I didn’t see their weapons as threatening yet. But the voting commission did see me as a threat. They were the same people who did so for 20 years, who knew how to make the voting procedure as least transparent as possible, who were too afraid to lose everything in their lives to ever go against what the system required them to do.
On the last day of the election, August 9th, I was very nervous. I was nervous about the moment when, after the polling, the boxes would be opened and the counting would begin. In the days building up to this moment, protests had intensified and many independent watchers were arrested. Rumor said the government was going to shut down the internet. I didn’t want to believe these rumors, I thought people were panicking for no reason, so I put all these thoughts aside and concentrated on helping those last Belariusians coming in to vote. Many came to me fearing their votes would be stolen: they complained that their names were not on the official list, and that the commission made some special separate list for their names. I collected these voters’ numbers, ready to file a complaint, but it all ceased to matter after the events that followed.
Turns out the rumors were right: the internet suddenly broke down. I tried to stay calm, I tried to focus on other things. Olya, another independent watcher, told us her boyfriend was arrested by special task police officers wearing no uniform while simply standing outside a polling station. We knew what those arrests were like: you are never told why you are being arrested, you are never allowed contact with the outside world, you should expect your clothes, phone, car, bag, computer searched without any documentation or permission to do so, you can expect the worst possible treatment, they will judge you in secret trials. With the internet off, we didn’t have access to any official news, our knowledge depended on secondary information. We heard that water cannons, police vans and heavy military equipment were entering Minsk.
I waited and waited until it got dark. Two hours later I saw the chair of the commission taking a taxi with all the ballots, and coming back shortly after. A few independent watchers had been allowed in, and they all walked out looking white as a sheet. One of them told me there were some clear transgressions when counting the votes, but she quickly ran off and refused to leave me her number. I went back home feeling strange and perplexed. I turned on the TV and saw the dictator drinking champagne, celebrating his victory.
I craved updates, I wanted to understand what was happening, so I called a friend and we agreed to meet up at the central square of the small town in which we live. We expected many people to be there, from which we could hopefully gain some information. The most unusual sight awaited us: the main square was flooded with hundreds of soldiers, their faces covered, blocking access to the place. The protesters were non-violent: they were clapping hands, singing, waving their phone flashlights and chanting “Lukashenko go away”, “Freedom to political prisoners”, “Long live Belarus”. We were angry and disappointed with Lukashenko claiming a blatantly false 80% majority victory, with our friends and loved ones being arrested, with the government thinking it was ok to shut down the internet and restrict communication, with the persecution of the independent election watchers. We felt that the government could just go ahead and shoot us all, that the incident would come unnoticed globally, because there was no internet and all journalists had already been arrested. That night the riot police filled their vans to the brink with people and left.
The next day, with the internet still off and telegram shut down, I watched Belsat -a belarusian channel broadcasting from Poland- where I saw horrid images of what happened in Minsk and other nearby towns during the night of August 9th. Belsat showed police beating people up and arresting them brutally, it showed protestors injured by stun grenades and batons. Some drivers were forced out of their cars, beaten bloody by 5 soldiers, and then freed. One question was ringing in everyone’s minds: what was happening to those who had been arrested?
In the afternoon I met a group of 15 friends. We figured 15 was a safe number as it would allow us to fight against the police in case one of us was grabbed. We saw troops of soldiers in masks and helmets, carrying terrifying-looking grenade launchers. As I walked past a group of about 100 special task police officers, I saw them randomly grabbing a person walking just a few steps ahead of me and taking him away. I tried to pretend as if it was the most normal sight. I saw a group of soldiers chasing a young person down the street like an animal. I received a text from a friend of mine, asking me to hurry to a close-by apartment: the police had just beaten her up with batons as she walked out from public transport. In this climate of fear and violence I suddenly heard a soldier greeting me: it was the same police officer who had been watching me for 6 days at the polling station. I never felt so in danger walking in the streets of my hometown.
Bit by bit, Belarusians got their telegrams working again by using different proxies. People started coordinating: they informed each other on the where-abouts of the special police units, they offered their addresses for those seeking medical help, they shared the numbers of lawyers and helped each other find missing relatives. We joined the protests and heard a series of massive explosions. When grenades explode everybody runs, but then they return more aggrieved than before. Belarus lost one-third of its population to the II World War. Belarusians can’t tolerante violence in any form. The protesters in Belarus to this day never set anything on fire, they didn’t break a single glass door, they even took their shoes off before standing up on public benches, they carried home their own garbage. Anecdotally, the street becomes cleaner after a protest in Belarus. And yet they are charged by police for “participation in organised crime”, when the only criminals are the soldiers.
We eventually learned what happened between August 9th and 13th, we eventually learned what happened to those arrested. Berlarus suffered from a humanitarian crisis. The police arrested random people on the street, even a few teenagers, took them to the police departments, beat them down with batons until they became unconscious, continued to beat them after they passed out, had them lay down on the floor of gyms and backyards, covered in blood, kept them in overcrowded cells for days (35 people in a 4-person cell), without any food, or water, or access to medical help, or bathrooms. There are numerous reports of rape, coming from men and women detained. According to the ‘official’ numbers released by the police, around 6,000 people were detained during the protests. But there is no reason to believe these official numbers: the victims reported that the gyms and backyards of the prisons were filled with people in numbers above their normal capacity. After being tortured for days, those arrested were sentenced to prolonged confinement in military-style closed court trials in the canteen of Okrestino prison.
Since then, I contacted the Viasna Human Rights Centre and started working at a call-centre. The centre works to help the victims of political repressions in Belarus. Today a man called and said that when he went to buy groceries on the night of August 9th a group of soldiers violently attacked him and left him on the street. After 3 weeks he came out of the hospital with a traumatic brain injury, his face shattered and a blind eye from a traumatic cataract. As of today, Viasna has received more than 1,000 calls and 450 filmed testimonies of people who suffered from torture and beatings. Not a single criminal proceeding has been initiated against the perpetrators of those crimes. The complaints are simply being ignored, while the victims themselves are prosecuted and fined. While sitting at the call-centre I received numerous calls from people whose relatives went missing after the protests and still haven’t been found. Meanwhile, the national media broadcasts the same idealised picture of Belarus as an agricultural heaven, as if nothing else were happening. They portray the protesters as traitors, who are paid by the West and coordinated by the US to destabilize and ruin the country.
The anxiety is wide-spread, and young people are trying to come to terms with the amount of violence they witnessed. I feel better now that I work at a humanitarian NGO, where I can help alleviate the impact of the crisis. I can see that, paradoxically, the civil society is flourishing. The protests are far from dying out and there is a lot of work to be done. Speaking up in Belarus is costly and dangerous, but every Sunday the protests gather up to 300.000 people in Minsk alone. The revolutionary movement progresses sporadically, everywhere, and the civil society has never been as consolidated as it is now. This is why I am optimistic and hope for the best for Belarus.