“All the violence suffered by many of us has helped Belarusians to unite”
Tatsiana and her husband experienced the police brutality first-hand as they were arbitrarily arrested. In an interview, she shares her hopes for justice and a free future for Belarus.
MINSK · 21 AUGUST 2020 · 10:51 CET
Factory strikes, protests both in the capital Minsk and in rural areas, international pressure on Lukashenko, and hundreds of legal complaints denouncing tortures.
Belarus may be seeing the start of the end of a regime that has lasted too long.
Tatsiana Belashova, an evangelical Christian in Minsk, believes the once unbreakable circle around President Lukashenko is starting to fall apart. She and her husband have experienced the police brutality of Lukashenko’s regime first-hand when they were arbitrarily arrested.
Both have worked as journalists for an independent Belarusian media network. Speaking to Evangelical Focus, Belashova shared details about her experience and the hopes Belarusians have for a democratic future.
Question. The media have reported about the brutality of the Belarusian special police forces after the election that sparked the protests. You also experienced something this. What happened?
Answer. On 10 August, my husband had gone into the city centre of Minsk, and disappeared. I realised that he had been detained, so after three hours I tried to go to the police department buildings to get information, but I was also detained nearby before I had the chance to ask about him. Special police forces arrested me and other 12 women, all of then were looking for relatives as well. I was detained for 53 hours. As we were woman, we weren’t beaten.
All of us were quickly brought to the detention centre of Akrestsina. They were very rude, they shouted at us and treated us like criminals.
They put us in a cell of ten square meters, 20 of us were put in there the first night. The second night, we were 33 in that same cell, and the third night I was there, we were 46. It was like a human puzzle or a ‘tetris’. On the floor, we were trying to place our bodies on every centimetre available.
They only gave us food once over the period, and it was crazy hot in the cell.
Q. When you spoke to the other women detained, what did they tell you?
A. Almost all girls in the cell had been detained for no reason, just like me. Only one had been actively taking part in the protest. One of the girls in the cell was detained when she was feeding cats on the street, she had the cat food in her hands when she was taken. Another was in a car, and the police broke the glasses and took her out. Others, like the group of twelve of us, were just seeking for our relatives who had been detained earlier. Others were doctors who were helping people wounded on the street after the demonstration. Several of the girls in the cell were very young, like 20 or 22 years old. In total, about 80 women went through our cell the time during the period I was detained.
There were some girls who had been injured during their detainment but nobody called an ambulance for them.
Q. You said you weren’t beaten, but others have denounced torture and police brutality in that detention centre.
A. Yes, when we first arrived to Akrestsina, I saw men naked, sitting on the floor. They were humiliating them and beating them with rubber sticks.
Those three nights that I spent there, we heard the special police vans arriving to the detention centres around five times every night. Loads of men were brought in, some of them were crying out loud, as they were beaten by the police. There was silence for a while, and then the next police van arrived with new prisoners, and we could hear the same again.
One man I met after being released, told me that when the doors of the vehicles opened and they were taken out of the police vans, there were two long lines of policemen waiting in the yard, one in front of the other. All the detained would be forced to run between the two rows, while the officers beat them with their batons on the back. At the end of this line, people were just crawling on the ground trying to avoid the beating. I could hear all this from our cell those nights.
On the third day, they just released us, and gave as an unofficial warning telling us we should not engage in activity against the government on the streets.
Nobody told us what the reason was for our detention. There was no court. In all that time, nobody told us nothing while I was there. No lawyers and no rights.
Q. What was the experience of your husband?
A. My husband was detained for 72 hours. He was meeting journalists in Minsk, and brought his camera kit with him. He was stopped by the police, and they checked his backpack and saw that his camera had the Belsat Television [and independent Belarussian media network] logo on it. They laughed at him as they detained him, despite of the fact that he insisted that he was a journalist. They brought him to a police department in Minsk, where he and others were lying on the ground for 16 hours. He wasn’t beaten, but a guy in the group had heart problems, and another a kidney transplant. Both of them needed medication, but they were only beaten when they asked for their medication.
Later, he was finally moved to a regular prison in another city, which was less over-crowded. There, they were given food. But my husband and the others were transported in small locker-sized cells inside the police vehicles. These were for one person, although two persons could fit more or less. But they put three and even four persons in each of these police van iron cells, which were extremely hot.
There were judges in that prison, but no lawyers. My husband was given 3 days of punishment, and released soon.
Detained protesters in Minsk, after the election. / Photo: Kyky.org
Q. People like you and so many other are very hurt by the brutality of this government and the lack of human rights. In the large demonstrations all across the countries in these last days, there have been messages like “We will not forget, we will not forgive”. Do you think this crisis is opening wounds that will make reconciliation in the future in Belarus very difficult?
A. Yes, it will be difficult. Reconciliation will only be possible when the people who did all this, and especially those who are responsible for giving the orders, are found and punished in legal processes in courts.
How I see it now, all this violence suffered by many of us has helped Belarusians to unite as a society. The actions of the government have driven many more to the latest protests.
Before, lots of people would think: ‘This is not my business, it has nothing to do with me’. But now people care, because they saw how cruel and terrifying our authorities are. Now people are standing up for their principles and take the streets, they do it for their relatives, for their friends, for their fellow citizens.
I think some made a kind of sacrifice in the past months and years. But without their suffering, te whole society would not have reacted so strongly as they are reacting now. Last Sunday (16 August) there were hundreds of thousands on the streets.
I don’t know the future. But for now, people are asking that Lukashenko and all his people leave.
Q. Do you think Belarus will soon be a democratic country?
A. As we talk now, we are following closely what the factories and the workers in the industries will do and say. It all depends on them and their strikes very much now.
We also are looking to the European Union, which could impose strict sanctions against Lukashenko and the bureaucrats and decision-makers around him. He has a very closed circle of people around him, but whenever this circle starts to fall apart, we will see the start of the end. When, due to the EU sanctions, high Belarusian government managers become aware that they can no longer go to their favourite villa in France, or send their children to study to London, or go to hospitals in Germany… Then they will start to think better on which side they want to be. Personal sanctions against high-ranking government officials will work well, we hope.
On the other hand, Belarusian people have to be aware that sanctions are not against them or the economy.
Citizens have now been able to collect around 3 million dollars to help victims in the protests, and workers who are striking.
Q. What about the churches in the country, how are they reacting to this conflict?
A. There are lots of different churches and denominations, and there are different points of view. I’ve heard a pastor say churches should help the people, pray for the situation and fight against this ‘demonic’ authorities.
But there are some other churches who say something like ‘those people who have been in prison, it’s their own fault, because our task as Christians is just to pray’.
My friend and I who were imprisoned recorded a video for Baptists churches in Belarus, sharing about what we experienced so that it can be streamed by pastors in some church services. I visited a church as well, and they were very supportive.
Evangelical churches are not openly calling people to go out and protest, but lots support the idea of more democracy and support those who have been injured.
Q. How can people in other parts of Europe and the world pray and support Belarussians in these difficult times?
Q. Definitely, pray for the victims. Many people have been really injured both physically and emotionally. Even me, who wasn’t beaten physically, I am injured emotionally. I can imagine how broken people are who went through suffering in prison, this can be a trauma for life for many.
What Christians can do is raising the awareness about Belarus outside our country. Try to share information, and say that what is happening in Belarus is not ok. Our country is next to the European Union, and such violence should not happen in the 21st century. If people have access to European Members of Parliament they can ask them to make the Belarussian issue a priority in their agendas.
Q. Lastly, how would you like to see Belarus in five years?
A. I hope the situation will change quickly and in the right direction. I don’t know if that will happen now, in one year or two. But in five years I hope we are in a situation that is similar to that of our neighbours, like Poland, for example.
There are loads of opportunities here in Belarus for economic investment. We hope that after the authorities change, everybody will love to bring their factories and businesses here, and bring innovation.
We have loads of very clever people in Belarus, we have very good potential as a society. I hope that soon we will be in another situation, more like other countries around us.
This interview with Tatsiana Belashova was conducted on 19 August 2020.
Published in: Evangelical Focus - europe - “All the violence suffered by many of us has helped Belarusians to unite”