'Walking reminders of atrocities'

Survivors of state brutality in Belarus share their stories.

An illustration of a police truck with a police officer at the end of the truck with the door open and another police officer restraining a protester and pushing them towards the door at the back of the truck.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

To this day, Nina* blames herself for taking her boyfriend Alex* to the protest in downtown Minsk.

It was the evening of August 9, 2020, and earlier that day, the 25-year-olds had voted in their first presidential election.

Like millions of other Belarusians, they had hoped their votes would change the trajectory of their country.

President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”, seemed to be losing his grip on power for the first time since he was elected in 1994.

Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic that the president had repeatedly dismissed as a psychosis and steep economic decline, “people were simply tired of Lukashenko,” explains David Marples, a professor of East European History at the University of Alberta.

Many had come out in support of the opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had decided to run for office after her husband Syarhey Tsikhanousky, a former presidential candidate and blogger, was jailed. Demanding the release of political prisoners and a new democratic constitution that limited presidential powers and fair elections, Tsikhanouskaya had drawn tens of thousands to her rallies and quickly became a symbol of their hunger for change.

And for the first time in decades, many dared to believe that change was possible.

But they had underestimated Lukashenko’s thirst for power.

What happened next would crush Belarusians’ democratic ambitions and tighten the relationship between Minsk and Moscow, transforming a nation that had always been seen as a buffer between Europe and Russia into what many now say is a de facto vassal state.

Nina and Alex: The day of the vote

Nina and Alex had volunteered as independent observers at polling stations during early voting — Nina at a polling station in a school by her home and Alex at the factory where he worked. They said they could easily spot Tsikhanouskaya voters because they wore white bracelets and folded their ballots accordion-style to signal that they were backing the opposition. Nina was certain Tsikhanouskaya was winning, at least at her polling station.

On election day, the turnout was massive. Belarusians lined up early in the morning and waited for hours for their chance to vote.

But sensing danger in this, the government responded: the internet was blocked, thereby limiting the flow of information and the ease with which opposition supporters could organise. Independent observers were threatened by police, arrested, or denied access to polling stations.

According to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the turnout had exceeded 100 percent in several polling stations, with several local election committees claiming they had to turn voters away because they had run out of ballots. By the time polls closed at 8pm, more than 84 percent of eligible voters across the country had cast their ballots.

Nina had voted early in the morning at the polling station where she had volunteered. She noticed that her ballot had only one signature from the head of the local voting committee, instead of two, as required by law. Still, she had to hurry home for her remote work, and so she let it slide. At 8pm, she and Alex went to the polling station to wait for the results.

At about 9pm, the Belarusian Central Election Committee announced preliminary results: It projected a landslide victory for Lukashenko.

Hundreds of thousands of people began to take to streets across the country in protest. In the capital, Minsk, protesters started to congregate near the Hero City of Minsk Obelisk - a popular downtown gathering spot that had been cordoned off by heavily armed riot police.

Nina and Alex waited outside the polling station. Then, at about 10pm, the local election committee taped their results to the locked doors of the school. Nina read the numbers in disbelief. The number of ballots cast for Tsikhanouskaya since the beginning of early voting on August 4 was smaller than the number of people Nina’s colleagues had observed wearing white bracelets on election day. The official turnout was also much smaller than what Nina had counted during early voting.

“We must go,” she said to Alex. She believed she was a witness to election fraud and that it was her duty to stand up to it.

They made their way to downtown Minsk, arriving some time between 10.30pm and 11pm.

An illustration of a large crowd of people outdoors holding Belarus flags and signs in a protest.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The protest

Alex says there were as many as ten thousand protesters there by the time they arrived, wearing white bracelets and wrapped in the white, red and white flags used by anti-government protesters.

They stood on lawns and on side streets shouting “Long live Belarus” “Lukashenko, go away” and “Police with the people.”

The couple watched from a distance as riot police, coming from all directions, edged closer to the crowd. Then they heard the hiss of rubber bullets and were blanketed in a cloud of smoke as tear gas filled the air.

Some of the protesters ran onto the streets to block the advancing police vehicles. But a police truck suddenly accelerated, plowing through the protesters and running one of them over.

“I’m scared, let’s leave,” said Nina as something sharp hit her on the cheek. Alex noticed that she was bleeding and rushed to shield her. That was when the stun grenade exploded between them.

Their eardrums burst, and the world went quiet.

Dasha: ’Something just broke’

Twenty-one-year-old law graduate Dasha spent the evening of August 9 wandering through the streets of Minsk. She was working as an observer for Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organisation, and she and her colleagues had been tasked with observing the peaceful protests - and the police response to them.

From above, Minsk resembles a spider’s web, with radii of avenues intersecting the circular threads of streets and roads. Most of the downtown area falls within the two circles closest to the centre of the city where Independence Avenue and Victors Avenue intersect.

Assigned to Dasha’s team was the area that stretched from Viasna’s office near the Academy of Science to the Circus along Independence Avenue just a couple of miles east of the Obelisk. It was quiet. But as the number of protesters grew elsewhere, Viasna had grown concerned for the safety of its observers. Dasha received a call from the organisation’s headquarters, ordering her to leave the streets. She’d also had a call from her mother, pleading with her to go home. But curious to see what was going on — and certain that this was the most important election of her lifetime — she ignored both.

There were stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons, smoke, people screaming in pain

Alone, she made her way towards downtown.

“It felt like a celebration,” she says, recalling the events of that evening as she sips iced coffee in a cafe in Vilnius, Lithuania in July 2021.

“But if you looked to the right, all the roads were cordoned off by the riot police. And if you looked to the left, in the direction of the Obelisk, it was terrifying. There were stun grenades, tear gas, water cannons, smoke, people screaming in pain.”

As she pushed through the crowd, a young man walking next to her started choking on tear gas.

“Something just broke inside of me,” she says.

A day that had begun with so much hope was ending in violence and chaos. To Dasha, it resembled a war zone.

Drawing of a policeman beating a protester
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Max: Punched to the ground

Just over a mile to the south, on Nyamiha Street, lined on both sides by modern shopping malls, cafes and two cathedrals, hundreds ran from the rubber bullets, the stun grenades, and the police who wielded them.

Nineteen-year-old Max* ran as fast as he could.

The 6 foot 2 former football player was worried about his friends. As his group broke away from the crowd and turned into a quiet street, he looked over his shoulder.

Behind him, he saw his best friend - on his knees with his hands behind his head. A policeman in full riot gear punched him to the ground.

As Max walked towards them, another policeman ordered him to lie face down on the ground. Then his boot struck Max on his side and a padded glove landed between his nose and one of his eyes.

He curled up in a ball and gasped for air.

The human toll

On the night of the election, police detained 3,000 people across the country. Two thousand of those were in Minsk.

In total, between August 9 and 12, 2020, more than 6,700 Belarusians were arrested, at least three people were killed, and several thousand were beaten and tortured on the streets, in vehicles, inside detention centres, and in police precincts.

Survivors have described the use of sexual assaults, threats of rape, electric shocks, and of being forced to endure “stress” positions for prolonged periods of time and of being deprived of food, water, and medical care.

Detainees suffered serious harm, including traumatic brain injuries, broken bones, electrical burns, kidney damage, skin wounds, and cracked teeth.

In the months following the election, the Belarusian Investigative Committee, the domestic law enforcement agency tasked with preliminary investigations and pretrial criminal proceedings, received 4,644 complaints of torture and other kinds of police brutality, including sexual crimes. Not a single police officer was held accountable. More than 300 police personnel received presidential medals for “impeccable service” barely a week after the crackdown.

Instead, the victims of the state-sponsored violence were criminalised. Hundreds of those who dared to file complaints against the police for brutality and torture were hit with criminal charges for disrupting public peace and participating in riots. To date, according to an announcement by the Belarusian Prosecutor General, more than 1,600 people have been convicted on charges of extremism and terrorism. Human rights defenders believe many of these cases are politically motivated.

But the arrests and police brutality did not immediately stop the protests. Protesters would return to the streets every weekend well into late Autumn of 2020. Eventually though, mass arrests - more than 35,000 Belarusians have been arrested on charges related to post-election protests since August 2020 - drove the protesters underground.

Human rights activists and journalists have been detained en masse. Lawyers who defended them have been stripped of their professional licenses. And doctors and nurses have lost their jobs for speaking out against the government and have been sentenced to prison for disclosing information about the injuries inflicted on civilians by the police.

More than 1,085 political prisoners are still in jail and the number continues to grow.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians are thought to have left the country, with many fleeing to Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. It is impossible to know the exact number because as  Warsaw-based Belarusian immigration lawyer Olga Dobrovolska explains, “People are fleeing with or without their passports.”

The crackdown on civilians forged a deeper alliance between Moscow and Minsk.

While Lukashenko had spent decades seeking Russia’s financial and political help, he had also shown signs of opening up to Europe — so much so that in 2007, the European Commission opened an office in Minsk. “They [the European Union] started a dialogue with the regime, kind of ignoring the human rights violations that were taking place,” explains Marples, the eastern European history professor.

But the scale of the post-election abuses was impossible to ignore.

As Brussels condemned the crackdown and began to impose a series of sanctions on Belarus, Moscow saw an opportunity to reinforce its influence in the country. At the end of August 2020, Putin announced that Russia would meet Lukaskenko’s request to place police officers at the Belarusian border in case “Belarusian extremists” crossed “a line”.

A few weeks later the Russian president pledged a $1.5bn loan to Belarus and, towards the end of the year, the Russian National Guard signed an agreement with the Belarusian police to help them quash the pro-democracy movement.

Putin became the main patron of the Belarusian regime. When he decided to deploy up to 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus and use the country as a springboard for his attack on Ukraine, Lukashenko declared his support for Putin: “No matter what anyone else wants, we will bring our Ukraine back into the fold of Slavism,” he said.

An illustration of three people on the street at night with a large amount of teargas smoke coming from the left end of the illustration.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Nina and Alex: Agony

After the stun grenade exploded, Nina and Alex were rushed by ambulance to the Main Military Hospital where they both underwent a series of surgeries.

Doctors removed seven grenade shards from the soft tissue of Nina’s burned legs. They decided not to operate on the wound on her cheek, hoping that it would close by itself and push out what was left of the rubber bullet. Almost a year later, the mark on Nina’s cheek serves as a reminder of what happened to her.

Alex’s foot was shredded by the explosion: multiple bones were broken, joints were twisted inside out, the skin was burned and pierced by pieces of metal. Over six surgeries, military doctors worked on what remained of his heel, stitching it into a swollen bundle of tissue and skin grafts. They doubted he would be able to step on it again, but he has proven them wrong.

Night time was the worst for Nina. Every time she rolled in her sleep, she would wake up in agony as her burns stuck to the sheets.

The nurse tending to Alex complained that he bled too much, but softened when Nina bribed her with grapes and sweets.

Nina was released to recuperate at home after two weeks. Alex spent almost a month in hospital.

Nina and Alex were not the only victims of targeted police brutality. According to ByPol, a group of former and current Belarusian police officers who oppose Lukashenko’s regime, 1,141 people were injured during protests, arrests, and detentions in Minsk between August 9 and August 26, 2020.

This number is based on a leaked database of people who received treatment in medical institutions in Minsk. Al Jazeera could not independently confirm the veracity or source of the data, which included 45 gunshot wounds, 203 fractures, 37 spinal injuries, and at least two cases of male protesters suffering injuries consistent with rape.

Max: The sound of men screaming

The policeman who kicked Max was short and loud: “You knew who you went against,” he bellowed. “Why don’t you love our president?” The officer handcuffed him and threw him face down onto the floor of a police van.

Every minute or so, the door of the van would open, and another person would be thrown in.

As blood clotted in his nose, Max ran through a mental checklist. As an athlete, he was unaffected by the pain. He told himself to breathe with it. What he struggled to process were the words of the policeman. He could not believe that someone could still be so loyal to Lukashenko. “Who are these people?” he thought to himself. “What air-sealed bunker have they been hiding in for the last few decades?”

After a while, Max and the others were transferred to another police truck. Then, after a short ride, they were moved to yet another truck. Each time the detainees changed vehicles, they had to run through a “corridor” of policemen who kicked, punched, and struck them with batons.

Inside the new truck, Max was ordered into the “shotglass”, a narrow metal cage designed for one or, at most, two people. There were already three people there. They sat on top of each other like LEGO blocks. The two at the bottom, Max learned, were a father and son who had not participated in the protests but had been arrested as they left a grocery store with bags full of liquor and meat.

The ventilation holes in the “shotglass”’ had been duct taped. There was no air, and it was hot. Max’s blood dripped from his nose and onto the other men. He was drenched with sweat. Through the metal door, they heard men screaming.

When the doors of the truck eventually opened, Max realised he was in the courtyard of the infamous detention centres on Okrestina Street. Over the next 72 hours, these two jails, one red and one white, separated from each other and the outside world by metal gates and barbed wire, became a symbol of violence and state repression.

In normal times, the jail Max was incarcerated in would house up to 110 inmates. But in the days after the election, this number increased more than tenfold.

Max and the other detainees were ordered to run through the detention centre’s courtyard as balaclava-wearing police and guards beat them with batons.

Drawing of a man in a prison cell
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Inside Cell 19

Max was put into Cell 19, a 12ft by 12ft concrete block. It was supposed to house four people but there were 14 inside it. The door slammed shut behind him. By the end of the following day, there were 38 detainees in the cell.

The stench of the toilet, sweat, and blood was nauseating. The heat was unbearable. Condensation dripped from the ceiling and trickled down the walls. The men begged the guards to open the window, but were ignored. Max says they were not given food or water for days, but would take turns filling a plastic bottle with the water that ran from the single tap in the cell.

Max lay under one of the two bunk beds, his face to the wall, turned away from the glare of the ceiling light.

Several men became delirious from the lack of oxygen, thirst and hunger. Untreated wounds began to rot. The inmates begged to see a doctor but no one came. The bone stuck out of one man’s leg. Another, whose fingers had been broken at strange angles, shook constantly, even when he slept.

You can't negotiate with monsters

Petr*, a tall man in his early 40s with closely cropped hair, banged on the metal door, crying out for food and a doctor. He had been a policeman once and still had an air of authority about him. But when the guard ordered Petr out of the cell, four riot police punched him in the head and torso until they grew tired. Then they ordered him to clean his own blood off the floor with his t-shirt and to return to the cell.

Max hoped Petr had learned his lesson. “You can’t negotiate with monsters,” he thought. But Petr continued to demand better treatment.

The guards opened the door and poured a bucket of ice-cold water on the inmates. For a second, it felt like a respite from the heat, but as the water evaporated, the cell became even hotter and more humid.

Ruslan*, a man Max had first met in the police truck, cried on the top bunk. Through the barred window, he could see the courtyard and the front gate. As the gate opened to let more police vehicles and ambulances in, Ruslan saw his wife Lara*, who was eight months pregnant, waiting outside. “She came for me, she found me,” he whispered through the tears.

That night, they woke up to the blood-chilling chorus of men screaming and yelping as they were beaten in the courtyard. But it was the screaming of women inside their prison’s walls that scared Max and the others the most.

Lisa: ’This can’t be real’

On the second floor of Okrestina jail, in Cell 9, Lisa*, a 34-year-old blogger and an anti-scam activist, dozed off on the dirty floor with her head inside a locker. The heat was insufferable, the toilet stunk and the bunk beds in the overcrowded cell were all occupied. Her sleep was restless. Another woman slept on top of the locker and Lisa was worried she could fall on her. It was Lisa's fourth time in Okrestina, her second time that year.

Like many Belarusians, Lisa is a survivor of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. When Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, less than 10 miles (16 kilometres) from the Belarusian border, on April 26, 1986, Lisa was only 8 months old. Nearly 70 percent of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. Though only 31 deaths have been officially linked to the explosion, thousands more have likely died from radiation sickness and other diseases, including cancers, or continue to live with the consequences of the biggest nuclear disaster in history.

Lisa, who at the time of the Chernobyl disaster lived within its 25-mile (40km) radius, was exposed to a lot of radiation. Her childhood was spent in hospitals. As an adult, she has been dealing with ongoing health issues and has lost several loved ones to cancer. In early 2018, when Lisa found out about scammers who were getting rich by fundraising for sick children who didn’t actually exist, she set up a YouTube channel to expose them. But she says that her zeal and frequent attempts to engage local policymakers and law enforcement in her fight made her a target of the police, who sought to suppress all activism and dissent before the election. Lisa suspects this - and not her alleged participation in the protests - was the real reason she was arrested on August 10, the day after the election, while she was out buying some batteries.

A policeman blocked her way as she tried to get closer to GUM, a department store in downtown Minsk. “We are protecting the country from dangerous elements trying to usurp the power,” he told her.

“I thought we only had one such element in the country,” Lisa replied.

When she tried to keep walking, a riot policeman referred to as Rambo by his colleagues, pulled her by her hair and threw her onto a passenger bus repurposed for use by the police. Lisa spent several hours on the floor at the back of the bus, first as a sole detainee surrounded by riot police, then with other arrestees. Lisa believes her captors were tipped off about who she was. At one point, a policeman ran onto the bus and grabbed her bag, screaming there was a camera in it. The camera that Lisa always carried with her to film content for her YouTube channel was discovered and confiscated. Her mobile phone was unlocked. Like many other voters, Lisa had taken a picture of her ballot, for accountability. After the police saw the photos of her vote for Tsikhanouskaya and a caricature of the riot police, she was told she would never leave the bus.

She passed the time observing the police, who she says were on their phones checking Telegram channels or calling their mums. Then, at about 10pm, a command came through, and the police got into formation before sprinting off to arrest protesters who were running north from Nyamiha. After midnight, Lisa and the other detainees were transferred to a police truck and taken to Okrestina.

As she and other women were rushed to the second floor, Lisa ran past naked men lined up against the wall, on their knees, with their heads to the blood-stained floor. “This can’t be real,” she thought.

The lights in the cell made her nauseous. During her arrest, she had been hit on the head several times, and now she felt like her skull was splitting. One of her fellow inmates, an ER doctor, said she could be concussed. “It could be worse,” she thought as she saw an elderly mother of 11 and a woman who was recovering from a recent mastectomy being humiliated by a female guard. Another woman had a broken jaw. A woman in her early 40s and diabetic, looked close to death.

An illustration of a sink with a red handprint on the wall.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Marina: ’Conveyor-belt courts’

“There was no food, no water, and no information,” remembers Marina, another detainee from Cell 9, who spoke to us over Zoom.

To bear the heat, women undressed to their underwear, while male guards entertained themselves by peeping at the undressed women through the porthole.

Marina, who is in her 30s, was worried sick for her two hungry cats, her elderly parents, and her husband Alexey who had been arrested with her. The night before, they had been dragged from their car, which was parked by the apartment building where they lived.

At least five other women in her cell had been arrested with their loved ones. Whenever they heard men screaming, they wailed in horror, convinced they had recognised the voices of their husbands, brothers and sons.

Right behind their cell door in the hallway, so-called “conveyor-belt courts” began their sessions. Their cases were tried in secret, with judges delivering about 12 sentences an hour, giving each defendant trials that lasted between three and five minutes.

The detainees were not allowed to inform their families or contact lawyers. To their loved ones on the outside, the vast majority of those arrested between August 9 and 12 simply disappeared.

As the women in Cell 9 tried to listen to what was going on on the other side of their cell door, Lisa, who was well versed in fighting administrative charges, briefed her cellmates on what to expect from their few minutes in a hallway court. Step by step, she explained their rights, and what to look out for.

Then, it was her turn. Lisa was presented with a protocol of detention she had to sign before seeing the judge. According to it, she was an unemployed man with a high school diploma arrested at an unsanctioned protest, while chanting extremist slogans like “Long live Belarus”. The time and location of her arrest were also wrong. Her “criminal behaviour” had been witnessed by several policemen who had already signed the document. Lisa crossed out the inaccuracies and wrote her objections ignoring threats from one of Okrestina’s commandants that she would be put in solitary confinement for doing so. Following her example, other women in her cell also refused to agree with the protocols.

By the end of August 11, two days after the election, the number of inmates in Cell 9 — which was designed to house four people — had jumped to 53. Many of the newcomers had spent the previous night packed like sardines in the outdoor cell, freezing in their summer dresses in the mercurial Belarusian weather.

Lisa's locker was now occupied by someone new - a dreadlocked young woman with a large bump on her forehead - so Lisa washed her underwear in the cell’s sink and then lay down under the table to sleep. But at about 4am on August 12, her name was called. With her recently-washed bra in her hand, she left the cell and was taken to the courtyard.

She waited there for an hour, witnessing male detainees being beaten by people in balaclavas. “After a while, I began to dissociate,” she says.

One of the policemen threatened to pay her a home visit. “Please come,” she replied, “I will bake you a pie.”

And then she was released, without her passport, money, or keys to her apartment. “Hello world,” she whispered as she stepped onto the street outside Okrestina.

Dasha: Looking for loved ones

On the morning of August 12, Viasna’s headquarters were abuzz. The landline and mobile phones kept ringing. After three days of protests, thousands of families all over the country were unable to locate their loved ones.

Dasha was one of five responders answering the calls and writing down the names of the missing. As she put down the phone after one call and briefly lifted her eyes from her notebook, she spotted a visitor to the office - an exhausted-looking woman in a long floral dress, holding a bra. It was Lisa, who explained that she had just been released from Okrestina.

Viasna’s founder, human rights lawyer Ales Bialiatski, asked Dasha to interview Lisa about her detention. “I got lucky she was my first one,” explains Dasha, recalling how she recorded Lisa’s story on an old mobile phone that kept running out of memory. “Her bravery and stoicism in the face of horror assured me that if she could handle it, I could too. For me, she is an example of human dignity,” she reflects.

Lisa was the first survivor whose account Dasha was able to document — but she wasn’t the last. As thousands of others were released on August 13 and 14, many turned to Viasna for help.

An illustration of a girl with glasses wearing jeans holding sitting and holding her head with a sign next to her saying, "Freedom Belarus"
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Documenting haunting stories

The physical and emotional states, as well as the stories of the survivors who came to Viasna for help, left the experts in little doubt:

“Very early on, we came to a conclusion that it was not just an infliction of injuries during arrest, some excessive force, or something of the kind — It was torture,” says Pavel Sapelko, an analyst with Viasna who fled Belarus for safety reasons several months after those events.

Viasna’s management soon realised they had to come up with a system for documenting torture with the purpose of presenting it as evidence in international and domestic courts in the future. Their top priorities were finding safe locations to conduct interviews, training their teams, and ensuring secure storage of data. And they had to act fast, while the survivors’ bodies and memories still bore evidence of the crimes.

Several teams of documentalists, videographers, and psychologists interviewed people in four safe houses, while a mobile brigade visited victims who were either too badly injured, or too afraid to leave their homes.

A pattern emerged. The overwhelming majority of people that Dasha and the others talked to had no documents, such as detention protocols, copies of sentences, or warnings. Many had never even had trials. A few could provide the reports from their forensic-medical examinations, which Dasha carefully scanned and stored. It seemed that all evidence that could be used to implicate the authorities in crimes against their own people had been intentionally withheld.

“We filmed everything,” Dasha explains. “In many cases, it was obvious that a person had trouble walking or sitting. I would offer them pillows to sit on. One person couldn’t even sit on the pillow. He could only lean on the chair with one knee.”

Dasha worked two shifts a day, six or seven days a week as one of Viasna’s documentalists. She slept at work, as her apartment was considered unsafe to return to. Some days, she half expected the next person she talked to, to be an undercover police officer. In the first month, Dasha interviewed more than 100 survivors.

I think it would have been easier for the police if they had just killed them all

Some of their stories still haunt her. She remembers a 45-year-old blue-collar worker who spent less than an hour in Okrestina courtyard, but had to be hospitalised after witnessing a pregnant woman being beaten by guards. There was an IT guy who eventually revealed that he had been raped in Okrestina. And a young biracial man who was scalped while his locks were cut off.

“I think it would have been easier for the police if they had just killed them all,” she says. “And perhaps they would have, but something prevented them. If all these victims were killed, these crimes would be forgotten. But now there are thousands of living, walking reminders of these atrocities.”

On October 8, 2020, Ales Bialiatski told Dasha that she had to leave the country immediately. The police were inquiring about her whereabouts. By then, nobody at the organisation was safe.

“I realised that my personal safety was not just my business any more. I was responsible for the safety of our organisation and hundreds of people who I got in contact with, including those whose stories I had documented,” she says.

Dasha left Belarus on October 12, 2020.

In the next few months, seven Viasna members were arrested, including its leaders Ales Bialiatski and Valiantsin Stefanovich. Several more staffers left the country. Those who remain in Belarus, continue to document human rights abuses.

The pursuit of justice

According to the OSCE report released in October 2020, the allegations of torture and other major human rights abuses in Belarus were “massive and systematic and proven beyond doubt”. But it is possible that no one will be held to account.

So far, Lithuania and Germany have begun preliminary inquiries into the abuses committed in Belarus under universal jurisdiction – a legal mechanism, which allows states to prosecute crimes regardless of where they are committed. Furthermore, two separate criminal complaints for crimes against humanity have been filed in Germany against members of the Belarusian security forces. At least one criminal case has also been initiated in Poland regarding the detention and torture of Polish citizens during the post-election crackdown.

But obstacles to accountability are many. One of these is that universal jurisdiction does not allow the prosecution of a sitting president.

It is also unlikely that Belarusian authorities will appear in front of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague anytime soon. Belarus has not signed the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding document. This means that its jurisdiction can only be triggered by the UN Security Council’s referral, and Russia and China will almost certainly use their veto power to oppose this.

Nevertheless, in May 2021, a network of human rights lawyers and organisations submitted a case against the Lukashenko regime to the ICC, for the crime against humanity of forced deportation and persecution.

The lawyers argued that thousands of civilians who fled Belarus for the neighbouring states of Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Ukraine since August 2020, were forcibly displaced. Since all these countries are either member states or fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC, Belarusian authorities may be indicted for these cross-border crimes.

“Voters were either expelled or fled because of coercion and violence,” explains Alexander Prezanti, one of the lawyers who worked on this case.

Whether the ICC prosecutor will open an investigation remains uncertain and even if it does, progress can be slow.

While legal accountability may take years, the European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and his associates. But some experts warn that sanctions are actually hurting universal jurisdiction, as the only way to arrest the perpetrators for now is outside of Belarus. “If you ban them and they cannot travel, how can you make an arrest?” asks Yaroslavna Sychenkova, a legal adviser at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

Still, accountability, even if symbolic, is important for the survivors: “It means that all of us who suffered, didn’t suffer for nothing,” says Marina.

An illustration of barbed wire with 5 soldiers on the other side.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Nina and Alex: Fleeing Belarus

In the weeks after the election, while Alex was still in hospital, Nina’s father, a former policeman, urged her to secure Schengen visas for her and Alex. He was certain the authorities would seek to destroy the evidence of their crimes by putting their victims behind bars. Nina thought he was being alarmist but did as he told her to.

Alex was released from the hospital on September 5, his foot still in an Ilizarov apparatus - a metal cage to set the bones. Two days later, on the day they planned to leave Belarus, they woke to the sound of police banging on their door.

The couple was taken to a precinct for questioning. During a search of their apartment, the police found “incriminating evidence” - a white bracelet and a small white-red-white flag. Nina was arrested and taken to Okrestina.

He will always be in pain, with every step he takes

Alex was not arrested. He believes he was spared because his injury made it difficult to transport him to jail. Encouraged by Nina’s father, he left the country the next day.

She was released on September 10, 2020, but facing four criminal charges (one of which was later dropped) and the prospect of an eight-year prison sentence, she decided not to wait for her day in court.

On September 11, her parents drove her to the Polish capital, Warsaw, where she was reunited with Alex. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever be able to go back.

“I thought there would be a moment when this is all over, and we will be able to forget about it and move on,” she says. “But it’s not possible. It is getting better, but he [Alex] will always be in pain, with every step he takes.”

Max: Ordered to run

On August 12, 2020, Max was sentenced to 15 days of jail time, but he was released at dawn the following day.

Before he was let go, he was ordered to line up in the courtyard with other men, facing the wall. In the light of the lamp posts, he could see the shadows of the guards moving closer.

Max tried not to scream as they beat him on his thighs and buttocks with a baton.

“Will you go back to protest?” The guard roared. “No, I won’t,” Max replied, receiving a new blow in the same spot. “Will you go back to protests?” repeated the guard. “I won’t!” Max shouted as loudly as he could. “Cut your hair short, or we will!” The guard ordered. “Yes, sir!” Max responded.

The beating stopped and the guard moved on to the next victim. Finally, Max and the others were ordered to run as fast as they could through the courtyard and out of the gates.

On September 9, 2020, to mark the one-month anniversary of his arrest, Max cut off his long hair to make the point that only he can make decisions about his appearance.

After this, the police did not bother him much, but he is haunted by nightmares in which he is pursued by them.

He dropped out of college during his final year, and in May 2021 he spent 8 days in a psychiatric hospital. He did this, he says, in order to avoid the obligatory army draft. He did not want to serve and protect the government he fought against, he explains.

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Max received an order to report to the army draft centre. Fearing he would be deployed to fight in the war, he left Belarus the first week of March.

Marina and Lisa: Haunted by nightmares

Many women from Cell 9 were released without trial. But they quickly learned their freedom could be easily revoked.

At the end of July 2021, Marina was arrested again on suspicion of being a party to a terrorist plot. She was sent back to Okrestina, this time for 15 days. After her release, she and her husband fled Belarus — first for Ukraine and then, a couple of weeks before the war started, for Poland. These days, Marina volunteers in Przemyśl and Kraków, helping Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war.

Back in Belarus, Lisa has had two trials, neither of which she attended due to lack of notice.

Why should I be afraid? I didn't do anything wrong. They are the ones who should be afraid

Like more than 4,600 other victims of torture and police brutality, she filed a complaint with the Belarusian Investigative Committee, but in August 2021, the Committee concluded that the physical force used after the elections was in accordance with Belarusian law. To this day, Lisa continues to appeal the decision not to investigate her complaint.

She suspects she may be arrested any day and says she is frequently harassed by policemen who openly threaten her. The door of her apartment has been vandalised three times and her personal information has been posted on websites advertising sexual services. Still, she is refusing to give in to fear: “Why should I be afraid? I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “They are the ones who should be afraid.”

Like Max, though, she is haunted by a recurring nightmare.

In it, she leaves her home and walks past trees heavy with the dead swaying on the branches. She asks a policeman about them.

He answers: “Oh those are just the freedom fighters.”

*Names changed to protect their identities. 

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists and Journalismfund.eu.

Source: Al Jazeera