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posted May 2, 2006
 
The Islet of Freedom

by Alexander Podrabinek

Following presidential elections in Belarus on March 19,  thirty thousand people protested the blatantly unfair and illegal conditions of the vote, including widespread vote stealing. Official results gave Aleksander Lukashenka a Soviet-era 89 percent of the vote and the unified opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich just 6 percent, despite Milinkevich's growing support throughout the campaign. Dozens and later hundreds of young people set up a tent city on October Square, joined by thousands more who established a protective cordon. In the early morning of March 24, however, Belarusan special forces destroyed the tent city on October Square, brutally beating and arresting hundreds. 

Alexander Podrabinek, one of Russia’s most distinguished human rights journalists and editor-in-chief of PRIMA News Agency, was among dozens of foreign journalists and observers to be detained and one of about fifteen to be charged and sentenced to prison terms. Podrabinek served 15 days for participating in an unauthorized demonstration. Below is his account of the opposition camp, its destruction by police, and his imprisonment. 
 

The Camp

For three days and four nights stood the camp of the Belarusan opposition, right in the center of Minsk, in direct view of the residence of the president Alexander Lukashenko.

Alexander Grigorievich Lukashenko must have looked in rage out his windows on Independence Avenue seeing hundreds and thousands of demonstrators who came to the square to assert truth and freedom in their country. Three days are a trifling piece of time in somebody’s life, but those three days turned a page in Belarusan history.

The meeting at the October Square began on Monday, on the 20th of March at 6.30 p.m., on the next day of the president’s elections. A tent was put up. KGB’s officers crushed it. Then four more tents were put up and were surrounded by the cordon of demonstrators. On Thursday, there were more than 30 tents in the camp. The cordon around them became bigger and at night there were two or three rows in it. In the day-time, up to 500-700 people gathered near the camp, every evening at 6.30 p.m., when the meeting began, there were up to three to five thousands of demonstrators. 

It is a lie of Belarusan propaganda, echoed by some Russian media, that support for the camp decreased quickly and the number of participants grew ever less. Every day the number of people who sympathized with the Belarusan opposition increased. Only over night were there fewer people (around two hundred). Still, the cordon stayed in place despite the low temperature (10-12 below zero Celcius), along with wet snow, and wind. There were about 120 people in the cordon. Some warmed themselves for a while in tents and then substituted those who got cold.

The most anxious time was from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. With the opening of the metro some of the people from the camp went at home to warm up and to sleep. The rows of defenders of the camp became thin and those who stayed bewared of acts of provocation. People came back between 9 and 10 a.m. The police, SWAT, Special Police Force, and KGB officers in short black jackets and in black tuque (“men in black”) didn’t leave the square from the first day.

The camp was under economic blockade. People going in the direction of the camp holding bags were stopped by the police. Officers searched them and took away food, thermoses with tea and coffee, and warm clothes. But some people managed to carry food and clothes in anyway. Since it was impossible to search all people, police watched especially for young and professional people; but a typical, housewife coming back from the market easily passed by the police and at the last moment made a prompt step to the cordon and brought its habitants tea, food, and clothes. Somebody managed to bind a garland of sausages around him under his jacket, like a machinegun belt, and in this way brought food to the camp. A woman contrived to put on a down jacket under a sheepskin coat. The police detained some people who left the camp, especially if they were alone. Sometimes the residents of the camp came out to the nearest shop in the presence of foreign journalists, since police didn’t risk mauling civilians in front of them.

Police did check the documents of most people who headed for the camp. Sometimes there were casual passers-by. For them there was no earthly reason for the police bus, the police beatings with truncheons, and administrative arrest and court. But already on the first day about one hundred people were detained. The lists of arrested people from the previous days were read at each evening meeting. There was a trolleybus station exactly near the camp. Officers from the Special Police Force pushed young people back into the trolleybus when they tried to get out. The only criterion was the age. 

The camp is certainly young. Generally there were young people 18-25 years old, students from institutes and universities of Minsk. But there were older people as well as high school students. In the day-time people came to the square with children, with their whole families. There were a lot of girls in the camp. They scurried between the tents, doled out the food, and brought plastic cups with hot tea and soup for the residents of the camp and for those who are in the cordon. 

There was the extraordinary atmosphere of friendship and mutual understanding. Everybody was ready to share with the others all what he had. There was no aggression, rudeness, or impatience. People felt themselves being free --- transformed even. Open faces, enthusiasm, confident in their cause, tranquil, and fearless. The menacing of Lukashenka --- describing the demonstrators as terrorists --- didn’t scare anybody. People’s fear of Lukashenka disappeared and it marks the beginning of the end of the so-called last dictatorship in Europe. That was an unusual feeling, one the residents of the camp are likely to remember all their life.

The official Belarusan media claimed that a hundred idlers got together on the October Square and drank beer and vodka. They were accused of shirking work and study, and that Western intelligence agencies paid them 20,000 Belarusan rubles (about $10) for every time they came to the square, and that there was only drugs and sex in the camp. The only people who believed in that nonsense were those who justified the regime of Lukashenko or their own inactivity.

University professors and teachers who came to the square said it was not just students who came but the best students, the future of science, the next generation of Belarusan intellectuals. The greater number of students came from the philological and history faculties of the Belarusan State University. From time to time they chanted “Phil-fac B-G-U!”, “Ist-fac B-G-U!” .

During the two days I spent at the Square, I did not see any people drunk. Only at the last night one beery Irishman wandered in the camp, pronounced an inspiring speech in English, and chanted: “Freedom! Freedom!” He then he left the camp. Of course, the accusations of drug taking are without any sense: who would dare to risk bringing drugs to the camp when drug offenses bring automatically harsher sentences and police searched everybody approaching the October Square?

The stories about students being paid to attend the rally were met with unconstrained laughter. People brought to the camp their own belongings and food, they spent their own money for the camp’s maintenance. Belarusan bureaucrats and state propagandists would never understand such unselfishness; it isn’t in their rules. They view people who sacrifice their own prosperity for the sake of the freedom as fools or liars.

The atmosphere in the camp was high-spirited  and cheerful. The portable generator brought on the first day gave power to an amplifier with powerful speakers. DJs put songs of “NRM” (a popular rock group in Belarus whose songs are practically forbidden), Victor Tsoi, and other singer-songwriters and music. Music themes were interrupted by the speeches of orators or poets reading their poems. The anchorman read greetings, which were addressed to the camp from all over the world. In my opinion, the greeting from the United Civil Front was the only one from Russia. The national red-white flag (now prohibited in Belarus), flags of the European Union, Ukraine, Poland, and Russia, and the flags of Belarusan oppositional organizations were waived over the camp day and night. People in the cars passing by greeted the demonstrators by honking. At the beginning, traffic police tried to stop the cars, but there was a large volume of cars, so the officers left them alone.

Despite the gravity of the situation, there were a lot of jokes and laughter. Lukashenko named demonstrators as “outlaws.” “Yes, we are outlaws,” agreed people of the cordon when they spoke with passers-by and new participants of the action. “We are out and it is very cold here, especially at night.” The constant powerful chanting of “Zhive Belarus!” (“Belarus Forever”) changed from time to time into the more provoking “Police With People!” The gloomy police officers kept their silence. Street cleaners came to clean up the square. The camp chanted “Street cleaners with the people!” Workers came to weld up a manhole on the square. So they changed to “Workers with the people!” Tractors cleaning snow appeared, and they changed to “Tractors with people!” There were constant and vigorous appeals to stand on the square until the victory: “Za-sta-em-sya!” (“We are staying”). Then, when in jail cells, they shouted in jest “Za-sta-em-sya!” 

During three days and four nights the Belarusan youth killed the fear and stayed on the October Square in Minsk. They threw out a challenge to the regime of Lukashenko and in this time the regime was wholly at a loss and didn’t know how to respond. At the end of the third day, the situation around the camp became hot. Some hysteric and drunken stooges tried to provoke a fight within the cordon. Police reacted phlegmatically and pretended not to notice anything. Alexander Milinkievich asked foreign journalists to stay at the camp that night, but most of them moved on to highlight elections in Ukraine. The night promised to be unquiet.

Around 2 a.m., most of the television journalists with cameras concentrated about twenty meters from the cordon of the camp, on the side-walk of Independence Avenue. At 3 a.m. sharp, about thirty police officers came from the side of the Trade Union Center. They began to push aside journalists. I was released from the cordon and I approached the group of journalists. A general in a Cossack hat ordered the journalists to stay away and not to go beyond the police cordon that had shut off the way to the camp. I came back quickly and told one of the organizers of the camp what I had seen and heard. Immediately he announced the news on the megaphone and called on all men to stay around the periphery of the camp to strengthen the third circle of the cordon and to be very cautious. Everybody understood that the authorities had made a decision to act when they cut off journalists from the camp.

That action became clear in twenty minutes, when nine big khaki-colored police vans arrived and surrounded the camp. The vehicles had bars on the headlights and projectors. Dozens of policemen of Special Force in black uniform equipped with body armor, knee protectors and batons tumbled out of those cars. Search-lights of the police cars were pointed to the camp. The light was turned on. The same general yelled to the megaphone that everybody had 5 minutes to leave the place of the unapproved meeting.

There was some embarrassment in the cordon. What to do? Go out or stay?

At that moment, somebody screamed to the megaphone: “Sit down on the ground!” All men and women sat down and linked themselves by their arms. Two minutes passed as the projectors shed its light on the young men and women sitting on the ground with linked arms in front of the Special Police Force as they waved their truncheons threateningly. A woman in the camp took the megaphone and implored police not to use force and not to beat the demonstrators.

A 20-year-old girl stayed at the center of the camp, put her hands together and prayed: “Our Father who art in heaven! Hallowed be thy name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven! Our Father, I pray that you defend them, don’t let the violence succeed. They just want truth and righteousness. Our Father, I’m praying to you. . . .” She was looking at the sky of Minsk, lit by projectors of police cars, as tears ran down her cheeks. 

The Special Police Force crushed quickly the cordon of the camp. Nobody fought back the police. Police officers cursed, handled with batons, took demonstrators by the hands and by the legs and hurtled them into the police buses. Not a minute passed as special police forces breached the cordon, rushed into the camp, beat up women, journalists and those who drew in from the cordon into the camp. Those people were grasped and herded into the police vans. Screams, obscenities aimed at police officers, and the crash of tents and boxes with food were heard. White smoke began to waft in the center of the camp from snuffed candles.

In a few minutes it was finished. Only crushed tents and broken radio equipment was left on the place of the camp. One police officer trod furiously a little poster drawn in colored pencil: “The whole world with us!”

Prison

On the night of March 24-25, three hundred and fifty people were taken away from the October Square in Minsk. They were brought in nine police buses to the special “Okrestino” reception centre and to the detention facility in Zhodino. During the week after the elections, about twelve hundred people were detained in Minsk alone. Among the arrested people, there were many injured, especially those detained at Saturday’s rally on the 25th of March and the following peaceful demonstration at “Okrestino.” They had bruises, welts and scratches on the face; some people walked with difficulty, others had internal wounds and fractured ribs; most of them had evidence of having heads beaten. Those arrested on Saturday reported that during the demonstration, one of the participants died from blows given by special force police officers when he didn’t react to the initial beating. The fate of other three men is still unknown. In a time of peace, in the center of Europe, they were missing after joining the peaceful opposition demonstration.

There were thirty-seven detained people in the van I was in. Some police officers who came with us acted like street gangsters or satisfied occupiers of a conquered country. One of them, called “Kid” by his colleagues, was notable for his offensive manner. He approached each arrested person, dug his baton into their back or pressed it into their breast, and asked whether they liked that performance and would they continue to come out against the authorities. He dug the truncheon into my back. I turned, didn’t answer anything, and began to look at his eyes, although in such situations I know it is very risky to look at the face of cops or wild animals. There was no other way. It was more dangerous to answer. So, we looked at each other without a word for fifteen seconds and then he stood back, saying: “Apparently, this is an old oppositionist. I respect that sort.” In our van, nobody was severely beaten, perhaps because there was a Canadian journalist arrested among us, but this was not the case elsewhere.

Samuel Sagatellyan, a Russian student of the BSU (Belarusan State University) who was detained two days earlier near the camp, related:

Two friends and I came out of the camp on Monday night to have a cup of tea at the McDonald’s. We were detained by special police officers who took us to the park, where they began to beat us with truncheons and forced us into a police van. Inside, they continued to beat us with their legs and fists. Three girls were allowed to take seats on the bench, but the guys, fifteen of us, were knocked down and forced to lie on one on another in three rows without being allowed to lift our heads. We lay like that about fifty minutes. It was worse for those who were at the bottom. They began to choke and their limbs became numb because of the weight on them. If someone lifted his head, he was truncheoned. One guy cried out and tried to elbow his way out because he couldn’t feel his leg. If somebody stirred, the officers walked on us to reach the person making a disturbance. Our faces were bloody. Many of us had broken facial bones. The whole van was full of blood. The floor was slippery from it.

Officers from Special Forces threatened to rape an 18-years-old girl, describing in details how they would do it. Then they showed her a video clip from a cell phone and she started to sob.  The police especially hated boys with long hair; those guys were beaten more fiercely. One of them had his hair cut right in the van. By walkie-talkie they were constantly asked if there were journalists among those detained. When the officers asked around it turned out that one of the detained persons was a French journalist. At least that’s what she said. Then the beating stopped immediately.

The Okrestino prison choked with the amount of prisoners. Police and Special Forces officers ran through the corridors and offices, shouting at the arrested people and each other. We stood faced to the wall along the corridor and waited our turn to compile a report of detention. Some people felt sick, somebody fainted. One woman had an epilepsy attack. Some hours went by. It seemed that it wouldn’t ever end. Finally it was my turn. A report was prepared in ten minutes and then they took my passport and other documents, money, watch, voice recorder and cell phone. They extracted the shoestrings from my shoes and belt from my jeans. At 11 o’clock in the morning they led me to my cell.

They didn’t give food to anyone of the arrested people until Saturday morning nor would they accept parcels from relatives. All Friday prisoners were being driven to the courthouse, including me. In each police van, there were about ten prisoners and a few police officers. As soon as our car passed the prison gates we saw a crowd of friends and relatives, about one hundred people. They screamed something to us, flourished arms and greeted us expressing sympathy and solidarity. We saw Alexander Milinkevich was among them.

I was driven to the office of Judge Kozodaev in the court of the Soviet district of Minsk. Heavy, tall, and round-shouldered, he had a flat and sallow face. He thumbed my dossier and asked questions. I explained that I was a journalist and didn’t admit guilt to the charge of actively participating in an unsanctioned meeting. I said that I needed a lawyer for providing additional confirmation of my editorial assignment. He thought for a moment and decided that a hearing of the case would be postponed until Monday to interrogate witnesses. The witnesses were special police force officers who assaulted the camp. On Monday they perjured themselves without any hint of embarrassment that I was an active participant of the unauthorized action and did not obey police demands. It was silly and boring to argue with them. I demanded a lawyer again. Judge Kozodaev said that the case was practically decided and it was too late to call a lawyer. This was a funny statement. After reading the judgment (15 days of administrative arrest) the judge giggled. It was unexpected to hear that from such a massive man. As if to convince himself, he then said that personally he did not believe that I was a journalist. I smiled and didn’t say anything. I lost my capacity for amusement a long time ago in arguing with people who need only excuses and not the truth.

All the police reports for all of those detained were absolutely identical, as if from using tracing paper. But the judge’s decisions sometimes differed from one another not only in the length of the sentence but also in argumentation as well. In the case of Sergei Baranov, a Russian student at BSU, was sentenced to ten days because “despite not admitting to his guilt in violating the law, [Baranov’s] guilt is confirmed by the written documents of the case.” [. . . ] Thus, not admitting guilt is the main proof of guilt under Belarusan justice. It is easy to laugh over such jurisprudence when the length of imprisonment lasts a few days. It won’t be funny, however, if days become years. 

Half a month is not a long period. Although the diet at the special reception centre was sparse, the quantity was sufficient to endure. Furthermore, we were overwhelmed by parcels: packages with different foodstuffs, cigarettes, toiletries, and clothes. I still don’t know who gave all of them --- seven or eight in all --- to us. The Belarusan Association of Journalists, the independent nongovernmental organization, gave some. Alexander Petrov and Alexander Mnatzakyan brought me a parcel from Moscow.

The contingent in “Okrestino” prison was unique. There were students, teachers, programmers, businessmen, politologists, and journalists. Most received sentences of 10 to 15 days. While in the cells, they were able to got better acquainted and recognize each other. They discussed the situation in the country, analyzed possible mistakes, and planed ahead. It was better than any conference or seminar in any other place, because the necessity of freedom is felt so strongly in prison. Nothing could pull together the opposition better than the common plank-bed in prison. What did Lukashenko expect, when he dispatched the opposition in that manner?

Another thing is also quite incomprehensible. What did the Lukashenka regime gain by arresting foreigners and journalists? Did it expect that these beatings and arrests would discourage journalists to work in Belarus? Meanwhile, such actions placed the governments of many countries further against it and gave an opportunity to journalists, after their release, to tell all that they saw.

In the cell to the left were Frederic Levoy, the Canadian journalist from Montreal; Georgy Lagidze, the cameraman of the public service television of Georgia; Petr Dudinovich, the journalist of the Polish radio; Andrey Ralko, the Ukrainian journalist from the newspaper The Carpathian Voice.  In the opposite cell there was Veronica Samolinska, the Polish journalist from the newspaper Wyborcza; Nino Georgobiani, the journalist of the public service television of Georgia. With Georgy, the cameraman, she taped the relatives and friends of the prisoners gathered in front of the Okrestino prison. The crowd chanted “Zhive Belarus!” (“Belarus forever!”), the prisoners flourished arms from the prison’s windows. It brought tears into the poor Nino’s eyes and maybe it was the sign to the police that she was not only dispassionate observer but sympathetic as well. A little bit later they were arrested. She got 5 days, Georgy got 15. Pavel Sheremet, the Moscow television journalist (First Channel), was detained on the street for no visible reason other than that he has old and unfriendly relations with Belarusan authorities. They probably think that if Sheremet walks on the street of Minsk without escort it is an evident crime.

According to the Belarusan Association of Journalists,  there were forty-one reporters detained during the elections alone, including 12 foreigners.

In cell no. 21, which was specially for foreigners, there were Pavel Salyga, a programmer and university professor from Kiev who belongs to the organization Pora (“It’s Time”); Oleg Kozlovski, the coordinator of the Russian youth movement “Oborona” (“Defense”); Eduard Glezin, an employee of the press-service of Vladimir Lukin, the Russian ombudsman; Mariusz Maszkiewicz, a diplomatic official from Warsaw and former Polish ambassador in Belarus. Pavel Sheremet was also in cell 21, but he was released on March 27. A few hours later, I was placed in that cell. 
The days in prison passed slowly and we spent our time in conversation, memoirs, intellectual games, and improving our cell. In the newspapers there were a lot of photos of politicians, we cut them accurately. Soon Lukashenka, Karimov, Putin, Fidel Castro, Milosevic, Hu Jintao and Turkmen-bashi lived at the bottom of the slop-pail. The former polish ambassador Mariusz Maszkiewicz taught us the polish “Solidarity” prison song of Jacek Kaczmarski and we sang it in chorus in Polish to the pleasure of Poles in the neighboring cells. Two times per day we clanged glasses with tea together and chanted “Zhive Belarus!” and the prison responded echoing: “Zhive!” The turnkeys didn’t beat up the prisoners as it is usually done in detention facilities and in covered prisons. Some of them even said “Good morning.” 

The consuls of different embassies visited the foreigners, gave them parcels and the latest newspapers, told them latest news, and gave them advice. It seems that all the Ministries of Foreign Affairs expressed their protest against the arrest of their compatriots, except for the Russian one. The Russian government’s care of its citizens abroad is a political issue. It is one thing to defend the killers in Saudi Arabia, the corrupt officials in Switzerland, and the aviators in Latvia; it is quite another to do so for political prisoners in Belarus. Vladimir Malishev, the Russian consul in Minsk, visited us once, talked with the arrested people, and even gave us a pair of parcels, but the most humble and plain of all received.

On the last day, eight hours before release, I was called from the cell “with belongings.” I was driven in the police van to the department of citizenship and immigration of the central District Department of Internal Affairs (DDIA) of Minsk. There I was informed of my deportation from Belarus. I had to leave for Russia within three hours. They stamped my passport with “forbidden to enter the Republic of Belarus during 5 years.” A copy of the announcement was sent the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus to register my surname in “the list of people whose entrance to the territory of the Republic of Belarus is forbidden or undesirable.” They took my fingerprints, took full and half-face photos, and drove me to the rail station accompanied by police officers. On the way from the DDIA, I was also accompanied by my friends, the Belarusan journalists Pavluk Byukovski and Tatiana Snitko.

Some hours later, Glezin and Kozlovsky were deported in the same manner.

I went by the “Warsaw-Moscow” train, looked at the wagon window to the walls of the houses and garages, where the motto “Hopitz!” (“Say no more!”) was painted. I remembered the young people of the camp. Their passionate and unselfish love of freedom is thousand fold greater than the most adept journalists’ articles, the profoundest analytical researches of politologists, and the good speeches of politicians. A part of my life was left on the October Square of Minsk, on that insurgent islet of freedom, in that camp that stayed three days and four nights.

 

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