When Mary (surname omitted) became an independent observer for the Belarussian Presidential Elections, she did not have the illusion that Alexander Lukashenko would play fair. Lukashenko, often described as the last dictator in Europe, has been in charge of the country since its independence from the Soviet Union and was expecting to remain so. By official accounts, he does - the state claims a sweeping victory for Lukashenko, while the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to leave the country for Lithuania.
“We knew that elections would be falsified,” Mary tells me over Telegram, the platform Belarussian activists use to coordinate anti-government protests. For observers, it was all about detecting and documenting all the falsehoods they could find in the process, hoping their work would pay off in the future.
For now, Mary, a 28-year-old interpreter and SMM specialist from Minsk, is bound to sit at home with “5 days of imprisonment on her neck” and watches rallies from her window - Mary is one of around 7 000 Belarussians who have been detained during the protests. What she has to tell sounds like an excerpt from an unpleasantly realistic book.
“I am describing what I went through,” she says at the end of the interview. “But the keyword here is not "I". All of us who suffered.”
I want the whole world to see that in the 21st century there is still a country in the centre of Europe that tortures people for different political views.
At around 1 am on the night of the election, as Mary and four other people were leaving the rally to get home, they were attacked with stun grenades and gas. They were taken from the small yard where they tried to hide. There was no violence but no explanation was given on why the group was being arrested.
From the nearby police station, Mary and her companions were handed to the SPF (Special Police Force) representative who led them to the police van. This is where the abuse began.
“The SPF officer put a bag with my stuff around my neck, saying he was not going to carry my shit,” Mary remembers. He also said he was “fucking tired” of running after protesters. “Why didn't you, scum, sit at home? You all need to be impaled and sent into the space so that you can broadcast your pederasty there,” are the exact words Mary quotes from him.
The van started moving and collecting more detainees on the way to the detention center. Some of them were already severely beaten. Mary and several other people were forced to sit on their knees as the officers poked batons into their faces.
“After 20 minutes, all the girls were transferred to another police van with metal cells. In it, we arrived at the detention center on Akrestsin Street. Then began the 2.5 days of pure hell.”
“Welcome to the land of tolerance, animals." - with these words Mary was led into the cell for six people she was to share with 11 other girls. They were hardly searched but constantly shouted at.
“The SPF guys reminded us that we were scum and said next time we would know who to vote for.” The scum in Mary’s cell consisted of young girls, none of them arrested at the rally, but rather, taken from streets all around Minsk - a microbiologist, a teacher, a musician and several observers from the ballots. One woman was arrested together with her son, husband and ederly father.
“At first SPF members didn’t want to take her, but she climbed into the police van, because she couldn’t leave her “boys".
The 12 women had no food and toilet paper in the cell. Some of them started to menstruate and were advised to “use their t-shirts.” The women could hear more and more vans arriving. Sounds of beatings in the adjoining cells were also constant.
“We heard the guy being taken out of the opposite cell, guards started beating him with a baton. It was unbearable to listen to it. After 3-4 hits they ordered him to wipe his own shit. It was impossible to listen to it,” Mary recalls.
Half of the girls had their brothers, boyfriends, husbands taken. So, it could be one of them being beaten at that moment by our door.
With time, the conditions worsened - to free up the space, some women were transferred to the cell on the upper floor. Here, it was 36 women in a cell for four. No food, no toilet paper, no air to breathe. The only source of air was the tiny feeder in the door which was eventually closed. As the women started to shout, buckets of cold water were poured on them. Mary recalls that some girls vomited from the fear and some even had diarrhea. Toilet paper was still not brought.
‘I thought this would be the end of me.” Mary later found out, she was among the lucky ones: some cells for four were crammed with more than 50 people.
The women were given the chance to sign protocols, admit their crimes, pay a fine and leave.
The protocol was the same for everyone: each person was supposedly detained at 22:30 in the center of the city, they were acting aggressively, shouting political mottos. Even some witnesses were found, who could confirm the exact timing and circumstances of detentions. Mary refused to sign and had to wait for her court sitting. By that time she had gone almost two days with no food and contact with the outside world. Her family knew she had been detained, but remained unaware of her whereabouts, as there were no official lists of detainees. Mary tells me that there are still 80 persons missing. The only conversation outside the cell was with the volunteers of the detention center, who would tell the prisoners what time it was.
The next day court sittings took place. Mary recalls how inconsistent the authorities were: one person would be sentenced to imprisonment, while the other would get a fine for the same alleged crime.
Mary was sentenced to 10 days of imprisonment, even though 5 minutes earlier a person with the same story was let out with a 200 USD fine. She managed to ask the judge about it:
“He simply shook his head and said it was not him who judged the case of my friend.” Luckily, Mary could talk to the person who was let out and could finally inform her parents where she was.
The average time of imprisonment varied from 4 to 15 days, while fines could go up to 600 dollars.
After another night in the crammed, airless cell, Mary was transferred to Zhodzina prison.The morning of the transfer was the first time food was brought to prisoners.
The road to the prison was not smooth either. Detainees were lined in the yard and humiliated once more - injured men were forced to run to police vans, some of them could hardly walk. All the time they were reminded that they were Western agents, who had better been baking cakes at home rather than protesting. With these shouts ringing in her ears, Mary was taken to the prison.
“The people in Zhodzina prison were the kindest, honest and caring ones during our detention.” The prisoners were fed properly and even assisted to find their belongings in the warehouses. The prison staff put out lists of prisoners so their families could finally be sure where they were.
She left Zhodzina on Friday, 14th of August under the condition of never again participating in the street protests. She refused to sign the paper at first, but there was no choice - she was worried about her family.
“When I came out of the prison territory, I wanted to cry. Not because of what I went through, but because of wonderful volunteers. I am proud to be part of one nation with them,” Mary says. “I express my gratitude to the adequate people who have been a real salvation these days.”
Now she is confined to her flat - another arrest will be reviewed as a criminal case. She monitors the news and knows that many people are taken directly from their homes - Minsk is 0% safe at the moment, she reckons.
But hope is still there. This might be the first time that the protest is this big in Belarus.
“We, moderate Belarusians, were finally brave enough to stand up for our rights,” Mary says. What they want, is not that much, in her opinion: freedom, independence, fair elections, change of authorities, stopping of violence and torture and another goddamn president.
“This authority is not immortal,” Mary tells me at some point, “There will be our "Nurnberg" time and they will all pay for what they did.”