Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

A dispatch from the streets of Minsk

  • Tear gas canister (Photo: Tilemahos Efthimiadis)

"Young man, come here, let's talk," she calls out to a guy running past the entrance of a downtown residential building in the Belarusian capital Minsk.

She's about 50 years old, and she's holding a small dog in her arms.

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Two other younger women are standing with her in the shadow of bushes surrounding a greyish concrete six-story apartment building, typical to all former Soviet cities. They keep their voices low, talking very quietly.

It's three o'clock in the morning and the three women are on duty.

They give warnings to protesters scattered throughout the courtyards of these uniform six-story buildings that stretch along Yakub Kolas street.

They say, "just around the corner of this apartment building, is a police station."

"Thank you!" the young man answers. "I just looked around that corner and saw the riot police beating someone up."

He is one of thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Minsk the night after the official results of the presidential election in Belarus were announced.

The protesters are demanding the departure of Alyaksandr Lukashenka who has ruled the country since 1994 and who, according to official information, has taken 80 percent of the 9 August vote.

The young man together with a long column of other protesters had been walking along Masherava Avenue, one of main city streets, when they ran into dark green police vans.

Hundreds of people were trapped between the police vans and the front of the covered Komarovsky market, and began to rush from side to side until someone broke down the gates of the market, allowing the demonstrators to run through.

The dispersed demonstrators were easy prey for the police.

And while we are talking with the three women and the young man, the streets continue to be raided.

In the darkness of these Minsk courtyards, shadows are rushing – protesters in small groups sneaking out on the streets, spreading out across the city.

Minibuses prowl the dark alleys.

They drive around with their doors open so that plain clothed security forces can quickly jump out and seize people from the street, all those they consider suspect, protesters or simple bystanders alike.

On 9 August, the first night of protest, the ministry of interior announced that it had arrested 1,000 protesters in Minsk and 2,000 more in other Belarusian cities.

One of the younger women in our group reveals that she would have liked to join the protests.

"I'm a nurse myself, but I'm sure they don't care about nurses or medics," she says, referring to ministry of interior special forces running amok.

According to rumours that have spread quickly in the social media channel Telegram, police have used the disguise of ambulance vans to approach and detain protesters.

As she speaks, she unconsciously strokes her stomach. She's visibly pregnant.

"Boys, can I get you some water?" the older woman asks.

She says that she and her friends have been standing here for several hours, reading the news from a mobile phone that picks up a wi-fi signal from their apartment.

Mobile cellular service has been down across the country since voting began on 9 August, and many who have taken to the streets are completely disconnected from what is happening in the city and thus risk falling into police hands.

Without the usual means of online communication, the protesters in Minsk – many of whom are barely older than 25 – show incredible ingenuity and mutual assistance.

"Don't go there, there are riot police prowling the courtyards," says one. "Go quietly, the street is empty until Nyamiha," explains another.

Leaflets are used: protesters print them at home and stick them in underground passages or put them under car windshield wipers.

After three days of protest, it is clear that the will of the protesters in Belarus to reclaim their rights and freedoms has not been broken.

At the same time, the authorities are not ready to give in to the protesters and are poised to use the most brutal methods to crack down.

Author bio

The name of the writer, who works with international charity Amnesty International, was omitted for security reasons.

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