Story of Maryia and her photo with opposition flag
Maryia Kavantsava / archive
"In 2020, turned off all political news altogether"
"If I had the opportunity to address Putin and Lukashenka, I would tell them: "Guys, take your pills," reflects Maryia Kavantsava on the events taking place in the world. Like many Belarusians hiding from political persecution, the girl had to flee the country. She faced two years in a labor camp for "cynical posing" at the Eternal Flame in Victory Square in Minsk and posting a photo on TikTok.
Why was her first attempt to escape foiled and why "it's better to stay in jail"? How did she manage to end up first in Navinki, and later (on the way to her friends from the Kyiv militia) in a mental hospital in Poland? How good are the investigators, how tough are the nurses, and how soft are the mattresses in the detention center? What does Vadzim Halyhin's ex-wife have to do with the whole story?
Maryia told us about her incredible adventures with a touch of irony. But we met with her after she wrote a desperate post on Facebook with a request for help. With no friends, no job and no money, the girl found herself in a foreign environment, which almost caused her to return to her homeland.
From t.A.T.u. cover to jail
In 2020, I recorded a cover of the song "Not Gonna Get US" by t.A.T.u. and together with my friends started making a music video about the wave of protests in Belarus. We didn't want to make a loud political statement, but rather to make a video about what was going on around us. We filmed it in places symbolic to Belarusians in Minsk and outside the city. Naturally, we were filming with the WRW flag. We were making a pretty picture. Initially, there were a lot of people on the team, including some quite famous ones, but then someone changed their mind, and the cameraman was down with COVID. The clip never came out, as it turned out, and thank God for that.
On March 25, 2021, Freedom Day, I was sitting at work and browsing my Instagram feed. A lot of people were posting stories about the 2020 election: memories, photos, and videos. I suddenly remembered that our music video wasn't out, but there were still some pictures of me with the WRW flag next to the Eternal Flame. I added some music, put it on TikTok, then got busy and forgot about it altogether.
But my post quickly gained public attention. If I had seen how many comments it received, I probably would have deleted it. Anyway, five days later in the morning, as I was standing in my pajamas drinking coffee, the local police came for me. They showed me a printout of screenshots of my photo, asked if I was there, gave me time to get ready, and off we went.
They behaved normally, maybe because I cried and answered questions, but I was not rude. So if someone wants to write that I'm a hero who defends his political position, no, that's not about me.
Then I was taken to the Akrestsina jail, although, I had a feeling that people in the police department tried to keep me away from it. But the order from above said it must be done "for educational purposes".
Of course, I can't say that everything was fine in the detention center, but I have been in psychiatric hospitals several times, and you know, it was worse there. Nobody laid a finger on me, and nobody yelled at me.
There was a girl in the cell with me. For the first day and a half, we slept on three featherbeds with lots of blankets. Later, someone decided that the "political" should get harsher conditions. After I somehow started doing push-ups and sit-ups, I was transferred to a cell without featherbeds and blankets and with a cold open window.
My parcels came without warm clothes. We covered ourselves with my long coat, slept, ate, and sometimes cried. For a couple of days, the bright lights were on all the time, but we didn't care.
Sometimes the detention center staff would come in and say that they themselves wanted to burst into tears when they looked at us.
I was released three days later: by that time, I had already been charged with desecration of a monument, and then they added "hooliganism" to my criminal record.
A very important fact: I got caught up in this story because in November 2020 I disregarded all political news. I did not really understand that I could be punished like that for a post on social feeds.
Sleeping pills and alcohol. First escape
Of course, there was stress: I understood that I could get up to three years in prison, and when I got out, I was shaking. From the very first day, I pressured the investigator, telling him to dig into the archives, I have health problems. After my grandfather died, when I was 15 years old, I started having insomnia, as well as minimal auditory and visual hallucinations. My parents put me in a psychiatric hospital, and there was an entry on my card. The investigator said that I was normal, as did the psychiatrist at the examination, which I myself insisted on.
Then someone put me in touch with guys from our diaspora in one of the EU countries. At that point, I had already given up and didn't know what to do. They told me that I had to run away, otherwise, they would put me in jail. My lawyer said, 'Don't run, they'll give you the full sentence".
But I made up my mind. I packed a small suitcase and went to another city according to the instructions. I was told not to contact anyone and to wait. I knew it was dangerous to run, and I was afraid the border guards would catch me. I started drinking and taking sedatives and sleeping pills when I was nervous. I felt very bad: I was alone all the time.
Then my father called me. He said, "The strong and the brave don't run". I went back to Minsk. All the days I was in that city, I had a lawyer calling me. I had three no-shows to the investigator -- that could mean prison.
My family members said different things. Some said: run away. Others joked: we'll pack you in a carpet and send you to Moscow. I was very much confused.
I got offended when my mother met me from the detention center saying: "Get ready to go to jail", and not that they would try to save me. There were lots of counselors, lots of help, trying to decide things for me all the time.
Every time my lawyer called me, I told him I wasn't okay and I wasn't going to meet the investigator. I explained that I was afraid of wire, metal, prison, and in general, I was almost schizophrenic. In Minsk, I called an ambulance. I put on pajama pants and a corset and wore bright makeup.
That's how I got to the Navinki psychiatric hospital. In the emergency room, I took out an icon, and a candle, I lit it, and started to wave it around me. Some guy in a white coat asked me what was wrong. I answered that I had two felonies and that I was lighting up the space. He asked me if I had suicidal thoughts. I said I did.
He turned out to be my doctor. They wanted to take me to the suicide ward but ended up taking me to the primary ward. The woman in charge warned me that I would be in the hospital for a month. I said that I would fail to appear before the investigator, but they wouldn't let me go.
They started experimenting on me, feeding me pills and giving me new diagnoses. In the end, I began to persuade my mother to take me away. It was really worse than the detention center.
Another forensic examination
After I was discharged, I almost immediately quit taking pills. It caused a terrible withdrawal syndrome, I became very active and agitated.
When I was in the hospital, I had a new investigator. It was a woman, and I liked her: she told me what to do to avoid severe punishment. At one of our meetings, she said I had to go to the Navinki hospital again for a second forensic examination (of course, no one could say that I was healthy anymore).
There were people in the ward with me who had criminal cases pending against them. In the smoking-room, men were discussing how many times they had axed their wives, how they had chewed someone's ear off, and how many years they had served in total.
I was given a huge dose of some medication and left there for two weeks. The expert was really cool, he wore a white and a red rubber band on his hand. Together with the head of the department, they thought that if I had bipolar I would not be sent to the ward, where I would have to stay, even if not for three years, but almost in shackles.
Suddenly my psychosomatics kicked in and I started itching. The doctors thought I had scabies and discharged me. I did not stay in the hospital for three weeks. It turned out to be either allergies or hives.
Three thousand dollars for Christmas. Second escape
In early August, so as not to get completely bonkers, I went to work at a bar (I worked in the event industry until March 25). I realized that if I got freedom restrictions, I would have to forget about my normal life for a long time, so I enjoyed myself as much as I could.
At the end of October, the trial started. I got nervous because I saw how nervous my lawyer was. They took away my phone as a crime weapon and wanted to take away the dress I was wearing in the photo like it was also a crime weapon, but it was well hidden.
At the second trial, the prosecutor announced that I would get two years of freedom restriction in a settlement. I was in shock. The lawyer said that we would fight, but it was clear that it was useless. That's how it turned out. By the way, thanks to my friends and human rights activists who helped me pay off my lawyer.
I found out that they were sending me to Hrodna. I googled and thought: "Wow, it's a resort! I should go, have a proper lifestyle, work..."
The departure was scheduled for January 8. On the seventh, my friends and I were celebrating Christmas and I posted a photo of my passport and my settlement destination on Instagram. Upon seeing it, a friend of mine began to talk me into trying to run.
When he found out I only had 200 bucks in my pocket, he sent some acquaintance who had brought five thousand dollars with him. My wings grew, and I realized that I had to run, that was what my guardian angel wanted. I took the three thousand, realizing that I would have to pay it back, and started getting ready to leave.
When we were saying goodbye, my mother said that I was making a mistake and that it was better for me to serve time if I did not know how to use my freedom. I was very offended then: we have a good relationship, but a mother should never say such words to her child.
Glory to Ukraine!
At first, I came to live in Ukraine. I stayed with a good acquaintance, who immediately offered me a job: to shoot TikTok promo vids for a brand. Another job found me on its own. I came in for an interview, and it turned out that my boss was Dasha Halyhina, Vadzim Halyhin's ex-wife. It so happened that she was the one who got me out of Ukraine on the first day of the war. We were running for two days. We arrived in Poland.
Maybe if I had been alone, it would have been scary, but we were together.
Bad times in Poland, or "Better in jail"
What I did in Kyiv was, on the one hand, noble and, on the other hand, stupid: I lent 1,400 dollars to a person I barely knew. He didn't have time to pay me back. When I came to Poland, I had 400 dollars in my pocket, so I couldn't rent an apartment. I was taken in by a friend from Belarus, but somehow we didn't get along. He was not the person I knew in Minsk, so Warsaw time was negative for me.
I had nowhere to go. I wandered around the city: I was cold, lonely and sad. It seemed that Poland was not my place at all. I ended up having a fight with my boyfriend. I spent the night with other people I knew, and in the end, I got unhinged and almost stopped sleeping.
And then I had the obsession that I had to go back to prison. Before that, I wanted to stop by the territorial defense of Kyiv to visit friends. I had no motivation to learn the language and work in Warsaw, and I could be of some use there.
At first, I frightened the volunteers at the train station when I was looking for a bus to take me to Kyiv. Then, realizing that they couldn't help me, I went to my acquaintances in Lublin. The guys were frightened by my behavior and called the police for some reason. An ambulance was standing nearby. They ended up taking me to the asylum.
I talked to the doctors. How did you talk to them? I don't know Polish: the hospital attendants shouted, "You're in Poland, so speak Polish". I couldn't understand much, but they said I did.
They give you better food in Minsk. In Poland, dinner was at 6 p.m., and I went to bed around 11 p.m. One night I couldn't sleep: my neighbor was gnashing her teeth in her sleep, and I was very hungry. In the Belarusian asylum, if I had told the nurse that I was hungry, she would have brought me candy or a sandwich. Here they just tied me up. I have thin wrists, and I was able to get out. Then they brought me some medicine and I fell asleep.
The main thing for them was that I didn't get up. It was a shock for me. The next day I told my doctor, who luckily knows English, about it, and she gave them a beating, and no one bothered me anymore. The doctor listened to my whole story, and said that I told it linearly -- maybe that's why they let me go sooner.
What are the other differences? The Polish asylum has a good drawing-room: there are canvases, albums, and pencils. There are nice women working there.
Phones, headphones, and Walkmans are also allowed. You can't take pictures, but they don't know my Instagram. And it was important for me to describe what was happening so that there was evidence if something did happen.
Phones used to be allowed in the Navinki asylum, but then, as the nurses told me, Lukashenka banned all means of communication, because the "opposition activists were all sick".
I got out of the asylum in April. I took a train, pretended I was Ukrainian and came to Warsaw. I had a potential employer, who moved to Poland a long time ago, but he witnessed how I lost my mind. He bought pills and gave me money for the first two days in the hostel. There I met boys from Ukraine who were going to Canada. They paid for the hostel and fed me. I never managed to find a job, so I wrote a Facebook post asking for help.
While this story was being prepared for publication, our heroine flew to Batumi
Why Georgia? There are many Belarusians here, two of them are my good friends. In Poland, there were also many of our guys, but there was no job or place to live. There are a lot of vacancies in the restaurants during the season. I wanted to change the oppressive and soulless Polish atmosphere for something warmer.
For now, I'm staying with an acquaintance and preparing documents. I don't know what will happen to me next and whether I will be able to live in Europe. I flew away to feel closer to home. I met a guy from Lida on the plane. I am with a bunch of Belarusians now. I feel better here.