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'They had blank faces'

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People detained at the protests walk out of the detention center on Akrestsina street on August 14, 2020 / Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

Nadzeya was one of the prisoners at the Akrestsina remand prison. On 11 August, around midnight, she and her friend were detained near the Riga shopping center. Nadzeya is a 35-year-old married woman, she does handicrafts. 

Nadzeya is not ready to tell her story on video. But she really wants everyone to read what she and thirty-five other Belarusians went through in two terrible days.

 

"Face to the ground, hands on the head, b*tches"

 

I was with a friend and her husband. The three of us came to the Riga supermarket. Looking carefully from the corner to saw, as usual at that time, about twenty people. A man stood on the parapet waving the airborne troops flag. Everything was quiet. In the distance, we saw paddy wagons. We turned around and went towards home, across the square on Vastochnaya Street.

From there, everything happened quickly. A blue minibus blocked the road. People standing near the Riga supermarket ran, and so did we. My husband said that he clearly heard shots and shouts: 
"Face to the ground, hands on the heads, b*tches". My friend tripped and fell; I helped her up and we faltered. At that moment, we were attacked by two law enforcement officers. It was a real attack. Why? What were their names, their rank? What was going on? Nobody said the words "you are being detained". They were swearing. I was hit on my hip by a truncheon, put face down. And then they took me to the minibus. Later, they threw me several times from one car into another.

Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the Freedom March. Mini bus without license plates. On August 11th in the area of Riga supermarket law enforcement officers jumped out of vehicles and attacked the girl and her friend.

We were ordered to sing the national anthem of Belarus

I found myself in a special vehicle with two benches on the sides and an empty place in the middle. There were already men lying face down. They were yelled at and beaten with batons for moving their heads even slightly. They were beaten brutally, particularly those who had some kind of symbols with him. Some people cried and asked for forgiveness.

Another layer of people was added. Girls were thrown on the benches. I had two guys under my feet. I had a feeling that one of them was no longer alive.

The vehicle started moving. I was hit on the head with a baton for looking at the police officers. They took away our phones, and we were ordered to sing the national anthem of Belarus. Well, we started singing. "We, Belarusians, are peaceful people" -- why not? One-dollar banknotes were lying everywhere. They either scattered them themselves or took them out of someone's purse and scattered them yelling "how much did you get paid?”.

During the transfer, we had to shout "I love riot police". The next paddy wagon had special minicells in it. There were 5 people in each cell. We were not allowed to raise our heads. But my friend managed to see a 015 patch on one of the riot policemen. We were taken to the remand centers at Akrestsina street. We did not know where we were kept before the trial.

Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the Freedom March. Paddy wagons and mini buses without license plates on the streets of Minsk, next to the cars with Belarusians waving the white-red-white flag.

No one was allowed to use the toilet. We used a hatch with a drain

No one thought that we would be so cruelly treated, that it could come to such lawlessness. It was unexpected. When I was detained, they shouted that we would be shot, and I dared to object that this was actually punishable by law. But in the paddy wagon, I began to doubt that they were joking about the execution...

I was brought into the corridor, put my face against the wall. People were sent to the inspection, several at a time. We were forced to take off our bras with underwires and all the jewelry. By some miracle, I still had glasses, and girls in the cell asked to use them. Then we, 28 of us, were taken to an exercise yard. It is a room with a concrete floor and walls. There is a net on the top; you can see the sky and the mini bridges on which the guards walk. There is a hatch with a drain in the corner. There are two surveillance cameras.

Before the inspection, we had time to drink the water that we had with us. That was the last time we saw regular water. We were not allowed to go to the toilet. In foul language, we were told to do it on the spot. Then we began to use a hatch with a drain: we stood up in a row, shielding the girl from cameras and observers. This way we used the toilet in turns. 

It was prohibited to sit down. But when we didn't care any longer, we found out it was impossible to sit on the concrete floor. I was standing, and my friend sat on my feet in order not to freeze. She could not stand because she had hurt her knee when she fell in the park, then someone stepped on it. Some girl gave her a jacket, we carried her to the toilet. We asked for the doctor, but we were not heard.

Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the Freedom March. The paddy wagon, water cannon, riot police, and water that volunteers put in the center so that people could drink because it was very hot.

They had blank faces

The court hearing was scheduled for 15:00. We were taken out several people at a time. I was dragging a friend along. Her leg was very swollen, one knee was three times larger than the other. We were taken to a corridor. There were a table and two chairs between the cells. And a judge with a secretary behind them. They were a man and a woman. They looked quite young. They had blank faces.

We were not shown the case documents. And I still have not seen them. The report said that I was detained by a policeman at 1:00. I spoke to the judge, asked for help and said that my friend needed a doctor and that we were being ignored. I had my rights read to me formally. I said that I have a human right to drinking water and I would not talk to them until I was allowed to drink. They brought the water but said that water was to be provided by the detention facility, not the court staff. It was a bottle of yogurt with tap water. It was terrible, chlorinated water. In the cell, we used to let this water settle. But I was so afraid of getting infected that I drank tap water, not from the bottle.

Nobody announced the court's decision. They just brought a new group of people in. We were sent back to our cell. My neighbors were told at the court hearing that they had allegedly shouted "Die, mustached beast”.  I was told that I expressed my disagreement with the current government. It was something light, and I thought that it would not be enough to put me behind bars for 10 days. By that time I was already not thinking straight: I had no opportunity to sleep, eat, sit, drink. Fifteen hours had passed since my detention. Outside the prison, the volunteers shouted the time. This was very helpful and morally supported us.

Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the March of Freedom. One of the posters of peaceful protest

Thirty-six people in the four-person cell

I did not know where my husband was. I heard men screaming. I thought that it could be him. He has long hair, and I was afraid that he would be mistreated badly. Already in the paddy wagon, one of the guys was told that a man should not wear long hair. They cut it right there and threw it away at the intersection.

After the trial, they brought us a bottle of water for everyone. One of the girls had her periods. We had some protective masks and handkerchiefs in the pockets. She had to prove to the guards that she couldn’t do without. She showed them blood. Then they brought her water to wash up. They gave her two liters of water. She gave us a liter, using the second.

In a couple of hours, a man came in. He put us by the wall. My friend and another girl, who also had problems with her leg, were taken away by the ambulance. And we were divided in half -- 13 people in each group -- and taken to a cell on the third floor with girls in it. It was a four-person cell: two bunk beds, a toilet, a sink, a table, a nightstand, a barred window with a little lye. It was very stuffy. At the peak moment, we counted 36 people in the cell. They were constantly taken away and brought in by guards. It is not clear how we fit there. We sat on the beds, several people at once, stood, sat under the table. To use the toilet, we lined up in a certain order so that the door could be opened.   

Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the March of Freedom.

Took by the hair and beat the head against the tile

There were very different people in the cell. All women aged 20 to 50. There were girls with whom I would hardly have made friends in regular life. There was a punk girl who was brought to the detention center before. After everyone was released, she was left for another 15 days with the words: "You are used to it, stay here for longer." There was a pretty and active girl who said something to the guards. They took her by the hair and beat her head on the tiles. Her face remained intact. But it all sounded and looked very scary. She was walking with a white-red-white flag on her shoulders when she was detained. They marked her with red paint in the paddy wagon...

One could see the street through a window left ajar. I saw a bench with people sometimes sitting on it. At some point, there came Orthodox priests. Apparently, they asked the police to let us go. But people under the windows got regularly dispersed.

Then I got a headache. I was afraid that it was due to the truncheon blow I had received. I was very stressed out. The air was stuffy. We tried to sleep. We spread blankets under the beds and crawled in there one by one. It turned out there was a ventilation shaft and we got some air to breathe. But I did not manage to sleep in two days.

Nobody fed us before we got into the cell. But none of us was really hungry. We didn't know what would happen next. I demanded that I was given the court decision, but no one paid attention.

We talked about what happened to whom. what we were facing. Even during the walk, my friend and I tried to sing, but the girls were so intimidated that they stopped us and asked to keep quiet and stay low. I didn’t act loud, but simply appealed to the rule of law from time to time.

Each of us was taken to the corridor for a "conversation". I think it was with a KGB officer. He asked how I was detained, who I was, what I did. He also said that if I got caught next time it would be much worse.

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Nadzeya took these photos on August 16 during the Freedom March

She screamed, rushed at us and scratched

We had a psychotic woman the cell. I couldn't sleep because of her. She walked in circles in the narrow space we had, pushing everyone with her elbows. At times she behaved a little quieter, but then she screamed, rushed at us and scratched. It looked like she was trying to leave an imaginary apartment to smoke or go to the store, told us to open the door for her, believed that we were some of her husband's relatives who kept her locked up. On the second day, she thought that we were all dolls that needed to be burned. When she invaded people's personal space too much, they pushed her away. There were young ladies who talked back to her aggressively. Some tried to reason with her. Many times we asked to call her a doctor. She was covered in sweat, it was clear that she was feeling bad. And we were scared she would die right there. We felt sorry for her, even thou everyone tried to push her away.

Plus, she smelled really bad. She had her periods and it made things worse. The nurse came. She took this woman out into the corridor and asked where she was. The woman replied that she was in the forest, after which they put her back into the cell telling her "to go to her forest." To our requests to calm her down, they answered: “I am alone, and there are more than thirty of you. So calm down. We won't mind if she gets a couple of black eyes.” For me, the presence of this woman was one of the most serious tests. Not being able to eat or go to the toilet was fine, because I often go on hikes. After everything that happened in the city, I was morally ready to spend time in jail. But this ... At some point, I lay down. And she sat on my face. I was wearing glasses. I jumped up, grabbed her hands, and held her ... It's was difficult.

The girl released from the detention center on Akrestsina Street on August 14, 2020 / Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

There were dreadlocks under the fence. The wardens walked around and picked them up

The next day we were fed. Each was given a mug of sweet, strong tea, a piece of white bread and a plate of oatmeal. At 14:00 they took me out of the cell and to the courtyard, put me facing the wall. They didn't beat me. They even joked. They were prison guards. They had an intelligible conversation, and I had a feeling that they were somewhere "in the middle" in their opinion of what was going on. They understood that many ended up there by accident.

We stood for an hour. From behind the fence came the smell of coffee, clumps of hair and dreadlocks lay under the fence. The guards walked around and collected them.

We were taken to a paddy wagon, the guards calmed the crying girls. They gave us water. They said they were taking us to Zhodzina. And then a man in a black mask with a picture of a toothy face came in and told us to return to the cell.

After 21:00, they began to let us out. We were put facing the wall on the fourth floor. After standing for two days, my back was completely giving up on me. The adrenaline that kept me going all this time was gone. I stood there and fidgeted, trying to straighten up. The girl next to me called the staff. I was allowed to sit on the ground. And then even on a chair. Nobody humiliated us or beat us. We talked again with some people.

I don't know who they were. We signed a paper that we had been informed of the responsibility for participating in the riots. We were brought downstairs to get our things. The punk girl, the psychotic woman and a small fragile girl were left in the cell. On the fourth floor, she looked at the guard in the mask with a face and said, “I want to remember you”. He said, "Okay, you' are staying for 15 days". Her name is Yulia, I am very worried about her.

They gave us the things that they had taken away at the Akrestsina detention center. They said that if we wanted to get phones and other things from the paddy wagon, we had to stay for another day. The girls who did not have the keys to the apartment were crying. We came out of the gate. People were waiting for us.

Nadzeya is crying

It turned out that everyone was standing there very quietly. A sea of people, a sea of lights, posters. They offered us tea, water, smoke, phone to make a call. People rushed to the "survivors", and I was looking for my family. I was offered to make a call. I didn't remember a single phone number. Volunteers found my husband on social networks. I saw that he was online two minutes before. I realized that the dog had not died of hunger and that he was looking for me. He was waiting for me in Zhodzina where my name was on the lists.

I read about this in the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, about prison in India. And I thought that it was possible to endure. ... We live in big fear now. We are now staying with friends. The day before yesterday, I saw a man standing in front of our house. He was either eavesdropping or spying ... Maybe he has nothing to do with all this, but I just want to hide.