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Vladimir, Alla, Rinat (8 years old) and Timofey (1,5 years old)
Salihorsk – Mokotów, Warsaw
Alla's hands have never trembled as badly as they did at the beginning of December, when the police stormed her house. They dug up everything: smartphones, computers, laptops, hard drives, even her son Rinat’s phone. They were looking in particular for one smartphone. Vladimir kept his head; in the middle of the raid, he mouthed at his wife: ‘O-n-t-h-e-s-o-f-a’. She left the room, cradling the little boy in her arms—which may have made her shiver a little less—bent down, and stealthily tucked the smartphone under the baby's blanket. Had the police found it, Vladimir would have been sentenced to a minimum of eight years in prison.
Władimir, Ałła, Rinat (8 lat) i Timofej (rok i 7 miesięcy). Wciąż boją się pokazywać twarzy. OMON ma ich komputery, może z łatwością sprokurować nowe zarzuty / Vladimir, Alla, Rinat (8 years old) and Timofey (one year and a half years old). They are still afraid to show their faces. OMON has their computers and could easily fabricate new charges Fot. Adam Stępień / Agencja Gazeta
He is charged with administering regional channels of the blog ‘Strana dlya zhizni’ (A Country for Life) for the city of Salihorsk. This is an online platform run by Syarhei Tsikhanouski, one of the main opponents of Alexandr Lukashenko in the presidential race. When Tsikhanouski was imprisoned in May 2020, his wife Sviatlana entered politics and Vladimir joined her electoral campaign. The whole world—apart from Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin—confirmed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the elected president.
The family managed to survive this raid, but a month later, on December 20th, anti-regime group By-Pol posted that the network of the Salihorsk opposition had been compromised. By-Pol is an initiative of former law enforcement employees who rebelled against Lukashenko, publishing leaked data from the regime authorities. They warned Vladimir that they would come for him with criminal charges. He was a miner in the ‘Belaruskali’, a potassium salt mine which is one of the largest industrial plants in the country, producing fertilisers and serving as an important source of foreign currency for the regime. The authorities were infuriated when the miners went on strike a few days after the rigged elections, and began hunting for the ringleaders.
Vladimir and Alla packed up their entire life in two hours. They couldn’t drive because Lukashenko had closed the land borders on the pretext of coronavirus measures. The only solution left was to travel by plane. They had to fit everything they took into four suitcases: one for each of the two adults and two children. On New Year's Eve, they landed in Warsaw and began to wonder what was next. They were lucky, several of Vladimir's friends from the mine did not make it out of Belarus.
Minsk – Białołęka, Warsaw
Nikita was also warned by a ‘kind one’, the name given to sympathetic people working within the regime who tip off those in danger of being arrested. He will not say more, so as not to harm his accomplice; the Belarusian authorities read Polish newspapers. The kind one phoned and said that they had already come to Nikita's home with documents charging him with a criminal case: Article 293 of the Penal Code pertaining to ‘mass riots’, carrying a sentence of up to fifteen years of imprisonment in a penal colony. Nikita had been spending nights away from his home for a long time already. For months he had been involved in the Minsk opposition, distributing fliers and delivering the underground press. After the elections he went on demonstrations. “First, we laughed when they turned off the internet on election day. In the evening we went to the polling station to see the results, but they started lifting people. And we were not laughing anymore,” recalls Nikita.
He wasn’t caught. “But they knew me. After all, they have smartphone locations, a facial recognition system. They knew everything about everyone,” he says.
When the kind one called, Nikita was working at his friends’ apartment. He messaged his co-workers to tell them that he had to take some time off, and shut his laptop. He decided to hole up in the countryside far from Minsk, knowing they would eventually find him there too. After a few days, he took a bag with the most essential things, leaving behind his phone, computer, and all his electronics in order to keep from being tracked down. He left for Poland via Russia, then Ukraine. He crossed borders on foot and sometimes rode small regional buses called marshrutkas, only breathing a sigh of relief on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
Oksana, Karina (15), Artur (8) Natalia, Nikita (11), Natan (8), Sofia (6)
Homel - Sadyba, Warsaw
Oksana knew that they would come for her, because they had already locked up her friend Natalia , and they often took people in at the same time. So she didn't open the door. The police went to the building security for the second key, and she quickly put hers in the lock from the inside so they couldn't open it. It took them an hour to break the door down. She managed to send what she needed over the internet and hid her phone in the cat’s playpen; she had just had kittens. Oksana had no one to leave her son Artur with, so they took him with them. The provision that the only guardian of a child could not be detained was no longer in place. The boy spent several hours at the police station before being handed over to his father. As Artur was separated from Oksana he asked loudly: “Mum, what was I supposed to say to dad?” She had told him to pass on the message that the smartphone was hidden with the kittens.
They locked Natalia up many times. “The police followed us permanently. One officer sat outside the house twenty-four seven. The children would say ‘good morning’ to him. He would ask where we were going, and we would say ‘to do partyzanka’. ‘Come with us,’ we said, but he did not want to,” she laughs.
Oksana, Karina (15), Artur (8) oraz Natalia, Nikita (11), Natan (8), Sofia (6) w mieszkaniu na Sadybie / Oksana, Karina (15), Artur (8) and Natalia, Nikita (11), Natan (8), Sofia (6) in an apartment in Sadyba. Fot. Dawid Żuchowicz / Agencja Gazeta
Partyzanki are people who, since the fraudulent elections, have been peacefully disrupting public life in Belarus by placing the colours of the banned flag in the public space: white, with a red stripe across the middle. They have painted them on walls, tied thousands of ribbons on fences so that undoing them would take a long time, released balloons, and raised flags on balconies and lamp-posts.
Oksana and Natalia met as partyzanki and they stuck together. In Poland they also live together, the two of them and five children in three rooms in Sadyba, a neighbourhood of Warsaw. They show off photos from Belarus: “It was our biggest flag, nine by four meters. We hung it high on the pine trees.”
When they were arrested again for taking a photo with the flag of free Belarus in front of the city of Homel, they changed their tactics. Natalia sewed a soft-toy figure of Zhdun—an elephantine character from Russian memes sitting with folded arms—with Lukashenko’s face. “Since we could not pose for the photos with our flag, we photographed Zhdun in different places” they say. The photos were widely circulated on Instagram, Telegram and YouTube.
It turns out that in Belarus you can also be arrested for making a soft toy: strip-searched, put in a two-by-two-meter cell with terrible food and a convicted criminal for company. Activists are never locked up together.
In the first months, the police played the good cop/bad cop game. If the partyzanki confessed, revealing the network of connections, they would let them go. And if not?
They would take away their children. Vladimir, Alla, Yana, Oksana, Natalia, all the parents among our subjects emphasise that this was the most terrible threat: losing custody of their children. This wasn’t an empty threat. Independent media reported that in September six-year-old Artyom, son of activists Alena Lazarchik and Sergei Matskoyt, was taken into temporary foster care while his parents were under arrest. Vladimir and Alla also tell how their friends went to the polling station with their two children; OMON bundled the adults into the police car, and the young children were left alone on the street for many hours. A ready-made excuse to take them away from their parents.
The same thing happened to Oksana and Natalia, whose children were monitored at their kindergarten. They were reported to social services, their neighbours were questioned.
Oksana and Natalia did not make things easier. Once, Natalia was escorted from the detention centre to her house to shower and change clothes. She locked herself in the room and after a while opened the door dressed in red and white—the colours of the free Belarus flag—ready to come back to jail. “What is this provocation?” The judge asked later. “So I tell her that these are the most trendy colours of the season,” says Natalia. She also did not help herself in the court room, persistently referring to Lukashenko as ‘former president’. The hearing lasted fifteen minutes and the judge came with a prearranged sentence anyway.
Homel – Łódź
On August 13th, four days after the rigged elections, Ivan, a policeman from Homel, had a day off. But he put on his uniform, stood against a pastel-coloured wall in his apartment, started recording on his phone, and began to speak with enthusiasm:
“Colleagues! Our duty is to defend the Belarusian people. And we became a tool in the hands of one person.
“Colleagues! I urge you, do not raise your guns against peaceful, defenceless citizens. I swore allegiance to the Republic of Belarus and its people. I am not relieving myself of duty, but I am not going to obey any illegal orders.
“Colleagues! I say to you, stay on the side of the people.”
“Tsikhanouskaya Sviatlana Georgyevna, you are my president. I await your orders.” And posted the video on YouTube.
He heard a pounding on the door after 20 minutes. “I recorded the video because I wasn't the only one who thought that way. We talked to each other in the station, saying that it was all very wrong, but they were afraid to go so openly against orders. I wanted to give them a trigger, I thought they would follow me,” he says.
Colleagues from his unit answered the call: not to support, but to detain him. He refused to opened the door because he knew that, once arrested, he would never be released. The arresting officers were colleagues though, so he made a deal through the closed door that he would resign by throwing his badge over the balcony. They drove off to the police station to consult with their commanding officers about what to do next, leaving two guards in a car near the house.
The guards must have fallen asleep, or not been paying attention; Ivan took advantage of the moment. He and his wife Anastasia tossed what they had handy in a suitcase, and managed to sneak out to their car. They fled, as many others did, through Russia and Ukraine. “We slept in the car for a week so we didn’t have to check in anywhere. I changed SIM cards every two days,” he recalls.
Then he found out that police had been assigned to knock down his door the next day, at six in the morning. The officers even considered charging him with treason, carrying a penalty of twenty-five years in jail.
Yana, Timur (8 years old)
Grodno - Wola, Warsaw
A year ago, Yana was not into politics. She didn’t vote; it wasn’t her thing. But when they started locking up independent candidates, something changed in her. First, in May Syarhei Tsikhanouski, and less than three weeks later Viktar Babaryka. She got involved. “99 percent of my friends voted for Tsikhanouskaya. And friends of friends too. That is why the results reported by the authorities were such a shock,” she says.
She began to go to protests.
On that September day, she was standing in the front row. First, there was a civilian car with cameras driving past and filming all the protesters closely. Then the siloviki (government forces) came, picking up people at random and dragging them to riot vans. There were a lot of women at the demonstration, because they hadn't detained women before. “Our tactic was to squeal and scream any time they caught a woman, to distract them. At one point they busted a slight woman, twisted her arms, knocked her to the ground, pressed her face against the ground with their feet, and dragged her to the car. We shouted, we screamed, and they did nothing,” – says Jana.
She couldn't stand it. She ran to an undercover cop and pulled the balaclava from his head. “It was spontaneous, I hadn't planned it. And then I thought: I have a recognisable red jumper, they filmed our faces, and they pressed charges on a girl in Minsk for doing the same.” She took off to the car parked a few streets away. As a single mother she knew that if they locked her up, they would take Timur, her son, away from her.
They went into hiding at their friends' place. She asked another friend, a retired policeman, if he thought the authorities could find her. He said that even in 2010 they had had that ability. In the morning, the neighbours sent her a photo of the door of her apartment forced open in a night raid.
Grodno is close to Poland, and all the young people there have tourist visas, because they do their shopping across the border. Without thinking twice, she took Timur and rode on a marshrutka to the border. She was still panicking at the Belarusian passport control. “The guard asked: how am I going to pay a visit, since the Polish side of the border is closed? She must have known what was going on and let me go,” she says. “And the Polish border guards took care of us. They assisted us with the paperwork, took us to a hostel and helped with everything.”
Mobilisation of Belarusians
A new wave of political refugees from Belarus has just reached Poland. They are not only experienced activists, but also people who spontaneously joined the protests. They say that in the first weeks after the rigged elections in August, the authorities and the police still tried to maintain the appearance of the rule of law. The regime didn't tighten the screw until the autumn.
“First, ordinary policemen talked to us. In December, the KGB. They grilled me for five hours, I begged them to stop and just lock me up,” says Oksana. One of the last times they arrested Natalia, they took not only her phone, but also her savings. She asked for a receipt. “It’s in the toilet” the woman replied.
This is why they flee. Many are young, educated, well-off: they leave behind a comfortable life, houses, flats, cars, friends, jobs.
The help is organised by Belarusians who live in Poland, like Sasha, who has been in Warsaw for eighteen years. She has citizenship, a husband, two children. “I wasn’t in touch with the diaspora because I did not feel the need. But a few nights after the election, I couldn't sleep, I just cried,” she says. She started looking for contacts and got involved with the Humanosh foundation, which helps refugees, previously from Tibet, now from Belarus.
There were more people like her. They formed an informal network in order to share tasks and labour. They have separate departments: legal, supplies, education, work. A typical post reads: “Vladimir. Needs an apartment, warm clothes, a language course, a school for his children, then work.” And everyone already knows what to do. Early in the process, they verify people to see if they have really been persecuted by the regime.
Sasha is in the education department, she has helped enrol many children in school, including Rinat to a kindergarten in the neighbourhood of Mokotów. We are talking in an apartment with a view of the Wilanowska metro station. “For the first week, we were afraid to leave the house. I thought everyone on the street was an undercover OMON. Now we are slowly learning to live here, what a social security number is, how the online school system works,” says Alla.
Everyone knows what ‘Taborowa’ is. On this street in Warsaw, at number 33, the Office for Foreigners is located. This is where applications for international protection are processed.
Before the August elections, about forty Belarusian citizens applied for refuge in Poland every year due to political reasons. By the end of July 2020, thirty applications were submitted. From the beginning of August to the end of the year, 375. In total, in 2020 Poland accepted 405 Belarusian citizens applying for international protection, of which approximately half applied at the Belarusian-Polish border, the rest once inside the country, mainly in Warsaw. Previously, the Polish authorities ruled in favour of twenty-seven percent of requests. In 2020, one hundred and thirty-one decisions were issued, all positive.
Those who do not have a decision yet have to wait for it before starting work. “I don't have to be a miner, I can do a lot of things,” assures Vladimir.
Ivan Komasa has been learning Polish from day one. Together with his wife they have undergone IT training, and both are already working.
Do they regret it?
Nikita: “They’re chasing me like a hooligan, and I haven't beaten anyone. Maybe this is what I regret.”
“I regret that I posted my video so late. We should have pressed Lukashenko in the first days. When he was running around the square with his Kalashnikov, he was really scared back then,” says Ivan. “Twenty percent of my colleagues left my unit. Those who stayed have more to do. On top of the usual criminal cases they have to cut those red and white ribbons off the fences.”
During our conversation, Natalia receives the news that Belarus has just withdrawn her financial allowance for her adopted daughter Sofia: “Our grandchildren will ask us what we did during these days. We will show them an album with photos from our partyzanka.”
Oksana: “I will never regret this feeling: when you walk and shout slogans, and thousands of people are chanting with you: ‘Vierym, možam, pieramožam!’ (We believe, we can, we will win!).”
A new Zhdun with Lukashenko's face, bigger than the one left in Belarus, is sitting on a shelf in an apartment in Sadyba, Warsaw. One day it will come handy.
Humanosh Foundation works closely with an independent network ‘Partyzanka’. Partyzanka is an informal anonymous group, mostly consisting of Belarusian women living and working in different fields in Poland. It offers emergency assistance (legal, linguistic, administrative, psychological) to political refugees from Belarus who were previously rejected by state and non-governmental organisations. www.humanosh.org
From the author Jakub Chełmiński:
I would like to thank Aleksandra Zielińska, Humanosh Foundation volunteer, for her help in translation, and in contacting the subjects of this piece.
Translated by Marta Hryniuk & Nick Thomas
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