FREEDOM GAVE US STRENGTH Stories by participants of the events in the night of March 23—24 on Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk
“I heard the guy standing in front of me saying: “Well, guys! Remember, truth is with us…” At that moment people started to pray out loud. Some girls were still naively shouting our slogan “Police are with the people!”. They were shouting through tears. Many people cried, talked to their friends or parents on the phone. Some were looking for their belongings in the dark…”, -- Mikhas Chyzhyk, participant of the action, talks about the events of that night. He, as well as about 500 other young people, was arrested that night in the tent camp in the center of Minsk. Belarus has not seen such numbers of detained rally participants. Jails did not have enough room for the detained. The judicial conveyer needed only a couple of minutes to decide on their fate. Aksana Rudovich was detained that night as well.
Aksana: during the search they made me take off the clothes. They checked the clothes and gave them back. Then a person in civil entered the room and told the woman who was doing the search: “be careful with them, I will tell you later what kind of people they are and what it is all about”. These poor women looked at us with such fear in their eyes.
I had quite many things with me. They allowed me to take them with me, because we were not criminals, but “political” people.
Mikhas: I was detained in the night of March 24. That was my second night on the Square.
-- Why did you decide to stay?
Mikhas: I think I would not be able to fall asleep at home knowing that my friends and other people were fighting for our freedom. I would feel ashamed if they managed to overcome their fear and tiredness, and I failed to do that. I acted in agreement with my consciousness. My place was together with them – on the Square. I was very tired and wanted to sleep badly.
That was one but last night before the Freedom Day on March 25. In a sense, that was the key time. We really wanted to hang on until the Freedom Day. Every night more and more tents appeared on the Square. The people supported us and joined the action. During the dispersal there were 40 tents on the Square – a lot more than during the first night. Probably, the authorities were afraid if they allowed us to stay there the number of tents would grow even more, and it would be difficult to disperse us.
Every evening about 5 thousand people came to the square. They participated in the rally, listened to speeches and music. About 11-12 p.m. the people went home leaving only the defenders of the camp. It was dangerous to leave the camp after midnight. Police detained people in the subway and on the nearby streets. That’s why “standing together” was the “condition of survival”. In the night the camp was the safest place. It was surrounded by KGB and police. It was scary to leave it. We knew that the people who tried to leave never came back.
-- What was the atmosphere in the camp?
Aksana: There were two, in some places – three, rows of defense around the tents. The guys held banners, posters and flags. Girls were in the middle, they cooked and handed out food. I asked each of them: “would you like some tea, or a chocolate, you still have to stand here for so long…” There was a very good atmosphere. Partially the reason I was there was the good atmosphere, the atmosphere of freedom. Music helped a lot. We all were united with one idea. We were together.
Mikhas: we were also united by the risk we took. People were ready for detention, beating, arrests, repression, exclusion from universities, and losing a job. People knew what they were risking but they could not act differently.
Aksana: We had to behave very carefully all the time, day and night, not to give BTV a chance to show as from a negative perspective. For example, one time some of my schoolmates who did not support us were simply hanging around on the square. They were drinking beer. Very politely we asked them not to stand near the camp.
Mikhas: there was an order not to let anybody through the defense chain. If someone wanted to get to the camp he had to come to us, we would look carefully into his face and determine if he is on our side or not. Often it was very easy to determine. Even if a KGB agent puts on badges and stickers in large amounts, his face cries out who he is. We also asked who of the activists they know. A person who wanted to get inside, had to call their friend in the camp and ask him to come out and give his recommendation. If a person did not know anybody who was inside we would give him a test. For example, it could be the task to stand for a couple of hours in the external circle of the defense chain. One accident happened in the night from Wednesday to Thursday. I stood in the external circle, near the control point. Some KGB agents would come and try to dupe us for an hour or more doing their best to persuade us to let them inside. One of them kept saying he wanted to take a picture of himself near a tent in order to send it to his friend abroad. Another guy, most probably he also was from the KGB, even kneeled in front of the white-red-white flag which we held and began to kiss it. He says: “Let me kiss the holy Belarusian flag”. He smacks it and yells: “Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus!” Then he stood up and reproached us: “why don’t you let me to the place where white-red-white flags are waving?” It was obvious that his behavior was unnatural.
There were many provocations the last night. About 1 a.m. when the subway was closed about 5 people who were, say, wired up, came out of the subway to the camp. They yelled very dirty words, insulted us and demanded that we should leave the square. They swore and tried to provoke a fight. We were aware of their goal and stayed calm: we did not react to their yells. Then one of them ran up to one of our guys who was in the defense chain and started to hit him on the legs. The guy had to suffer pain and give no response. If the fight started the police would immediately arrest us and charge us with hooliganism. I think that was their goal. Our people resisted all provocations even if they were simply beaten. One policeman probably was ashamed to look at that and he made the provocateur leave. There were many incidents like that. When their provocations failed in one place, they would go to another place of the chain. Some provocateurs left, and new ones appeared. That continued for several hours before the dispersal.
-- What happened inside the cam during that time?
Aksana: Inside… I would say it was very comfortable inside. There were two huge bed-sheets on the ground. A girl was drawing a slogan – invitation to come to the March 25 rally – on them. Tents, kitchen – life was in full swing. Someone brought a portable gas stove with gas-cylinders, we used it to boil water. We tried to save hot water. Girls handed out tea, food, held flags, and supported the guys who stood in the defense chain. We talked, joked, and danced. It was cold, but one could dance, move around, and it got warmer.
Mikhas: we expected dispersal every night. Every night somebody would say they would disperse us that night. So nobody believed in rumors, but we were waiting… the psychological climate was quite heavy. We felt we are the target, as if we are a flock of lamb surrounded by black wolves. They looked like real wolves. Every “lamb” which fell behind the flock was “eaten” by the “wolves”. That means everyone who left the square at night did not reach home.
Aksana: there was less and less fear every day. I was most afraid to go to the first rally on March 19. After all those rumors about explosions and terrorists it seemed they would disperse the crowd right away. But we managed to survive one night, then another one… More and more people joined the protest. Freedom energized us.
-- How did the dispersal of the camp start?
Mikhas: even before the trucks arrived, about 3 at night a group of about 20 policemen appeared from the Palace of the Republic and headed to the camp. They passed us and went to the road. Reporters, about 10-15 people, ran up to them to find out what was going on. Everybody waited for continuation. We thought the police wanted to make a statement. But they did not let the reporters to come back. The police made them go even further from the camp. The reporters had to stand in a group surrounded by police. They were not allowed to take pictures. The atmosphere in the camp began to change. The people realized something bad was happening.
Aksana: the guys responsible for defense of each sector told everybody not to leave their position, to stand and hold on even stronger.
Mikhas: In some time an armored truck with armored body appeared on the avenue. When we saw the truck, a kind of a moan could be heard in the camp.
We understood what was going to happen. The tension grew. We didn’t know how the police were going to detain us, what kind of plans they had. The music stopped right away. A woman came up to the mike trying to console us. People started to call their families, friends, and parents.
Aksana: the girls were told to stay in the middle.
Mikhas: no one of the guys left their position. Nobody tried to hide behind their friends’ backs.
Six armored trucks surrounded us. They stood around the camp in a close circle. Riot police in body armor with shields got out off the trucks and aligned beside us. At that time some woman tried to address the police through a mike. She wanted to prevent violence and beating. She was saying we are one people, that they shouldn’t fight against us, that we are also humans, not freaks or bandits, we are peaceful protesters and are not going to fight with the police, we also have families who are worried for us.
I heard a guy standing in the first circle, the first to be attacked, saying: “Well, guys! Remember, truth is with us…” At that moment people started to pray out loud. Some girls were still naively shouting our favorite slogan “Police are with the people!”. They were shouting through tears. Many people cried, talked to their friends or parents on the phone. Some were looking for their belongings in the dark…
Aksana: I heard a policeman saying: “I repeat, disperse, this is an unauthorized meeting…”
Mikhas: but that looked ridiculous. The policeman demanded that we should disperse during 5 minutes otherwise they would use violence against us. It all happened at the moment when the camp was surrounded by trucks and the circle of riot police. There was nowhere to run away. All exits were closed. A woman said in the mike: “ok, let us leave”. Several dozen people tried to leave the square. But the police ordered all the people who left the camp to get in the police buses. The people returned to the camp. It was clear that the police had the order to arrest everyone. Then someone suggested we should sit on the ground or kneel in order to show the police that we were not going to resist. We sat on the ground holding hands.
-- Were people panicking?
Mikhas: No. The people stayed on their places but were going through a strong psychological stress. That was clear.
Aksana: When that truck drove closer one of the guys told me to stay in the middle of the camp. The people told each other to pray. I prayed together with the other girls, kneeling in the middle of that horror.
Later, when the police attacked the campers and started to drag people to the buses it came to my mind that it was possible to run away. I tried to, but was immediately caught by a policeman. He took me to the bus. Only at that moment I realized we were being arrested. The police pushed me into the bus and hit me on the side tearing my coat.
If I had a lighter jacket I would have had a chance to run away. I know three girls managed to do that. The police noticed them but they got in a car that was driving by. The driver took them to the student dormitory where they lived. The worst is that the dormitory administration surrendered them – the dormitory warden informed the rector that they had run away from the rally…
Mikhas: The moment we sat down on the ground I felt somebody fell n me. It was a huge strong man who attacked the guy in front of me. He started to beat that guy and hit me with the feet. Then the people took him out of the camp and laid him on the asphalt. The riot police ran up to him and dragged him to the bus. He was the first detained person from the camp. Right after that they attacked us from above as black kites and started to drag the people out of the chain to the buses. Those who resisted were beaten more. Later my cellmate told me that he was resisting very much, he held on to his friends and receive4d a strong blow with the knee on the face.
When violence started a woman said in the mike that we would obey, we would go where they order us, and they didn’t need to use violence. We stood up and headed to the trucks.
The riot police did not try to get inside the camp right away. They had their own tactics. They detained people who were on the sides. Gradually they detained everybody.
They made a “corridor” for us – they stood on both sides, and we walked between them. When we walked every policeman tried to hit or push us on the legs or other parts of the body. I expected the blows as well – I strained the whole body so that the blows are not that painful. But when it was my turn to run through the “gauntlet”, their boss ran up and began to swear on his men. After that they stopped beating us.
When I got into the bus there were 2 guys there. The policemen ordered them to go down on all fours so that their backs are on the same level as the benches. My friends told me earlier that in such cases the policemen would jump on our backs with their boots on on the way to Akrestsina jail. I think that the boss who was swearing at his subordinates saved us from that ordeal. The policemen ordered us to sit down on the benches and we were happy to follow the order. They brought several dozen people more.
Aksana: the last words which could be heard from our mike were “People! What are you doing!”. And then – silence. I was one of the last to be detained because I was in the very middle. People were saying that in some buses it was very crowded. There were about 20 people; almost everybody had a place for sitting. The policemen used obscene language; it was very unpleasant to listen to them. When we asked them where they were taking us, they joked: “to the cemetery”.
Mikhas: In the bus the riot policemen were swearing at us. They attacked the guy who had a white-red-white flag on the neck. Two policemen pulled the flag and started to stifle the guy. He turned red and fell on the floor. A woman stood up for him.
Aksana: the policemen in the bus had no helmets. It was possible to look them in the eyes. But they told us: “why are you looking at me? Stop it!”
Mikhas: They also made “jokes” in our bus. One of the policemen asked a girl: “how do you prefer to be killed, Miss, under a birch or a pine-tree?” Many of the girls were crying. It was really quite scary. We were afraid that they would first take us to the forest, beat us, and only then take us to the jail. Thanks God, they didn’t do that. I think nobody ordered them to beat us but they did it any time they could. It was obvious that they really hate us. I think they really believed that the truth was on their side; that we were destroying Belarus, and they were protecting it.
Aksana: some girls asked the policemen to allow them go back to the camp to pick up their things and were allowed to do so. I couldn’t even think of that.
When they took us from the jail to court on the same buses we saw white-red-white flags lying on the floor – ragged and dirty…
Mikhas: my things were left on the square. At the last moment I didn’t manage to find my backpack with the documents.
It is not true that all things from the camp were dumped. In reality they were taken to the police station. It was done by policemen in uniform of the municipal services. It was obvious that those people were not staff of the municipal cleaning services. They had walkie-talkies. They had appeared before we were detained. BTV was there as well. After the police detained us they did their dirty job – they brought syringes and porno magazines and shoot that as if it was ours. People say they even shoot four naked legs sticking out of one of the tents.
In reality, BTV reporters were not allowed inside the camp, so they can’t have any truthful footage about the camp. BTV also organized many provocations. For example, several people would appear in front of the chain and start drinking vodka with our camp on the background. Right away a cameraman from BTV would appear, and in the evening news they would show “protesters drinking vodka”.
-- What happened after you were detained?
Aksana: They took us to Akrestsina jail and ordered to face the wall. I only saw that many people were beaten, one guy was bleeding. A girl who I remembered from the camp was unconscious. She was accompanied by paramedics. Probably, they were taking her to hospital. We stood there facing the wall for a very long time. The day was breaking. The police asked if there were any under age people among us and began to draw up the reports. I wrote that I didn’t agree with the report. It said that I had taken part in an unauthorized action and yelled anti-state slogans “long live Belarus!” and “Away with Lukashenka!” We were at Akrestsina till about midday. Then they took us to court.
Mikhas: They made us stand facing the wall. We stood like that for several hours. We didn’t know where were the rest of the people and what happened to them. Then I found out that some people stood outside for the whole time. We were taken to the second floor. The police registered us, carried out a search of personal belongings and drew up reports. It all lasted for 3 or 4 hours. For a very long time. While we were standing in line to be searched they didn’t allow us to sit down, to lean against the wall or have a nap. There were many policemen. May be even more than the detained. They made us sign the reports and took us to the cells. They put 24 people in our cell designed for 5 persons. I wanted to sleep so badly that I just leaned against the wall and fell asleep right away. I woke up when they ordered us to go out. They put us on a bus. They didn’t tell us where they were taking us. We thought we were going to court and were happy that we would be tried on Friday, not Monday. But they drove us out of the city. The buses rode for a long time. We were scared. Only later we found out that they took us to Zhodzina jail.
Aksana: I accidently saw Mikhas in the corridor when I and 7 more girls were taken to the cell. Later they took us back to the corridor. Jail cooks passed us. They gave us white bread so everybody could have a bite. It was about 3 p.m. Until that time we did not eat anything and did not sleep.
When they took us from Akrestsina on a bus we saw many people near the jail who were waiting for us. We started screaming and waving hands... they drove us to another jail. When we were passing Kastrychnitskaya Square. We saw a group of people there. We were very excited, we yelled and knocked on the windows. Then the police turned on the radio very loud.
We were very happy to see people near Akrestsina and the square. We realized we were not alone.
Mikhas: When I saw the people who greeted us I was so touched that even began crying. It was so fantastic to learn that we are not alone, that people are waiting for us from the other side of the prison walls.