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Belarus diary: A week amid the protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s rule

Sunday, Aug. 9, Election Day:

I met some friends around 7 p.m. to go protest along Minsk’s main street. But riot police were arresting people as soon as we got there, so we ran to get away from them. There was this constant sound of cars honking their horn, supporting us.

We eventually ended up in front of a nearby shopping mall with other protesters. They were chanting, “Lukashenko, go away!” When a busload of security forces eventually came there, too, we decided to lock arms in a chain. They were yelling at us, threatening to beat and kill us. One policeman started beating the guy right next to me with his baton.

My girlfriend grabbed my hand and pulled me away. We were running when we heard three blasts in the distance, which I later understood were the stun grenades. Everywhere we walked, there were badly injured people in the streets who said they had been beaten by the police. Some had not even been protesting. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We called for an ambulance to help one man, but it said it could not be there for an hour because there were so many injured people.

It’s hard to even explain how I was feeling. It was scary to see the violence, as if it was a war zone. But seeing the crowds of people in the center of the city, all united in one cause, you really feel like there is a chance to win and a chance to change things.

Aug. 10:

I asked my friends to go protest with me again, but a lot of them were scared. Shouldn’t the police be protecting us instead of hurting us?

Along with three friends, I joined a group of protesters in front of a store near my home. It was peaceful. We were just chanting, “Alive Belarus.” But then some Special Forces officers arrived and started throwing stun grenades in our direction to break up the crowd.

I yelled at my friends, “Go back to the car!” We hid there.

People were yelling at the police: “We are from Belarus, why are you doing this to us?”

At the end of the day, when my girlfriend and I were walking home, a police bus stopped near us. She was wearing a white bracelet — a sign of support for the opposition. I told her to take it off to not provoke them, to not run. They left us alone.

We got home around 1 a.m., but I couldn’t sleep. Every few minutes, you could hear the sound of grenades going off outside.

Aug. 11:

I saw the video [opposition leader Svetlana] Tikhanovskaya released that told Belarusans to stop protesting. But we all knew she didn’t mean it, that she’d been forced into reading those words. Maybe they threatened her kids or her husband, who’s in jail.

But after two days of violence on the streets, this was the day I started to lose hope. At least we tried, right?

My parents and I bought bandages and other medical supplies to bring to protesters on the streets. We drove around the city for three hours, paying attention to where police were stationed and then notifying the opposition media so they could warn others.

A lot of young Belarusans like me feel like we do not have a future here if Lukashenko stays in power. But I love my country, and I do not want to immigrate to somewhere else to have a better life. I want to have that in Belarus.

Aug. 12:

Belarus owes so much to our women. The opposition movement was fronted by three women — Tikhonovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo. And on this day, it was women who helped end the violence of the protests.

Women wearing white joined hands and formed a long “solidarity chain” along the Minsk streets. It was to condemn all of the police violence against protesters.

My mother and girlfriend were in this chain. My father and I waited in a nearby car in case the situation turned violent and we needed to get away quickly. But the chain stood for about two hours — the first sign of hope that we could demonstrate peacefully.

Aug. 13:

My parents and I visited a hospital to bring food to injured protesters. There was a crowd outside chanting, “Thank you,” to the medical staff.

We met another protester, Kirill, while there. He had been arrested during the protests, and then he was beaten while detained at the Okrestina prison with injuries so bad that he had to be hospitalized. His skull was fractured. And he thinks he got lucky because being moved to the hospital meant he was spared more torture.

Kirill told us about how the authorities at the prison said they think they are saving the country from people who are paid by foreign governments to protest. It sounds so stupid, but maybe the police have really been led to believe that.

I think hearing so many accounts like Kirill’s just made the protest movement stronger because Belarusans saw what this government was doing to its own people.

Aug. 14:

Most of my friends were too afraid to protest on the streets, but they said they could not just sit at home doing nothing.

A couple brought food and medical supplies to my house, so we brought that to a different hospital. Seeing all of the injured people, protesters who said they’d spent days in prison with 50 people in one cell, was so scary.

While I was at the hospital, I collected the names and contact information of the injured people there because my family knows some lawyers who have offered to help them get justice free of charge. They want to help people fighting for our freedom.

After a couple days without hearing from her, Tikhanovskaya released another video saying we should protest peacefully all over the country over the weekend. I always knew she’d be back. Everyone in Belarus did.

Aug. 15:

The first time I attended a protest against Lukashenko, I was 15 years old. But that didn’t compare to this, seeing tens of thousands of people on the streets of Minsk.

Saturday’s demonstration felt like a festival. There was no violence. Women were coming up to the security officials and handing them flowers or hugging them because they made no move to disperse us. There was even free water. The mood felt almost joyful, like a celebration after all that we’d endured during the week.

We went and laid flowers at a memorial by the Pushkinskaya metro station for a protester, Alexander Taraikovsky, who was killed on Aug. 10 during the crackdown by police. It was a reminder of what we’d already lost during this fight, and why we can’t give up.

Aug. 16:

I’d never seen so many people on the streets of Minsk. I heard it was more than 200,000, the largest protest in our country’s history.

One cool thing was seeing how many people from the LGBTQ community were at this rally. They had rainbow flags draped around their shoulders because they weren’t afraid like they were earlier under the Lukashenko regime.

The older generation still remembers the Soviet Union, when there was even less freedom. They believe in this movement, but maybe they’re not believing that something will change yet. But for young people, we’ve lived our entire lives under Lukashenko. It’s enough.

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