By Anna Volk
MINSK, Belarus -- More than 10,000 Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk to mark the national Day of Liberty this past Saturday. The celebration, including a concert by a national orchestra and a peace protest against unfair elections and mass arrests, was planned to be held in the central Oktyabrskaya Square. But it was not to be. Thousands of troopers in militia and special forces uniforms surrounded the square and the streets around it. The dictatorship used truncheons, riot gear and gas grenades on peaceful marchers carrying flowers.
A massive campaign of intimidation started two weeks ago in Belarus, during the election campaigns. During that time, 35 reporters were harassed with administrative legal action, nine foreign reporters among them. On the list of the detained reporters is well known Russian TV ORT reporter, Pavel Sheremet. He was physically attacked by special forces agents on the street, taken to a hospital, and later in the night secretly taken from the hospital (with double pneumonia) and brought into the Okrestino bull-pen (the main detention center where protesters are being held).
A week earlier, just before election day, Belarusian authorities "wrote a magnificent scenario" on how to restrain people from coming to the main square. Hollywood screenwriters would envy their ingenuity. The government used the cellphone system to send people text messages, warning them to stay away from the Minsk central square on election day, saying that bloodshed and massive provocations were expected and that people would endanger their lives going there. The chief of the KGB, Stepan Suharenko, announced before election day that anybody who came to the center square on the day of elections might be accused of terrorism and jailed.
The authorities did everything possible to restrain young people, the main "driving force" for change, from coming to the square. Non-Minsk students were released from lectures several days before the elections (in some universities even for the whole week before the election) and were told to go home for "vacation". The students who remained in Minsk were threatened by their deans, who told them that any of them who went to the main square on March 19 would be expelled.
Authorities did everything to isolate Minsk from the rest of the country. On election day all the trains coming into Minsk were thoroughly checked. All passengers traveling to Minsk were detrained. The same happened to the bus service. A lot of international observers and reporters were "turned back" on the border and not allowed to enter the country.
Minsk was not only isolated from the physical world. All opposition web sites have been heavily DOS-attacked. During election day, access to all opposition sites was crushed. That evening, the authorities (who have a monopoly over Internet resources in Belarus) blocked all Internet connections in the country for more than six hours.
None of this stopped the opposition: about 20,000 people braved the KGB and a heavy snowstorm to show their support for the opposition and gathered that night in the main square. They shouted slogans, waved national flags banned under President Alexander Lukashenko, and booed pictures of the president being shown on a large television screen. The demonstration was peaceful - the protesters were holding flowers and balloons in their hands.
Although the cell phone connection was almost fully blocked by the authorities in the center of Minsk, people tried to catch the connection and called their relatives, friends, colleagues and invited them to join them in Oktyabrskaya Square. We started to feel that "We Are The PEOPLE" feeling. People seemed to come alive, as they joined together in the center square, laughing, singing, sharing their emotions. In spite of the rigged election, the atmosphere in the center of Minsk was as if the people were celebrating their victory. "Long live Belarus!" "Milinkevich!" "Freedom!" - such slogans were heard continuously.
For the whole week after election day Belarusians protested the unfair vote. On Monday, March 20, demonstrators set up tents in the central square. At first, there were only three tents. Over the next three days, their number grew tenfold. Around 500 people were standing day and night in the square, enduring frost and snow, protesting against unfair elections. These brave (mostly young) people were given constant support by passing drivers honking their horns and by thousands of people coming to the center every evening. The authorities hoped that people would get tired and everything would quiet down. But people continued supporting the protesters, who grew more defiant. Then the authorities tried numerous provocations during the daytime, sending drunk and mad people into the square and then capturing footage of these pawns and showing them in the news. During the night they encircled the "tent town" and arrested anyone trying to bring food or warm clothes to those inside or anyone who tried to leave it . Still didn't help. New tents were set up every day.
The authorities refrained from taking any repressive actions before final election results were announced, since the world community was so closely following them. On March 23, the final results and the date of Lukashenko's "coronation", March 31, were announced. The following night, around 3 a.m., more than 400 people in the square were surrounded and arrested. They have been sentenced to 10 to 15 days of imprisonment. The lists of detained people show that there were no people under 18 years old, and most of the young people are students in their mid-thirties.
After the protesters were cleared away from the square (the whole operation took only around 15 minutes), Belarusian TV started shouting "their truth". The next morning National TV reported that the previous night hundreds of drug-addicted teenagers had been asked to empty the square and "returned by the police" to their parents. They showed bags full of syringes and lots of empty beer bottles.
On Saturday, the Day of Liberty arrived. Thousands of peaceful marchers carrying flowers were prevented from entering Oktyabrskaya Square. Then when some protesters started to move in the direction of the Okrestino bull-pen, to support their sons and daughters, thousands of military troopers attacked the peace protestors. They used all the usual means of attacking the defenseless: smoke bombs, stink pots, tear-gas, riot sticks and hob-nailed boots. Peaceful people were bludgeoned, beaten on the heads, backs, legs. Even young women were mercilessly beaten with gloved fists into their faces.
I will long remember the sounds of the agonized screams of one woman caught on videotape by a Ukrainian TV crew, as she was savagely kicked and beaten with truncheons by a half dozen black-armored special forces agents.
Hundreds of people beaten black and blue have been arrested. Most of them were removed on stretchers by ambulance men to the hospitals, where doctors refuse to give any information to reporters about the state of health of the victims. Others have been driven to the jail of Zhodino, a town 50 kilometers from Minsk, because all the jails in Minsk are overflowing with "Prisoners of Conscience". Among the arrested is one of the opposition candidates, Alexander Kozulin, beaten black and blue. He has been charged under the criminal code.
However, National and Russian TV news reports have shown a totally different picture: they accuse the demonstrators of terrorism, reporting that eight special forces agents were heavily injured. What kind of army must Belarus have if specially trained people, armored and armed to the teeth suffered from people carrying flowers and balloons? The other nonsense Belarusians heard from their National TV is that the reporters from the same TV were attacked and injured by demonstrators with.....snowballs!!!
The dictatorship has proven once more that it is held up only by bayonets. And it's not really an entire regime the people are protesting against, like it was during the collapse of the USSR. This is only one man, a dictator, and a few people surrounding him. These people know that the day they lose power, they will be put on trial for all the people they have murdered and jailed unjustly during their years of dictatorship. Lukashenko and his gang are afraid; they have every reason to believe they are fighting for their lives and will do everything and anything to remain in power. No lie, no number of beatings, and no amount of blood from innocent people of their own nation on their hands is beyond them.
What will happen next? No one knows, but Belarusians long denied the truth have finally seen the Lukashenka dictatorship as it truly is, shown in all its naked ugliness for the whole world to see.
Anna Volk is a writer in Belarus.