This article is part of the Let The World Hear Project, which is a collaboration between Stockholm Free World Forum’s webzine Säkerhetsrådet and a number of Belarusian volunteers. Together we have gathered stories from victims of the dictatorship regime in 2020. The world must know what happened.
Read more about the project here.
This is the story of 44-year-old Igor Stankevich who was arrested in Minsk on the 11th of August. These are his thoughts ans reflexions on what happened to him during the 29 hours of his arrest.
I spent 29 hours in the dungeons of Gestapo and NKVD – that is, in a RUVD (ed. note; Regional Department of Internal Affairs) in Minsk and in Akrestina (ed. note; a detention centre). I was tortured, but compared to others, I got off with a slight scare and the ass all blue due to hematomas. I saw the blind inhumane terror and understood what the society went though during The Great Terror in 1937-38 and what was happening to my great grandfather and great grandmother before they were executed in Orsha in November 1937, but also what their loved ones went through.
Looking into the gaping mouth of the shark
On 11 August I took the bike to the city centre in order to file a complaint to BelTelecom regarding the absence of internet connection. On my way back, I saw a bunch of big trucks with “Technical assistance” written on them, coming from various bus parks and depots. I took a turn to my home street and was 5-7 minutes away from my house. Next to the nearby RUVD there were four passenger buses. One was filled with people in police uniforms. I took my phone and started taking pictures. My 17 year old daughters were returning to Minsk. I had to warn them that it could be unsafe next to our home in the evening and that it was better for them not to leave the house. It was about 4.15 pm.
When I turned away for one moment five huge guys jumped out of the bus yelling “No resistance! Face on the ground!”. They twisted my arms, hit my face against the ground so that my nose started to bleed. “I’m not resisting!” – I yelled. With twisted arms and head at the level of the knees I was chased up the stairs to the fourth floor of the RUVD. One of the cops kept trying to hit my head against the walls and the door knobs. I almost died from this “trip”. My legs wouldn’t carry me, my heart was about to pop out of my chest.
We entered an auditorium where I was thrown on the floor, face down and arms behind the back. Here, it smelt like feces, urine and chlorine – the remains of yesterday’s clash with the cops. An old guy in light-coloured pants and dress shoes offered to splash my face with chlorine as well as give me some alcohol – so that during the hearings it would seem like I was drunk.
The cops were discussing matters concerning their everyday life. One was complaining that his mother-in-law had broken her hip bone and that they didn’t want to put in a Belarusian prosthesis, so they put in German one – bloody patriot. But they put it in wrong, so the mother-in-law started to walk with a limp. Another one complained about his son going to the protests. Seemingly, normal people. They talked about their insurance and payouts in case of injuries. A joke was born – “Guys, if five people would jump me, don’t try to help me – my insurance hasn’t expired”. Kolodinsky, Drozd, Boroda – some last names that were mentioned. Seemingly, the local leadership and some colleagues. One talked about how he tried to cash in some money stolen from protesters in his neighborhood.
My phone as well as my bag with documents, wallet and a flash drive were taken from me. We were then – with twisted arms and face down – brought downstairs and thrown on the clinker floor. I requested a call to my lawyer, lying about him and I having an agreement. “Alright, we’ll call him”.
At 7.10 pm. we were chased upstairs. “Stankevich!” ”Me”. “Let’s go”. I was brought to a room – an ordinary office with desks and shelves – remade into a torture chamber. Five people in black balaclavas, t-shirts and pants with red stripes. Only their eyes were visible. The biggest one looked like a medieval executioner. “I will be beaten”, I understood. But I’ve read and written a lot about the tortures in the 1930s, so I more or less understood what was going to happen and therefore wasn’t extremely scared. The most important thing is to deny everything, no matter the torture. Those who denied everything back then lived. Those who confessed stood no chance.
I was put on my knees, head on the floor, hands tightly handcuffed on my back. They started to beat my buttocks with truncheons, asking “What don’t you like? The clean streets? That there is no war?” – moronic propagandist phrases. I said that I liked everything. “So what are you missing then, you bitch?”. They demanded to know who I work for, how much I get paid, who I was coordinating, for whom I was taking pictures. They found a flash drive with the tag “Polskie Radio” plus a Polish visa in the passport. “So, you’re a Polish spy!” Confess, what’s on the flash drive?”. I explained: “I research the repressions in my home-town Orsha, including against Poles. My ancestors were Polish. They were also tortured before execution, forced to say that they were Polish spies.” “Ah, so this is in your blood then!”
Two executioners left the office. Another one carried on with the hearing. When they returned they said “We checked. This is an active leader. On your knees, head down!”. I understood that this was their favourite trick, pretending that they knew something about me. They started to beat me again. “What do you want to know?” – I tried to ask. “Do you know what we can do to you? You think you’re strong, you think that you’ll be able to last?”. I didn’t try to argue. It could get even worse. The most important thing is to relax, otherwise it will hurt more. I mentioned my daughters. The most important thing was not say that I’m a journalist, an activist within the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a member of the Polish Union in Belarus, a union activist and – worst of all – I was an election observer. They’d kill me.
All in all, I received about 40-50 truncheon hits, as well as a few punches to the face and on the ears. The executioner promised me ten days in prison.
Later I was chased up to the auditorium. The first people arrested on the streets were on the floor. Again – face against the floor. They took off the handcuffs and put on thin plastic clamp bands. It hurt like hell! My fingers were numb and I could barely feel my arms. I tried to move them in order to make the blood circulate. Who knows how long I would have to stay in this position. The man next to me begged to have his clamp bands removed. He had an old injury – a damaged tendon. They removed the bands after 15-20 minutes of non-stop begging.
We were put against the wall, hands up. They took our belts, shoelaces, everything that was in the pockets. “Take off your pants! Take off your underwear!” – checking whether your bum was blue or not. If it was white – “Take him to the procedures!”. I had received my treatment already. “Sit down on the chair, hands on the back of the seat in front of you, face to the floor!”. I sat in this position for 15-16 hours. Your neck hurts andThe neck hurts, if you lift your head – a yell or a punch. My personal information was taken twice.
There were three people in my row. I was in a safe place next to the wall. A man sitting nearby groaned “Guys, I feel terrible. I’m going to faint”. He had a broken collar bone and was unable to sit in this position. “He’s checking out. Fuck him up! Oh hey, he’s alive.” He would be beaten a lot for raising his head. When a new party of arrestees arrived hell broke loose. “Lie down! Crawl! Head against the floor!” Brutal beatings with truncheons. The horrific swearing of the abusers, the screams of the victims. Some were called activists, some were supposedly keeping an eye on the cops, some were supposedly coordinating the protests. One guy was accused of having a Molotov cocktail and he confessed on the spot. Idiot! Is he still alive? Some claimed to be paramedics, who came with bandages and wound disinfectant in order to help the injured. Guys, girls… everyone was marked with yellow paint. They had already been severely beaten, but they would be beaten even more. My heart aches for them. They were asked where they worked. The abusers were mad that there were only IT-people, entrepreneurs and unemployed. They were asked about their salaries – $400-2500. The cops were yelling “What are you not content with?”. They kept saying that there were no real workers. The workers were later found – a few electricians working in the metro. Some had been to a protest, some were taking a walk or going to the grocery story. I’m proud that we were together!
At about 3 a.m. the last party of arrestees was brought in. The repression conveyor belt stopped. All the focus was on us. Some of us were in chairs, many on the floor. Some were periodically beaten and compared to them I had received a mild treatment. They kept repeating the same idiotic propagandistic slogans about stability, the absence of war, cleanliness and bullshit about the 90s.
We were given tap water in plastic bottles. When you drank you were forced to close your eyes so that you wouldn’t see anyone. I tried not to drink so much, as we were not allowed to go to the toilet until 7 in the morning.
“No sleeping, no sleeping!”. They kept beating on the chairs with truncheons. I understood that victims of Gestapo and NKVD were treated similarly in the 1930s – the executioners putting everyone in one place, trying to exhaust the arrestees.
One cop kept trying to flirt with this sweet girl. It looked absurd – like a harp meeting a meat grinder.
Going to Akrestina
Around 12 p.m. the authorities started to transport the first arrestees somewhere else. Some people also received and signed protocols about administrative detention. They were also transported somewhere.
About two hours later they called my name. Arms on the back, head down. I was taken upstairs with my stuff. That big guy from the office ran up to me and punched me in the face and in the kidneys while saying that this should teach me not to photograph and upload pictures of the technology of the special forces. Although now he was wearing the uniform of a major. He promised me 15 days in prison.
On the second floor they turned me around. There was no order to let me in, so I was hurried away. They put me in the fetal position, except with hands on the back. My back hurt. I asked to be taken to the toilet, stood up and couldn’t feel my legs. They allowed me to lay in a normal position, except with the face against the floor and hands on the head. Another 1,5 hour passed. Then back in the seat – hands in the front, head down.
At around 3 p.m. we were taken to the avtozak (ed. note; wagon for transportation of prisoners). On our way I received another punch in the face. We were forced inside a cell, about 0.5 x 2 m in size. About five people could be inside here – no more. There were eleven of us. In the cells next to us there were more people. There was no ventilation. The holes in the ceiling didn’t help. There was no air. Everyone was sweaty. The guys in the cells were yelling for the police to open the doors, otherwise they would suffocate. After about 20 minutes they turned on the ventilation, but it didn’t help.
We tried to see who had a yellow mark on their back. One was wearing a white jacket with a red cross and had a beaten face. Daniil Tumilovich, a paramedic. A yellow mark on the back. Daniil, I feel so sorry for you…
Where were they taking us? To the court? But no, seemingly our destination was the Akrestina Detention Centre. “Guys, we’re fucked. Hold on, lads.”
We were taken out of the avtozak. There were a lot of cops, many people were lying on the ground. “Lie on the ground. Legs under you, head down, hands behind the back.” I couldn’t stay in this position for a long time, so I was allowed to lie down normally. The ground was cold. I was wearing a thin t-shirt, but at least I had jeans. For the first time this day I was able to get some sleep.
Five people at a time were let inside the building. Face against the wall. One by one we were let inside a tiny room where there was a judge and a secretary. It seems like my ancestors were given their sentence in the same type of atmosphere. If they were even given one. They stated the report from the cops: allegedly I was outside the RUVD waving my arms, yelling catch phrases, swearing. Obviously I disagreed. They didn’t call out the sentence. Though they asked if I had underaged children. I said I do.
I was taken outside again. Back in the fetal position, though I was later allowed to lie normally again. The ground was so cold I thought I’d get pneumonia. We were later allowed to stand against the wall. Many were forced to lie on the ground for hours, wearing shorts and t-shirts. There was not enough space against the wall. The girls were later allowed to warm themselves with some blankets.
A paramedic examined us. The most severely beaten were taken somewhere, probably for a check-up. Some people that were marked with yellow paint were also taken away, including the paramedic from the avtozak.
We could hear beatings and screaming from the building nearby. Suddenly the cops started to yell “Get a doctor over here!”. Probably, someone had been tortured until unconsciousness or to death…
The weather worsened. The guy next to me was shivering. I told him to press himself against me so that we would be able to warm each other. We were given water, though we weren’t allowed to visit the toilet. A guy in shorts and without any shoes said that he hadn’t visited the toilet for 24 hours. A new party of arrestees arrived. “Factory workers”, the cops said. Apparently they had brought in the people on strike.
At around 9 p.m. they started to talk about some people getting fines. Would they be tortured? No, they would only be sentenced to fines. Suddenly: “Stankevich, one step back!” Apparently me and three other guys would be sentenced to fines and then released. They were looking for my stuff. My keys were gone. I looked around. Tens of people on the ground. The girls in a warm nest of blankets in the corner. They were so young. The yard was full of cops in masks. There were also some people in military uniforms with rifles.
The authorities announced that we would be released on the condition not to participate in the protests. We were made to sign some papers and then let go. The sentence was never read out to us.
There were many people outside looking for their children, husbands, wives, parents. They showed pictures. I recognized one, who had been standing next to me. The other people I haven’t seen. I could barely hold in the tears. I wanted to apologize for not being able to help.
I was brought home. My terrified daughters and my ex-wife were waiting for me. We hugged for a long time. They had received the information that I had been sentenced for ten days in jail and taken to Zhodzina. They had already been discussing how to send me parcels. My friends posted on social media that I had been released. We took pictures of my blue buttocks, my wounded face and the marks from the handcuffs and clamp band on my hands.
The day after I went to the medical center. There were two other victims. One – the bus driver Sergei – had been beaten by the cops on his way to the store. The other one – a young guy had a ride in an avtozak together with 16 people in a cell designed for 5, with a cop beating him on the head with a helmet. He had also been beaten in jail.
I had an x-ray. No broken bones just injured soft tissue. I told the doctor that I had been beaten in the RUVD. He warned me that he reported all abuse to the police. That’s a good thing. I had taken pictures of my injuries. I also asked for a doctor’s note in order to have a document in case charges would be pressed.
One and a half hour later, Sergei called and warned me that he had been invited to a meeting in the RUVD regarding his injuries. He refused to go and said “only in my own home and just one person”. In the evening, a major and a sergeant showed up. Sergei – a former soldier and paintball player – warned them that he had loaded a paintball gun and was prepared to shoot if things went wrong. The policemen acted adequately and understanding, though they said that they wouldn’t be able to find the abusers.
After Sergei’s call my phone rang again. “Igor Petrovich, you have to come to the RUVD regarding the charges concerning your injuries” I got really scared and lied that I had left Minsk but would be able to come the following day. I turned off all the phones, packed my bags, took my children and left for a safe place. The shark wanted to try out whether it has a second set of teeth? No, you sadists. We will only maintain contact via mail. I don’t want you to kill or injure me.
We cannot stop now. It is important to keep going and fight for the full dismissal of Lukashenka’s family from power as well as to force the abusers to be responsible for their actions. Otherwise, he [Lukashenko] will do minor offenses today and turn the whole Belarus into a concentration camp tomorrow. How it will happen has been demonstrated quite well.
I honestly wasn’t sure for how long I would last. They threatened me – “you’re strong, you know that we can break you down”. I said that I knew.
The most interesting thing was when I sat and thought about the type of pure violence that this was. Controlled and limited by nothing. They could do anything they wanted with the people and that’s what they did. Humiliated, raped, murdered. And they knew that they would remain unpunished. I thought: “what can be done about this?”. Going out, finding them and killing them is not an option, since that in itself would be violence and I won’t be able to break the system that way by myself. Honestly, I haven’t found an answer for how to deal with this. Should I become a Ghandist or study the path of Mandela?
The most horrific experience was when I saw the young people getting beaten. They were screaming, trying to argue with the abusers. I sat and thought to myself: “just shut up, the more you try to argue with them the more beatings you receive”. The best thing is just to agree with them and not argue at all and that’s it. But not everyone can do that. Most of the suffering I experienced was the ache for these young people. It hurt to see how the authorities would break down and kill these great people. And I couldn’t do anything about it. That was the hardest thing.
The scariest thing was, as I previously mentioned, when they asked me to return to the RUVD. Returning to the Gestapo, to the NKVD, to the executioners… I understood that I might not even be found again.
Was there an atmosphere of solidarity among the detained?
When I stood against the wall in Akrestina, there were guys who had been severely beaten, that kept saying that we should all be quiet, or else we would have to lie on the [cold] ground again. There were guys standing next to me who had thin summer clothes and thus were very cold. I kept telling them to stand close and press against each other in order to get warm. Also when we were given water, I tried to drink as little as possible so that it would be enough for the rest, even though it was clear that they weren’t buying the water, they used tap water. I guess that was solidarity. Luckily, I didn’t end up in the detention centre itself. I guess my loved ones really did pray for me (laughs).
Did you use any psychological tactics in order to feel a bit better about the circumstances? Was there something you thought of?
Yes I did. First of all, I tried to analyze what was happening and how I felt about it, what was going on with me and what they were doing. For instance, when we were seated in the auditorium I took the seat next to the wall, as I understood that I would get beaten if I sat close to the exit – you know, they would pass by and punch you on the head just like that. In Akrestina I tried not to lie on the ground and instead get to the wall as quickly as possible, otherwise I would risk getting pneumonia. People would lie on the ground for hours. When we were allowed to do some exercise, I saw people lying there in a fetal position… I mean that will at least give you bronchitis. There wasn’t room for everyone next to the wall. There was a guy standing near me who was cold, and still would switch places with a guy who was lying on the ground all beaten up.
Truly, we had ended up in a concentration camp, similarly to what was done by the Bolsheviks and NKVD in the Gulags. And in the Gulags there was this principle that you had to save yourself, or else you were screwed. So I tried to stand up and do what I could. I tried to remember names and uphold morale from the moment I was brought to the RUVD. When the first guy was brought in I told him “Hold on, my friend. We’re in here for a long time. If you’re thirsty, you can try to swallow your own spit, because you will not get any water for a long time”.
Regarding this experience, can you see that you have gained something positive out of it? Did you learn something new about yourself?
First of all, I learned what torture is. Because what happened to me, that was torture. There is no other word for it. Cruel inhumane treatment that was not motivated by anything… it was the aggression of one sick person under whom there are a bunch of other sick people.
Second of all, I tried to understand what motivates these people, in regards to themes of sadism. I was interested in understanding what was going on with them in those moments. Did they really feel excitement from the smell of urine, the fear? Now, I will start to read about these topics even more. Psychological studies find that all of us can become sadists, given the right circumstances where you can do anything you want without having to face any consequences. There are movies about this, for instance I can recommend the movie The Experiment, (ed. note; about the Stanford Prison Experiment) where volunteers were divided into two groups – prisoners and guards. They had to stop the experiment because of the sadistic features getting out of control. This in turn means that all systems of violence within a society must be heavily controlled. The special forces must be controlled, even though I know that it’s practically impossible. The beneficiary system must also be controlled, as they break down people like matches…
Do you feel your personal contribution to the general changes that has happened in Belarus the past months? From a civil societal perspective, so to speak.
To be honest, yes. I’m very proud of Belarus and the Belarusians. That we can do a lot of things, that we can unite, that we can act in solidarity and support one another. Just being able to hug each other in the street is already a big step forward, despite the regime trying to divide us and scare us to silence. The past few months have been unforgettable and touching. I hope that this is something that will last, even for instance knowing about the freedom fight in Poland – non stop strikes, executions and every new generation taking to the streets, trying to make changes. And they managed to accomplish what they fought for. No matter my bitter expectations of loss I still see great progress, in terms of Belarus growing as a nation. For me, this is a serious step forward.