Anastasiya, 33: ”We had to take off all our clothes, including underwear”

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 33-year-old Anastasiya from Minsk who was arrested along with her husband on 11 august 2020.

Protests in Minsk (Anastasiya is not in the photo). Photo: Artem Podrez/Pexels

I was arrested at 1 a.m. on 12 August, and released at 6 p.m. on 13 August. We had been walking in the Minsk city areas of Kuntsevchina and Kamennaya Gorka. There were no demonstrations while we were there.

We got a lift in a car. There were two guys in the car – one of them used to be a doctor, the other one was a driver – and they said they were volunteers helping people. We got stopped by the police. They checked our IDs and let us go, urging us not to drive around much during these turbulent days. At the crossroads, close to our house, we saw the OMON. Many people were lying face-down on the ground. This part of the city had been quiet that day with no demonstrations. I thought that someone had gotten sick – it never even crossed my mind that people had been arrested. I asked the ex-doctor whether we should help. People were lying on the ground, you know.

He slowed the car down and asked through the window if they needed help. A policeman who was detaining someone screamed something at us and got quickly into a van. They had already taken notice of us. Later I realized that it was that policeman who had warned his colleagues. I was naive. We had bottled water in the car – it was a sign for them that we were “dangerous” and might have helped the protestors.

A stun grenade was thrown at our car. Explosion, disorientation, and moments later a riot policeman screaming at us, “Get out of the car, and lie face down on the ground”. We all got out and laid on the ground. Soon afterwards I was lifted up on my feet with my face against the car. They asked the men in our car where they were from, what they had been doing, where they worked. They had some check marks: if doctors – arrest immediately; water and medical supplies found in a car – arrest immediately. No one believed us when we told them that we were heading home. They checked my phone, found some videos that had been taken many days earlier and for some reason they didn’t like them. “Our clients”, they said.

The men were beaten. I heard the police screaming, “You, doctors, scumbags, are helping the wrong people”. I asked them not to harm my husband – he isn’t a doctor. But no one listened. The people laying on the ground were told to crawl to the lawn. They were pushed into a police van, already containing a lot of people, most of them lying on the floor, like layers on top of each other. They continued beating those lying on top. After a short ride, the van stopped at a crossroads where many more people had already been laid on the ground. They took us out of the van. Within a few minutes maybe six policemen approached me asking the same questions over and over, for instance who we were, where we were going and so on. I realized, after 12 p.m. that they were arresting everyone they could see. Half of the detainees were those who were on their way home from a store, had gone outside for a smoke, stepped out of a taxi. There were plenty of such stories.

They put us in another van with two cells and a net. I was put in one of them. My purse was left in the car. They took our phones. I was then taken out of the cell, and ordered to kneel and face the net. I had to stand like this all the way to the Akrestina Detention Centre, which we found out later, as we had no idea where we were heading. To be honest, the first 15 hours before the trial I was afraid they were going to take us outside of the city, kill us and then bury us somewhere. I felt like it was total anarchy – the authorities had all the power and no justice to follow.

In the Akrestina Detention Centre I lost the guys. I was taken to a room, where around 20 women were already standing with their faces towards the wall. Both prison employees and riot policemen were there. The latter were screaming, giving orders and humiliating the detainees in every possible way. An employee asked if there were any underage or international citizens among us. These were released immediately. However, I heard they had kept some 16-year-old boys in custody, though I didn’t see it myself. We were given some black trash bags for us to put our valuables in, such as jewellery, wallets and phones. I had my husband’s wallet with credit cards, a ring, a necklace with a little cross, a bracelet I was gifted by my parents, keys. Then we were taken to a separate room, two girls at a time, to be searched by female police officers. We had to take off all our clothes, including underwear. When it was over, we were allowed to dress. And then they started to put us in cells.

I remember one girl there who said something to a riot policeman. In return, she got severely beaten. While beating her, he was screaming, “You junkie, you slut!”

We ended up in a disciplinary cell, outdoors. There were 29 of us there. All of us must have been arrested on the same night. It’s hard to explain what the disciplinary cell looked like. Imagine an outdoor space, 4 x 5 m, no roof, made of concrete, with only one sewage hatch, which we used as a toilet, and a net above our heads through which we could see a part of the building with a balcony for the guards and the sky. Many were cold, especially those in dresses, shorts and t-shirts, as many people were arrested on their way from a shop.

We didn’t know where we were. I asked one of the officers while being searched, so I knew we were at an OIS (Offenders’ Isolation Centre). But which one? We were trying to guess, as well as wondering what was going to happen to us. One woman among us, a lawyer, said that those who had been detained on 8 and 9 August got fines and were released 2 days later. I was less optimistic as everything resembled total anarchy. It felt like we had been kidnapped and detained by some gangsters.

Our disciplinary cell was next to a male one, and we could hear how badly they were beaten and tortured. The only thing we could hear that night was the sounds of beatings and the screams of those held inside. I was very worried for my husband. Every scream made my heart scream as well. There were two other girls who had been arrested along with their husbands. It was as if they were slowly being killed. The beatings continued all night. In the morning we heard other sounds from behind the wall. We were totally disoriented. “11 a.m. Shame, shame”. When we heard “Shame” we got even more scared that our men would be beaten even more brutally. The riot policemen didn’t let the male detainees use the toilet, and each time someone there was disobedience they got furious. 

We didn’t get any water in the first 15 hours. We didn’t try to argue. From about 3 p.m. they started calling us to our court hearings. They had lists with names. The hearings were in the same building, one floor up. Men and women were lined up facing the wall and waiting for their turn. A small room with two judges and two secretaries. They didn’t wear masks. Didn’t even cover their faces. They read my rights out loud, but the right to counsel wasn’t mentioned. I was asked whether I had trust in the court. I said that I didn’t.

– Why?

– I don’t believe in your impartiality.

– What Article in the Legal Code is it?

– How should I know?

In the court papers I read afterwards it said that I had trust in the court.

– Do you have any eyewitnesses?

– Yes, my husband. You may call him, he might be in the building.

The court statement with accusations was read to me. The statement was based on a witness statement given by someone named Zhukouski. As I later found out, he is a district police officer. According to the statement, he had arrested me in a district far away from where he worked, and far from where I had been that day. I was arrested as if I had been participating in a protest, as if I had been screaming, “Stop the cockroach! Long live Belarus! Freedom to Tsikhanousky!”. In short, as if I had been taking part in an illegal meeting. She [the judge] asked me whether I knew the witness –  I had no idea who he was – as if it would have made any difference.

Demands for freedom in Belarus. Photo: Lina Kivaka/Pexels

I didn’t accept the charges, which was noted in the court statement. I was then charged with an 11-day administrative detention. When I asked why for so long they didn’t answer. I wasn’t given anything to sign. I managed to look through the window. It was daytime. Many people were kneeling with their faces towards the wall, being severely beaten by the police. 

In the court we got water for the first time since our arrest. We asked for it for the first time – we had been afraid to ask policemen before. Then I was taken back to the disciplinary cell. One girl there was on her period, her clothes were covered in blood. I gave her my face mask. At least something to help. Another girl had a broken knee. We asked at least four times to call an ambulance. Only when the court hearing started was she taken away, hopefully, to a hospital. Another girl had been beaten so severely that she couldn’t stand – her hip muscle was injured really bad. She was taken away. Hopefully, they got medical attention, as I don’t know what happened to them. I haven’t seen them since.

Then we were divided into two groups to be taken to the cells on a different floor. Many were severely beaten by a blonde female supervisor. She was violent, randomly choosing girls to smash with a truncheon. She would kick every girl who entered the cell. About 13 of us  were crammed inside a cell meant for four people – there were already about 25 girls in there, so at least 36 people were in the one cell. At least we could sit. We had already been standing up for 15 hours in the concrete room. The girls who had been taken there before us shared some bread with us – it was the only food they got. They also made some space for us to sleep.

There was one little window, but it was shut. We were suffocating. I later read about a torture method called “the sauna” – that’s what it was like in there. There was a sink and toilet. We undressed to keep just underwear on, wet our clothes and hair in a sink so as to not be affected by the heat. I lied down under the bed where three of us could sleep. Between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. we could hear how the men were taken from their cell to give statements. We could hear how their last names were called, they took out three at a time, all while systematically being beaten. They were asked about their jobs. I guess they had a system in order to decide who would be released first and who would be detained for longer. The girl who had been severely beaten was marked with red paint. A few girls never came back to the cell. I hope they were released. I guess it was already the morning of 13 August. 

The shift changed, and there was one woman who gave us toilet paper and garbage bags. We asked her to not shut the door in hope for some fresh air to breathe. There was a moment when we could step outside the cell to get some air. One girl who had been very badly beaten and thus couldn’t walk was carried outside on a blanket for some minutes to breathe, and then taken back. No one called an ambulance.

We were regularly questioned. Some of the investigators were quite neutral and told us not to worry, and that everyone would be released soon. Close to 4 p.m. three of us were called out. Then we had to wait quite a while when they were trying to find some of the guys. They mixed up our patronyms and last names. I asked them to look for my belongings – the keys to our apartment were there. Of course, we didn’t get anything back. Some people are still trying to get their stuff back.    

We were given some papers to sign. Before being released I had been forced to sign papers with a warning that if I would be detained by the police once more in an attempt to organize or take part in an unsanctioned meeting or demonstration I would face legal charges.

It was about 6 p.m. on 13 August when we were released. On our way out we passed by the courtyard and they told us to line up. Three girls and around 10 guys were called up. Others had to step back and get undressed – trousers and underwear down to the knees. They got beaten. Then they told us to get dressed, and run towards the exit gate where there were already at least 100 people. We were still guarded by riot police who were beating randomly picked people in the crowd. Humiliating, threatening, asking whether they would protest again, whether we had a bad life before and so on. We were released in groups of six people. At that point we didn’t realize that we would be out soon – we thought it was just a transit to another torture chamber. They screamed at us to run towards the park. Many were disoriented and took off in different directions. When I got out, I looked around to see whether my husband was there. The only thing I heard was, “Go over there, there is water and tea”. I went up to one of the volunteers and asked about my husband. “It was impossible to get all the names today, as most of those released ran away as soon as they were out. When volunteers, most of whom were guys, tried to approach them, they just ran away”.

I had a good sense of the situation. “Where should I go, I don’t have my keys”. I remember two phone numbers by heart – my husband’s and my father’s. I borrowed a phone and called my husband. His number was out of coverage – it made me realize that he might be still detained. Then I called my dad. I didn’t want to scare him, so I asked how he was, what he was doing. He knew that I had been missing.

A taxi arrived, and I went to my parents-in-law. They had an extra set of keys. When I got there, they started asking about Ivan, my husband – at that point I was 100% sure that he was still arrested – they became hysterical, I had to calm them down. I tried to eat something, Just a few spoons and then you realize that you can’t. I took a nap, woke up a few hours later and continued searching for my husband. Friends called and asked whether they could help. One of them took me to a lawyer so that I could sign an official inquiry. Then I came back home, found an old phone and went to a store to restore my SIM-card. A female friend of mine came over, as I realized that if I stayed alone for longer, I would have gone mad.

Lists of those released from the Akrestina Detention Centre – half of them were taken by ambulance to the ER – were released. It was the longest night ever. I was too scared to call the hospitals. Then I saw a message that someone undefined had been taken to ER. When I called them, they told me I should call the police. The police told me to search in the lists. We then realized that the authorities had made an announcement that everyone would be released. It was our only hope. I was also sure that he was in Akrestina, not in Zhodzina prison. While still in the detention centre I heard from the arrested that those detained on 9th and 10th had been taken to Zhodzina and those on 11th and 12th only to Akrestina as other prisons were full.

While I was detained I got the feeling that the police themselves were shocked by everything that was happening and by what the OMON was doing. Shocked, as in the end it would be the police who would have to take care of what the OMON had done.

At about 2 a.m. I wrote to my mother-in-law asking her to go to Akrestina and wait for my husband there. I was afraid to move around in the city. I am thankful to my female friend who was trying to distract me, but half of the time I was hysterically crying anyway. At about 5:30 a.m. my mother-in-law called, and I heard my husband’s voice. He asked about me, our cat and that something needs to be done to save many people who were suffering. Then his mum took the phone and said that his blood pressure was over 200 and that he was in shock. And then his mum burst into tears – she couldn’t hold it together any longer. She said that he had been running around, saying that many people needed help and that we had to do something. I realized that I had to be strong. I took a taxi there. My husband was in a state of shock. They had been divided into two groups; one was released and the other taken to another cell to be beaten and thus more likely to be killed. We had to hug his mother in order to calm her down.

We came home. Later we had to call my husband an ambulance again, due to his high blood pressure. He was prescribed some pills. On the first day we were too afraid to step outside our apartment. The next day our friends took us outside of the city. While we were sitting in a cafe we suddenly saw people running by and got so scared. In the evening we went outside the city again. Someone began to fire fireworks, and we started running away as we thought it was grenades at first.

My husband didn’t have any court hearings, he had been kept in there for 72 hours – just like that. When we went to Akrestina to collect our belongings I started to panic. I have a very clear memory of that courtyard and I don’t think I will ever be able to step inside there again. We might need to ask our lawyer to collect our belongings. 

I learned many things about myself. I can’t change what I have done or how I’ve reacted. In many situations humour helped. By the time I was released, there had been very few businesses on strike. So for the first 12 hours when I was unable to read any news, I thought that everything had been for nothing. But on the night when my friend came over and started updating me, that was the moment when I felt hope. Then came my next concern. If this all really was for something, if we’re able to overcome our fears, if we become able to object, I don’t want my country to be taken away from us. It’s a new fear. That all the people who died, suffered and were injured, would be for someone else instead of the current president popping up to give our country away to either Russia or the European Union. Everyone who was released from Akrestina had to sign a paper that warned of legal charges, and risking their lives twice would be very silly. How would it help those detained there? I post about this on social media and sometimes get very disappointing reactions. 

I hope that once everything is over we’ll be able to choose our own path and implement reforms, with no particular interference from outside. We are friendly towards other countries. 

The story was originally told in Russian to Nadia C. and translated by Marina K.