“If you keep staring, we’ll make you eat the glass”

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 21-year-old Elizaveta from Minsk and her encounter with the Belarusian police force.

Anti-government protests in Belarus (Elizaveta is not on the photo). Photo: Artem Podrez/Pexels

On 10 August, my friends and I drove to the city centre in order to support the protesters. It was indeed a peaceful protest. People were standing with flags and chanting “Zhivye Belarus” (”Long Live Belarus!”). Nobody was throwing Molotov cocktails or anything similar. As we drove, we saw that most of the downtown roads were closed by traffic police so we had to choose other routes to return home. We decided to stop by a convenience store on the way home. It was around 2 a.m. when we got there and parked the car.

All of a sudden, three avtozaks stopped next to us. The riot police rushed out and started to shout at us using curse words, humiliating us by screaming “get out of the car, pigs”. We stayed inside the car, shocked and paralyzed. We didn’t know what was going on because we hadn’t done anything bad, we had just driven around the city. Ten to fifteen seconds later the riot police officers were standing in front of the four car windows. They started to break them with feet and truncheons, while we were all still sitting inside.

The girl who was sitting to my left on the back seat had her face cut all over with small pieces of broken glass and my boyfriend’s face was bleeding from deep cuts as well, while he was in the front seat. The policemen were behaving just like the OMON and were all wearing balaclavas so I could only guess that they were from the traffic police, though I’m unable to prove this. They started by taking the guys out of the car, they took one guy’s head and started to hit it against the broken car window. The two other guys lay on the ground and were beaten. My boyfriend told them that his head was injured and bleeding; they advised him to calm down and beat him with truncheons several times. It was so scary. They didn’t hurt the girls, they simply told us to stay inside the car and remain seated. Small pieces of glass were everywhere: in my hair, on clothes and even inside my pants so basically we were sitting on the glass. They were yelling curse words and ordered us to keep our heads down. They were threatening us by saying, “if you keep staring, we’ll make you eat the glass”.

The car with broken windows. Photo: private

Afterwards, they put me and the other girl in their car, the two guys were taken away in another car and our driver was put in a third police car. Our car was taken to some place we didn’t know. Later we found it at an impound, but the car keys were missing, along with 50 euros. When the driver complained about it, they replied, “Say thank you that the car wasn’t damaged completely”. They later transferred us to an avtozak and made us switch our phones off. They simply broke the guys’ phones into pieces by throwing them against the tarmac. They didn’t check the information on our phones.

We were in Kamennaya Gorka, a city district in Minsk, and we saw around 300 so-called “cosmonauts”, as we call equipped OMON with shields. There were also other OMON officers who were going inside the yards, taking random people who were simply sitting on benches or walking their dogs. They arrested everyone they saw. There was a man in our avtozak who seemed to be the classic drunk who drinks by the convenience store every other night, who was covered in blood and asked for an ambulance. The OMON laughed at him and said, “Say thank you that we didn’t kill you”. It was that bad.

Later the police came back and took us back inside their car. We heard they were given another car’s plate number over the walkie-talkie, which meant that they were going after cars that were in the city centre. They started following a car; it was a grey Peugeot as far as I remember. While trying to stop that car, the policemen drove at 160-170 km/hour, on the wrong side of the road, on sidewalks, and so on… The driver of the grey Peugeot lost control of their car and drove into a ditch behind the ring road. The driver went out and ran into the field; the police caught up with him, beat him badly with truncheons and dragged him back because he couldn’t even walk. I saw that there was another man in that car who had managed to get out. He was lying unconscious next to the car and could barely breathe. Six policemen ran towards him and started to beat him with truncheons, kick him in the stomach repeatedly and one policeman hit him on the head. We were sitting in the police car with tears in our eyes. We couldn’t do anything.

The victims were only able to take 1-2 breaths per 30 seconds – that’s how heavily they were beaten. Only when the police realized that they were almost unable to breathe did they call for an ambulance. Then militia officers drove us back to Kamennaya Gorka and asked for further instructions over the walkie-talkie. They were told that the local RUVD was overcrowded and they didn’t know what to do next. So they had to let us go, but before releasing us they took our addresses and full names, and threatened us by saying that if they saw us anywhere, “we’ll be finished”. They also told us that we had to stay at home for one week and not go outside.

When we got home, we still didn’t know what had happened to our male friends. We tried to find them in the lists of people who were detained. There was no information at all. I know one road traffic policeman and he told me that the OMON was bringing people to the forest, beating them horribly and leaving them there, because there was no more room in the RUVD. It was like some sort of entertainment for them. So we were very much worried about what had happened to our friends. We couldn’t even eat during those days. We only knew that we were lucky that the policemen let us go.

When we found out that they were in Zhodzina prison, we went there and basically spent the next two days outside its walls. There were a lot of volunteers and I’m so grateful for them. When my boyfriend was released, he told me terrifying stories of people who were raped with truncheons, both men and women. Many women who visited the gynecologist afterwards turned out to have ruptured cervixes, as a result of the rape.

My boyfriend had been beaten harshly. He also told me that one female lieutenant enjoyed beating the genitals on men.

I’m in a huge stress over what has happened and have problems with my sleep. I cannot even imagine what I would have felt if I had been taken to jail together with them. I’ve cried my eyes out and right now I’m scared to go to work. I haven’t been to work for a week now, because I’m afraid to go outside. Even if there is no visible violence in the streets and the protests are peaceful, after midnight I can see weird men in masks walking outside and looking around, checking who has white-red-white flag on their windows. They keep monitoring  and can catch you at any unexpected moment. And I don’t know what to do now, because none of my friends have been to work since that day, not me, not my boyfriend, nobody. We are simply afraid to go outside. And it is indeed very scary. I’m afraid that they will break into my apartment, because there were cases when ordinary people have helped protesters by allowing them to enter their apartment, but it didn’t help – they would break into people’s homes and arrest everyone, at one point even a 16-year-old.

MB: Have you ever participated in any political activities in the past?

Frankly speaking, never. I’ve never been interested in politics. I would talk and discuss with friends, but I never participated in any activities. My boyfriend has an interest in politics and is quite informed. On 19 June my boyfriend and I took part in a chain of solidarity for the first time. We stood in a chain and clapped. That is when it all started. OMON men came and beat the people who were standing and forced them to run away. At that moment I realized what was going on and what was happening in the country. Even an apolitical person could see it. Whether you want it or not, you have to go out and say what you think, there is no other way. If you keep quiet, nothing is going to change.

MB: What do you think about the future of your country?

To be honest, I think that Aliaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka] will hold on to his power for as long as he can. The OMON and the police will continue to perform cruelty. I know that nothing will change if people stop going out. Everyone is hoping for the best and only thanks to the factories that are on strike at the moment things have started to change. We see that the workers are supporting us. Hopefully, they can change the situation in the country. I hope for it in the near future.

MB: What do you think the West can do to help change the situation in the country?

The EU has done a lot already by sending money to funds for victims of the protests. We were able to fix our car with that money. Right now, the EU rejects Belarus’ voting results, but they need to impose sanctions as soon as possible. Lukashenka always says that the EU is not worth anything and cannot do anything, so right now is the time to show him that it  isn’t true because we live in one world, one planet and everyone can be affected.

The story was originally told in Russian to Margareta Barabash and translated by Maryana Smith.