Will you be stomped on during arrest? No, it’s enough to simply stump you. You are sitting on a school porch, on a chair, with a folder in your hands – this is the maximum of rights that poll observers receive in Belarus during elections. You are counting people because the belief is that this is how you prevent ballot stuffing - it would be really obvious if the number of ballots is considerably higher than the number of people who came to vote. So, you sit and count. Or the accredited observer has already been arrested, and you, like Nastya B., took their place to count. And the police already received a call about you from the head or one of the members of the election commission.
Wave of calls
What are you accused of? There is no need for details. The accusation is just an excuse. Lena A. was an accredited observer. She simply tried to argue with the head of the election commission insisting that observers had the right to see how ballots were counted and how the final protocol was filled out. And now - a call.
A bus hits the brakes near the school gates and people in plainclothes come out, walking with deliberate, slow confidence.
- Elena Alexandrovna, we have a complaint about you, let's go, says one of them as he grabs her by the shoulder as if she was thinking of escaping.
At this moment the thought of running does flash across Lena’s mind. But she does not run. Why? She is an officially accredited observer. She spoke with the head of the commission, true, somewhat loudly, but in a polite manner. Why run?
Polina Z. does not run either. Polina and her mother come to the polling site to look at the final protocol (Belarusian law mandates that it must be made public in the polling station immediately after the vote count is finished). When a bus with riot police arrives and its officers start taking everyone they can, Polina does not think of running but starts filming the arrests on her phone thinking that this video might be somehow useful later for seeking justice. She does not run but continues to film while strong guys push her into the van. Polina’s mother, Zhanna L. comes up to the van and says: My daughter is in there, take me also.
She is immediately detained and thrown into the bus.
Of those who came to the polling stations to see the results of the election almost no one runs. They receive calls from the neighboring polling stations - “they are arresting everyone here, run”. But no, they don't run. Why run if they did not do anything illegal?
Only Tanya P. runs. When the elections are over and people begin to gather in the center of Minsk to protest against the falsification of the results, Tanya and her friend Hanna L. put a few bottles of water, hydrogen peroxide, some painkiller meds, bandages, and iodine in their backpacks. They go downtown hoping to help protesters who are wounded by rubber bullets, noise grenades or have their arms broken in a scuffle and are dragged on the pavement by law enforcement offices with such force that bloody abrasions appear on their skin. But Tanya and Hanna are not arrested for providing medical care without a license. They are not detained in the middle of a protest. They do not even make it to the protest. They are simply walking on the streets with their backpacks on, alone, with no protesters around. A red bus pulls up to the pavement. Riot police officers jump out and start snatching random passersby.
At this moment Tanya sees that the door of the nearest building is open. Someone she cannot make out in the darkness is holding it from the inside so there remains a small slit and calls out:
- Girls, run here, hide.
And Tanya runs. But the riot police officers catch up with her and knock her to the ground. Tanya bangs her head against the steps of the building where she tried to hide. The door slams shut.
Hanna somehow escapes police attention. Already outside the detention zone she comes back for her friend and says to the police: Leave her! What are you doing?
They grab Hanna too. As the riot police officers shove her into the van, she looks into their eyes for the first time. They seem glassy to her as if the entire squad is under the influence of a psychotropic substance of some kind, the one that inhibits mercy. Or such is the effect of the adrenaline that is secreted in the bodies of healthy and strong men when they start a big hunt. Or this glassy gleam is just Hanna’s dream. She is a musician by trade, a faint creature, plays the cymbals, a kind of a Belarusian harp that is played with sticks. She works in the Philharmonic and teaches in a music school. And now she is under arrest.
You can’t say that they only detain those who attempt to escape or argue or work as an election observer. Sometimes they detain people for no reason at all. Olesya S. did not argue, did not run, did not participate in the election being a Russian citizen. She was visiting Minsk with her boyfriend who is from Belarus. She went for a stroll in Minsk, came upon the riot police cordon that blocked the street and asked if they could walk through.
– Go on, said the riot police officer, and dragged Olesya and her boyfriend into the police van.
Katya K. and her husband were also simply on a walk. Hearing noise grenade explosions, they attempted to escape from the police through the courtyards. A dense cloud of tear gas already hung there, and police squads were combing through the area taking everyone. Katya and her husband were arrested and pushed into the van.
A series of humiliations
The bus is getting noisier. The riot police are screaming. The number of detainees is growing. To prevent possible resistance, the detainees must be demoralized. Therefore, they are demoralized: men are beaten and women are humiliated and screamed at.
- Where were you going, dimwits! Should have stayed at home and cooked borscht. My mother and sister are sitting at home, nothing is happening to them. And you? Were you paid? Sold out whores!
Tanya P. has a very short haircut, tattoos and knee pads on. The riot police officer screams at her: Are you even a broad? I think you are a dude!
And Hanna L. is afraid for her friend. It seems to her that in his adrenaline rush the officer really cannot tell a woman from a man. And if he decides that Tanya is a man, Tanya will be beaten. All men are beaten, preventatively. Olga Pavlova says that tall, handsome, and strong men are beaten with particular cruelty.
Women’s backpacks are searched. The search itself and the impromptu interrogation are recorded on video. The films will never appear in a single court. It’s simply a scare tactic.
- Name? Last name? What is this? What’s this for? What's in the bottle? A bomb? A Molotov cocktail?
An officer finds a white wristband in Nastya B’s backpack. Here it is, a proof of guilt, she was taken correctly. She has a phone, too.
- Unlock the photos, bitch!
There the officer finds photographs from peaceful protests and is completely convinced of his own righteousness. “Now you’ll know who to go to protests for, dumb ass”- the officer says.
The bus drives on.
Police buses vary. Some are classic police vans. They are divided into compartments that can hardly fit even one person, but women are put there in twos and men in fours or fives. Though Hanna L. says that in her van she heard one policeman tell the other: There are chicks in the sixth compartment, turn on their air conditioning.
For men, it appears, the air conditioning is never turned on. It’s August, the air is stuffy.
Nastya B. is in an ordinary bus, without compartments, with seats upholstered in cheap leather. One seat is broken. She hardly touches it as the policeman shouts at her: Bitch, you break it, I’ll break your arms!
In some buses riot police are sitting, and the detainees are standing. In others it is the opposite: the detainees sit on benches and on the floor, and the riot police, in all their armor and with batons, hover over them. The most important thing is to make sure that the detained and their captors are never in an equal position, never near each other, never have an opportunity to talk as equals.
However, some say that there once was a van, where the head of the squad was polite. He did not yell and allowed people to call home to warn their relatives. It was his subordinate who tried to scream at the detained, humiliate and beat them, but the officer quickly put him into his place and he fell silent.
At the same same time in a different bus Zhanna L. asks permission for a phone call and the riot police officer screams right in her face: No! Go to your America and call from there!
There are no general rules. The police are improvising. Sometimes it seems that they do not even know where to go with this van full of citizens snatched from the streets.
Chaos of orders
The radio in the van does not fall silent for a moment. The orders come as the raid goes on and often contradict each other. Sometimes the bus turns around and goes in the opposite direction.
The bus that carries Hanna L. and Tanya P. goes to the police station. People are placed in the gym. Tanya and Hanna’s medication is not taken away from them and they are allowed to take care of the wounded men. It goes on like this until men in black uniforms, without identification badges enter the gym and yell:
- Lie down! Face down on the floor! Do not look up!
- Everyone get up! Face to the wall! Get on your bones!
"On the bones" means to stand in the fetal posture using one’s elbow and knees for support. When men stand "on the bones", people in black uniforms beat them, kick them with their feet. Hanna says that their faces look like they are playing a fun game, like beach soccer.
Having let off steam a little, they leave, and the previous order is restored. The head of the police precinct says that Hanna resembles his daughter and stalls the prison transportation process for two days.
Zhanna L. and Polina Z., mother and daughter, are transferred from one bus to another right on the street. Olga Pavlova is also transferred from bus to bus, and the second bus takes her not to the police station, but to the prison directly – the TSIP (Center for the Isolation of the Offenders) on Okrestina Street.
In the police stations and the prison on Okrestina Street, people’s belongings are randomly taken, but in different ways. Some people are stripped naked, forced to squat to make sure they do not smuggle anything forbidden in their crotch while others are not searched at all. Nastya B.’s ring, that would not come off is ripped from her finger making it bleed. Lena A. manages to smuggle a sausage which would feed the entire cell for three first days full of absolute hunger. Shoelaces are taken from all but they missed a tube of tooth paste one of the girls had.
When the van arrives at the yard of the prison on Okrestina Street, guards armed with batons form two rows from the bus door to the prison door making a tunnel. All newly arrived prisoners are told to go through this corridor, along these rows.
- Run, bitches! Run, faster!
Those who run through this tunnel quickly are hit symbolically or not beaten at all. Those who walk slowly trying to preserve their dignity are beaten with full force.
Olga Pavlova walked through the tunnel without quickening a single step.