Sit here and watch.
A Minsk resident’s account of police brutality
A victim of the Belarussian riot police gives a detailed account of the violence he endured after participating in a protest over presidential election results.
August 14, 2020
The monologue below contains offensive language and graphic descriptions of violence. The author’s name has been withheld for reasons of his safety. Following our correspondent’s interview with the victim, one of his friends also published his story on Facebook.
On 10 August, a 26-year old Minsk resident was arrested by riot police during a protest and subjected to brutal police violence. This is his story. For security reasons we have chosen not to disclose his real name or the geographical details of his arrest. It has proven impossible to verify “Eugene’s” account in full, but The Project has evidenced the injuries he describes. Parts of his story have been corroborated by friends who took part in the protest with him.
On the evening of 10 August, my friends and I set out from one of Minsk’s central squares to where we thought we might be able to join a group of protesters. I was carrying a rucksack containing spray masks, face masks, gloves and paint. To our delight, we managed to find a group of about a hundred protesters and joined them in walking in the direction of a suburb. Along the way, the group constantly grew and by the time we reached our destination there were around 300 of us.
At the destination, we were joined by two blue police minibuses which had parked nearby. Protesters were simply standing around at this point, as it had been a very long walk and people were tired; nobody was shouting and nothing in particular was happening. We were given water to drink by staff at the nearest pizzeria, and sat down opposite the minibuses. Later, some people moved away from the minibuses, leaving a small group of about ten, including myself and three guys with whom I was discussing the situation — all decent, well-behaved men. At one point, a convoy of specialised vehicles went by, and it was when I counted six police vans that I started running, as I realised just how long the convoy was. Almaz troops then ran out of the minibuses (Almaz are Belarussian elite special forces – The Project).
Two of us ran behind a shop as the troops surrounded the district on three sides. In the shop’s parking lot, troops were already smashing up cars, lining up arrested protesters and making them kneel. We realised that we were surrounded and there was nowhere to run, so we jumped into the shop’s inner courtyard — a sort of box shape. The courtyard was on low-lying ground, with 5-7 metres of fencing and a locked gate. The Almaz troops saw us running in there, but could not immediately enter it themselves. We ran to the shop’s loading bay and spotted a canopy above a door that we could, in theory, climb to get over the fence. I asked my companion to help me up onto the canopy, intending to pull him up by his arm onto it too. He pushed me up and I climbed onto the canopy, but because it was all smooth metal and there was nothing to hold on to, I fell back onto the ground — meanwhile, the Almaz men had broken the lock on the gate and were running towards us. We understood that there was no chance of trying to jump onto the canopy again. There were loading staff standing by the shop’s back door — we pushed past them and ran into the shop, all the while being followed by Almaz troops armed with assault rifles. We ran through the shop, passing about twenty customers while still being followed. When we reached the main shop entrance, we had a glimmer of hope that we’d get out safely. But as I was coming out through the main shop entrance, I could see through the glass about twenty Almaz troops beating a group of about twenty arrested protesters kneeling on the ground outside.
In hindsight, I think I could have hidden in the rubbish bins, or run off somewhere. It is easy to think of ways out when you are calm, but when you are in that moment, you are but meek prey to hunters armed with specialist equipment and assault rifles, while all you have is a rucksack. Outside the shop there were some columns — I stood behind one of them, hidden on two sides out of four. The guy who was with me got arrested but I managed to stay hidden for another fifteen minutes or so. They searched the shop and looked everywhere for me. The shop’s glass doors were mostly covered up with adverts, leaving just one square uncovered in the bottom section of the door. I looked through that section and saw people kneeling and being beaten. I could be seen only from a certain height — you had to bend down to see me. There was one man being beaten, and because he was on his knees he could see me. Eventually, he fell to the ground from the blows. While this was happening, I was hoping they would leave me there — I would sit there for another hour or so and then escape through the warehouse section of the shop. But then a troop bent down to check something on the protester who was lying on the ground, and spotted me. Our eyes met, and with his hand he beckoned me to come over. I understood that I, too, would have the s*** kicked out of me.
All the customers were marched out of the shop and made to kneel. Just ordinary customers, with five Almaz troops towering over them. To my left there were people being beaten, and I ended up stranded between two rows of troops. I came out of the shop, still holding my rucksack full of paint — I did not think to get rid of the bag while I was running around, probably because right until the last moment I thought I might escape. As I came out, there were about twenty protesters lying on the ground. We were all thrown to the ground, and my bag was thrown into crowd so it was not clear whose it was. The troops walked closer and asked for the owner of the bag to identify himself. One of them opened it and saw that it contained masks, gloves and paint — and concluded that it must belong to a protest organiser. As soon as he asked who the bag belonged to, I thought: ”****, what will they do when they find out it’s mine?”, and I kept quiet. As there was no answer, the beatings intensified, and then I was pulled out along with another guy, both of us suspected of being the bag owner. The guy burst out crying, saying the rucksack was not his. They believed him and started hitting me as I kept my silence.
Three Almaz troops then shoved me into the shop, took out a hand grenade and told me they would pull the safety pin, put the grenade into my underpants and leave me with my hands tied behind my back. They said unless I admitted that the bag was mine, they would blow me up and later claim that I had used an improvised explosive device on myself. Still, I did not admit that the bag was mine. They then shoved a hand grenade into me and ran — but they had not removed the safety pin. When they came back, they started hitting me in the groin, beat me again and told me it was my rucksack. I carried the bag out in my mouth, holding it between my teeth. As they were leading us to the police vans, they beat us all, irrespective of what we were doing or how obedient our behaviour.
We were loaded into the van. Because I was carrying paint, I was nicknamed ‘the dauber’ and told that they would have special words with me. First, I was beaten inside the van. There were around twenty protesters squashed inside, one on top of another, and some of us ended up in a lying position. Those at the bottom were struggling for breath — one of the guys was an asthma sufferer and he complained that he could not breathe. A troop then put a foot onto his neck and said “Die then, we don’t give a ****”.
I was led out of the van. There was a girl there who was also carrying paint — the troops poured the paint onto the ground and pushed the girl’s face into it. Some girls who’d been arrested were only about 18 years old. They were not beaten as much as the men, and they were able to alert the troops if they saw anyone struggling for breath. When one girl did so, a troop came over and screamed: “Shut up, whore, why are you going to these protests?” She screamed when they shaved part of the hair off her head. The girls were repeatedly called ‘whores’, and told that they would be taken to a detention facility, placed in a cell with men who would rape them, and then thrown into the woods where they’d have to live with it for the rest of their lives. A lot of psychological pressure was used on the girls, while the guys were just beaten until they could not get up.
I did not have a phone or any documents on me, but those who did carry phones were forced to unlock them, and if they refused the phone would be smashed. One guy who refused to open his phone was stripped naked and threatened with baton rape. Once he had unlocked his phone, the troops looked through his various channel subscriptions. For some reason, they were seeking out non-Belarussians and beating them more violently than the locals. A few random foreign students were arrested at the shop, for example, and they were beaten worse than the rest of us. The troops also had a bizarre fixation: if they asked you where you were from and you said you were from Minsk, they would beat you and then tell you the correct answer was “Minsk, the Hero City”. Then they would beat you until you got the answer right. Everyone learned the correct answer pretty quickly.
Later we were taken to a different van. There were four troops already in the van: they placed each of us face down on the floor and beat us across the legs from both sides with their batons. At the end of the whole experience I had suspected fractures in my legs, as they were so severely damaged. It was difficult to walk, and I could not walk properly so instead I crawled while they continuously beat me across the legs. I was then taken to a van full of detained protesters that looked ready to depart. About twenty people were thrown one on top of another, and the troops just walked over people, stepping on them instead of the seats that were either side of the van. They would purposefully step on people’s throats and kick us with their legs. We were then driven to Stela (a district in Minsk — The Project): there must have been a transfer station at Stela where they would sort through the detainees. Upon being delivered there, we were led out of the van and into a corridor of about 40 members of riot police. As we walked past them, we were hit indiscriminately — it was impossible to lift your head but if you managed to lift it you would get hit even harder. We were then led into a ‘hundred’ bus (a city commuter bus used by police for the transportation of detainees — The Project) where we were beaten even more. I fell to the ground next to that bus, as my legs were hurting and my hands were tied together with plastic zip ties. The zip ties damage your hands and as soon as they were put on, my hands went numb. Complaining to the cops was out of the question because as soon as you complained they just did more of what you were rising up against. If you complained that your hands were hurting, they whacked you on the hands. They tried to remember who the bag of paints belonged to, but as everyone had previously been lying on top of one another in the van, everyone was smeared with paint. One troop then said: “Well, we’ll have to beat the s*** out of them all again then”.
I was picked up by my hands and feet, swung and thrown into the ‘hundred’ bus. I fell. I was told to crawl somewhere and I started crawling as best I could with my hands tied behind my back. Of course, when you crawled too slowly they beat you for it.
There are two types of baton: those made of rubber, and those with a metal rod inside. The latter type is issued only to officers, as they allegedly take more care using them and are unlikely to do much harm. I was lying in the bus, motionless, obeying all instructions. I understood that this was not the place to raise your head and protest, as you would just be killed. As I lay quietly in that pile of people, I was approached by an officer with one of those special batons, who proceeded to put his foot on me and whack me over the head with his metal-core stick. After the first few blows, my ears started ringing, my head felt like a bare vacuum and I could not feel much. After a while, he must have split my head open, though I did not feel it and did not realise it at first. He then simply left, and I ended up trapped underneath other detainees. As I was lying there, feeling the blows being inflicted on the people on top of me and struggling for breath, I wondered what was better — to be on top and be beaten, or be trapped at the bottom and suffocate.
We were removed from the bus and transferred into a police van, again via a corridor of 40 riot troops who beat us. Ten of us were squeezed into a van designed to carry up to three detainees. We were squished against one another, and I was also pressed against a wall. It was only when I saw that my head was leaving blood marks on the wall that I realised I had a head wound. As there were so many of us, there was a lack of air and I started to black out. Guys around me shouted out that someone with a split head had fainted and needed to be removed, but the troops said they “didn’t give a ****”. Sitting down was not an option, and eventually I slid down onto another detainee, with my shoulder pressed against his chest. He was struggling to breathe and, again, alerted the troops that someone had fainted onto him. I heard this through the haze, but could not move out of his way for the nausea, difficulty breathing and my smashed head. When we arrived at a detention facility in Okrestina, I simply fell out of the door and lost consciousness. Riot policemen dragged me away onto some grass and left me there. No-one dared to touch me anymore as I was covered in blood. They stood over me for a while and wondered if I was dead. Having concluded that I was still alive, they left.
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The detention facility
The others who had arrived with me were made to kneel and were beaten before being taken inside the facility. I was conscious and heard what was happening — mostly people screaming. As I lay on the grass, a medical worker walked over to me, checked that I was conscious but told the cops that I was unconscious. They did not touch me anymore — I lay in the courtyard of the detention facility for about an hour and heard hordes of people being delivered. As they arrived, some detainees were identified as ‘the organisers’ — not of the protests but of election monitoring. All activists and election monitors were marked with red paint and beaten separately, more severely. I believe they were also taken away to be tortured elsewhere. A medical worker came up to me and whispered that everything would be alright. My body started shaking and they thought I might be having a fit, and finally an ambulance arrived. Right until the end, the cops that stood nearby said I was just pretending, pushed me, and tore off my bracelet. The ambulance agreed to take me because of the crack in my head. It was a moment of joy — how lucky I was to have had my head smashed in, or else I would have had to stay in that torture house.
I was taken away by the doctors. They asked me what had happened and reassured me that everything would be fine. I was asked to remain quiet before leaving the facility, as they said that before I could leave there would be one final check by a police-based doctor, that he was a brute and there was a possibility that he would not allow me out. The cops asked me my name but I pretended to be unconscious, and there were no documents on me that could identify me. They eventually let me go as an unidentified individual. I begged the ambulance doctors to take me straight home, as I was afraid they would take me to a military hospital. The doctors reassured me that they would take me to a hospital that would not return me into the hands of the police. I was discharged from hospital the following morning and was able to return home.
Lying there in the detention facility was a frightening experience. The fear was that I would be made to stay there. It is nothing but a concentration camp, and if you stay there for any length of time you will come out with ravaged mental health. I have not yet been able to fully wrap my head around what happened to me that day — I guess that will take time. When I was being thrashed, the idea of emigrating kept popping into my mind, as I realised that I had no options in this country. I could easily have been killed and nobody would have been held responsible; it would never be possible to establish the truth of these events, and that was really frightening. It is easier to jump off the parapet and break a leg than be subjected to the harrowing torture that is being inflicted in Okrestina (a detention facility in Minsk — The Project).
Translated by Kate Vtorygina