ENTERTAINMENT

IAN BIRRELL joins protesters who risk savage beatings by the Belarusian secret police


Dimitri was standing in the street looking for an address on his phone when two men, whose faces were hidden in black balaclavas as they ran through startled shoppers, slammed him on the floor and then dragged him to a van with dark windows.

His nose was instantly broken in close combat. But it was to get worse when the 21-year-old student was pushed to the floor of the vehicle, his hands were cuffed with plastic cuffs, and he was brutally beaten for more than two hours as they drove through Minsk.

"I was shocked – it was a kidnapping," he told me as he was recovering from a cerebral haemorrhage in the hospital that he contracted three weeks ago during the terrible attack.

& # 39; My nose, my face, my legs were in such pain. I screamed – it was really awful. & # 39;

Dimitri, a 21-year-old student, was accused of organizing large anti-government protests by the Belarusian security services. Above: Law enforcement arrests a person at the Bright March for Women & # 39; s Solidarity opposition event

The thugs were members of the Belarusian security services. They accused Dimitri of organizing large anti-government protests that broke out after Europe's last dictator openly stole the presidential election in August.

At one point the unit commander brandished a baton and threatened to rape him if he didn't give up his phone security code. They threw water on his face when he passed out. They mocked him, saying he was gay and a drug addict.

This young man is still suffering from headaches and is afraid that he may have brain damage.

"These people are not people," he said. & # 39; You tortured me. I'm lucky that I can still talk to you. We see fascism in Belarus in the 21st century in the middle of Europe. & # 39;

Surely such state sponsored savagery is disgusting. Dimitri is one of the thousands of people in this former Soviet republic who were arbitrarily arrested and beaten in the last eight weeks when Alexander Lukashenko, whose ruler has stagnated for 26 years, held onto power.

Many have suffered grotesque physical and mental injuries while at least three people have been killed under tear gas and rubber bullets.

Eerie gangs of masked militiamen roam the streets, reaching for suspects, as I have seen myself several times.

So is this the final position for the autocratic ruler of a country that feels like a strange remnant of the Soviet Union – or could popular power really oust this ruthless ruler who put down the brief prime of his freedom after the fall of communism?

"People have stopped being afraid and feel free," said Sergei Dylevsky, one of the protest leaders, when we spoke after his release from 25 days in prison. "This is a popular revolution because they have decided to stand up for their rights."

This burly punk rock fan became famous after an angry strike at his tractor factory when he saw Lukashenko's thugs inflicting workers who joined protests. "I have a son who is three years old and I don't want him to live in fear," he told me.

The demonstrations broke out after Lukashenko defied reality, claiming he won 80 percent of the presidential elections.

Independent observers said Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main rival who entered the race after her husband was jailed, won by a notable margin, despite the government saying she received less than one vote in ten.

Demonstrations broke out after Alexander Lukashenko defied reality, claiming that he had won 80% of the presidential elections. Above: Police officers arrest a woman during a protest in Minsk

Demonstrations broke out after Alexander Lukashenko defied reality and claimed he won 80% of the presidential elections. Above: Police officers arrest a woman during a protest in Minsk

When angry citizens flocked to the streets, the security forces responded with extreme violence and torture.

"That was something new because it was massive and systemic," said Valiantsin Stefanovic, vice chairman of Viasna, a human rights organization. "It was politically inspired to punish people who took part in anti-government protests."

I spoke to Valeryja, a young woman who was traumatized by her terrible experiences. “I grew up believing that the police were saints, but I saw them beating people on the street. It changed the way I see the world, ”she said.

The 20-year-old was helping victims when she was taken to a prison where she saw naked men beaten on their knees and the floor swimming in blood. She was thrown into a tiny cell with 50 other women.

"Not everyone could sit down at the same time," she said.

Valeryja was detained without food for four days. The women were beaten regularly and one journalist was so badly injured that she was hospitalized for three weeks.

A cellmate's body was injured after being pulled through broken glass.

On the third day, the guards began selecting groups to interview. "The first said they were moved to another cell, stripped naked in front of four men, and then asked to either sign their protocols or they would be raped."

The brave women refused and were returned to their cells.

Even some of the security forces were appalled. "I am ashamed to wear a policeman's shoulder straps," said Colonel Jury Makhnach, a 23-year veteran who quit after seeing friends who were "bruised from neck to lower limbs."

This failed, however, as such tactics only sparked further protests and every subsequent weekend a significant number of people marched with impressive determination.

During ten undercover days in the country, I observed five marches. I had to immerse myself in bars or restaurants three times to avoid the clashes, once just a few feet from the dreaded militia I was watching, then stormed into the pizzeria next door and threw an unhappy man on the floor before taking him out .

Thousands of people in this former Soviet republic have been arbitrarily arrested and beaten in the past eight weeks while Alexander Lukashenko (above) held onto power

Thousands of people in this former Soviet republic have been arbitrarily arrested and beaten in the past eight weeks while Alexander Lukashenko (above) held on to power

Yet every march was cheerful and peaceful as people sang, clapped, drummed, played music and waved the red and white flag from their nation's brief period of independence instead of the official green and red from Soviet days.

The first protest I saw was for women, many of whom were walking in the sun in summer dresses as they were told to look "shiny".

Cars honked in support as they drove past, then 50 bikers drove with waving flags, one stopped to kiss a protester.

"I go every march I see," said Dasha, 23, a part-time modeling teacher. "I want freedom in Belarus, I want an honest government and I don't want my friends to die."

It felt festive. But as they drove past a shopping mall, ten delivery vans and autozaks – trucks used to transport inmates – stopped. Then security forces stormed out and arrested protesters. I saw some fleeing, but 430 people were arrested that day.

Among them was Angelina Akunevich, 26, whose picture became a social media meme after a photographer captured the symbolic contrast between a fashionable woman in sunglasses, a dress, and mint green heels with stout men in kettle suits and balaclavas who pulled them away. I met the cashier at her home after she was released, where she laughed at the incident.

"I'm never scared because I never see other women scared," she said. "I want my country to be free from violence and reforms of the responsible bureaucratic machine."

This is, in many ways, a revolt led by brave women against a male despot in their mid-60s who desperately clings to the past despite several key female figures leading the struggle for justice imprisoned or exiled abroad.

Each protest had its own character. About 100,000 people came out the next day, with applause for those who went onto balconies to wave red and white flags as the march snaked through the streets.

"Look at the windows, not the TV," the crowd sang below.

A man suddenly called out an appeal next to me: “Are there prostitutes here? Are there drug addicts here? Are there parasites here? & # 39;

And each time the crowd roared back, "Yes!" This was her sarcastic response to Lukashenko's claim that only such guys take part in protests.

An elderly woman started crying when they passed. Another who cheered her on told me she was a 72-year-old kindergarten teacher who was gassed in an early demonstration. "Look at the kids – they're not the aggressive ones," she said.

When angry citizens flocked to the street (above, a woman at an opposition rally to protest the results of the presidential election), the security forces responded with extreme violence and torture

When angry citizens flocked to the street (above, a woman at an opposition rally to protest the results of the presidential election), the security forces responded with extreme violence and torture

The movement's unlikely pin-up is a tiny great-grandmother named Nina Bahinskaya, who first joined protests for democracy in Soviet days. Videos of the 73-year-old activist defying, kicking and ticking the police have gone viral.

Bahinskaya, a former geologist, has been fined so many times that the state has cut her state pension in half to just £ 60 a month, but she remains adamant.

"We don't want to be slaves," she said. "Everyone must be free to express their views and live their lives."

Although she told me that life among the communists was "quieter" because they did not abuse power so obviously, she is fighting to overthrow the traces of the Soviet era with Lenin statues in town squares and streets named after Russian figures.

"What does Lenin have to do with our culture in this country?" she asked after showing me the old sewing machine in her apartment that she uses to produce flags. "The Soviet Union will only end when power here belongs to the people."

The security forces are trying various tactics to thwart the protests: preventing people from entering the center of Minsk, blowing up warnings from loudspeakers, blocking streets.

Each march ends with summaries – at least 1,500 people were arrested during my ten days in the country. But large amounts are still pouring out, and not just in Minsk.

In the meantime, women are ripping off the masks of militiamen so they can be identified, and hackers from the country's thriving IT sector have put 1,000 officers' personal details online.

Ten days ago I saw batons and water cannons being fired at crowds after Lukashenko's secret inauguration.

It worked as they fled to a mall and the surrounding streets, but the protesters, many of whom wore paper crowns to make fun of their ruler, simply fanned out over the city, around the streets until the wee hours of the morning to block.

During last Sunday's march, I came across Ales Michalevic, a dissident who dared to stand against Lukashenko in 2010 only to be arrested and tortured by KGB agents.

"We are sure that we will win," he said. “Fewer police officers are willing to hit people. I hope there are only months before he resigns. & # 39;

Michalevic told me he had been hoping for such a popular uprising for a decade. “I'm glad we have it now. It's very emotional for me. & # 39;

However, there are two key questions in this struggle to overthrow the former factory boss who became a dictator and whose election was not recognized by Western nations.

Last week the UK and Canada imposed sanctions on the president, his son and six officials.

The first is whether the determination, energy and optimism of these protesters can survive the long Belarusian winter, especially as the regime imprisons and exile more opposition leaders.

Each march ends with summaries - there have been at least 1,500 arrests during my ten days in the country. But large amounts are still pouring out, and not just in Minsk. Pictured: Dacha, a protester

Each march ends with summaries – there have been at least 1,500 arrests during my ten days in the country. But large amounts are still pouring out, and not just in Minsk. Pictured: Dacha, a protester

The second is whether neighboring Russia would accept regime change if such demonstrations of power implicitly question Vladimir Putin's own style of rule.

This is not like Ukraine, where Moscow tore up divisions with sympathetic citizens in a divided country. But Lukashenko now depends on Russian support, even though he may be too weak to achieve the closer union Putin wants.

Even one loyalist I saw walking around Minsk with the official flag on his shoulders – a furniture maker who insisted Lukashenko win the election – was firmly convinced that he did not want closer ties with Russia.

Analysts believe Putin doesn't want another conflict, especially if his economy is exposed to a pandemic-triggered downturn.

However, a diplomat in Minsk threateningly told me that they believed the Russian leader would never tolerate real democracy here.

Whatever happens, every person I spoke to in Belarus said their country has already changed for the better. They think they have already won a victory.

"Nobody expected that and it is amazing to see that our society has changed," said Stefanovic, the experienced human rights activist.

Then he added the words I heard over and over again during ten extraordinary and rather moving days in Belarus: "People have lost their fear."

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