Nasta Zakharevich was arrested twice between August and December 2020. She spent seven days in jail in September and 15 in November.
Charged with “participating in an unauthorised mass event” and “failing to cooperate with the police”, the authorities in Belarus kept her whereabouts hidden from family for 48 hours after her arrest.
Taken to the infamous Okrestina detention centre in Minsk, she was then transported to another facility in a town called Zhodino, just outside of the capital.
“They kept a bright light on for 24 hours, and they played the radio very loudly all of the time… sometimes they played music with lyrics like ‘I love Lukashenko’. Women usually get their period after being detained, because of the stress, but they didn’t give us any sanitary products.”
“The guards would joke with you one minute, and then the next they would scream in your face. They were trying to break us down. They beat the men very badly.”
On her second release from prison she decided it was time to leave the country. She hid at the house of a friend for ten days before driving to the border with Latvia.
“I am sure I would've been arrested again. The police and tax authorities called my mum, and the tax authorities sent some threatening letters, completely out of the blue. Also, the police came to the apartment I had been renting for four years before I left the country.”
From the border she went with friends to a small house by the coast near Riga. She describes this as a "rehabilitation centre", somewhere to relax after the turmoil of Minsk while documents were being processed.
In August of 2020, Belarusian dictator Aleksander Lukashenko received 80 percent of the vote in an election that was marred by allegations of widespread fraud. The result was rejected by the opposition, as well as numerous countries, including the European Union which imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials. As protesters took to the streets, military and special forces were called onto the streets of Minsk and thousands of people were arrested, beaten and tortured. People were pulled off the streets and transported to detention centres that would become notorious for their inhumanity.
Since then, Lukashenko has only tightened his grip on power, targeting the opposition at home and abroad. On the 3rd of August Vitaliy Shishov, a Kiev based activist for an organisation that helped Belarusians leave their country, was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Opposition groups in Belarus believe that the Lukashenko regime is behind the killing; a suspected warning to activists beyond the border that they are not safe, even in exile.
Viasna, a Belarussian human rights NGO, reports that there are currently 704 political prisoners in Belarus. Many who spoke out against the regime have decided to seek asylum abroad. They take with them their long held hopes of a brighter future, and the trauma of the violence that they have experienced. They leave behind friends, family and the country where they have spent their entire lives.
Harangued by the state for taking part in protest, and treated harshly in prison, Zakharevich made it to the seeming sanctuary of a neighbouring country. Nonetheless, while she is safe from Lukashenko’s police, life beyond the border presents its own challenges. Rather than a one time event that ends with the crossing of a state border, asylum is a continuous process, laden with uncertainty, that demands constant adjustment to ever changing circumstances.
From the small house, she was admitted to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Riga. She stayed there for eight months before moving to a flat in the city itself.
Zakharevich’s experience at the refugee camp was particularly challenging. A victim of attempted rape by another refugee, she struggled to get the Latvian police to take her complaint seriously.
“The police reacted in the typical ‘Soviet’ manner. Their first question was ‘why didn’t you leave the place where people were drinking alcohol?’ and all communication was in this manner. I didn’t have any marks on my body because I reacted quickly and effectively so I thought the police might speak to my psychologist to assess whether I was telling the truth, but they weren’t interested. They didn’t even start the criminal case.”
“When I asked if they were going to ask the same question to the men who were there, the officer said that she didn’t understand what was wrong with her question which was asked ‘according to the role of the people in the situation’.”
“[The perpetrator] is still living at the camp. I later heard him boasting to other men about how he was touching me at the party. He is a middle aged man, with a wife and children at home in Minsk.”
Despite her harrowing experiences, Zakharevich is plagued by guilt. “Most of my colleagues are either in jail or abroad. I feel guilty and ashamed about those who were arrested after I left the country. It isn’t logical, but I feel like if I had stayed they would still be free.”
Zakharevich has escaped the grip of Lukashenko’s oppressive authoritarian government, but like many others, her life has been turned upside down, and she has been forced to start anew.
Yuliya Lysakouskaya was a nursery teacher when the elections came about. She had harboured hopes that democracy might finally come to her country.
“They came to the nursery and asked that we sign a form supporting the candidature of Lukashenko for the presidency,” she says. “I couldn’t sign.”
“I saw things the likes of which I never thought I would. People were being beaten everywhere. They had huge water cannons and there were explosions everywhere from the flash grenades. The people that were supposed to protect us were attacking us.”
At the end of May 2021, the government made it more difficult to travel, and that’s when Lysakouskaya knew she had to leave. She bought a flight from Minsk to Warsaw. “They changed the rules for leaving the country and I knew that I had to get out before they made it even harder”. She arranged to stay on a Polish farm near Gdansk in exchange for her labour, using a work-finding application. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I only heard from them one week before. I got to Warsaw and I was very stressed.”
Lysakouskaya has struggled emotionally. After leaving the farm, she headed to Krakow and worked in an English language school. “They asked me to pretend I was Australian, because the students want teachers who are native speakers. One woman at the language school started telling me about Belarus… I had to feign surprise. It sounds silly but it made me feel so alone. I have had moments in which I felt so incredibly low.”
At first Lysakouskaya was hopeful that her situation was temporary but has had to come to terms with the possibility that she won’t be returning home anytime soon. “I stopped thinking ‘it will change in a month’. When I first came to Poland in December I was sure that I would be able to return in three months maximum. When this didn’t happen it was an extremely painful disappointment. I am afraid I just won’t be able to cope with such feelings again so I don’t think in terms of time anymore. We say, ‘do what you have to do and it will be how it will be’.”
“When I first realised that I may never be able to return to Belarus, I felt a lot of pain. It was a unique feeling, like none that I have ever had before,” says Lysakouskaya.
“I was so resentful that my dreams for my future had been stolen from me,” she says, “That this man took away so many people’s lives”.
Lysakouskaya’s story is just one of many.
Demonstrators stand in front of riot police during a protest after polls closed in Belarus' presidential election, in Minsk on the 9th of August 2020. Photo: Sergei GAPON / AFP
On the 11th of August 2020, Kiril – who gave only his first name to VICE World News as he feared appearing in the media would prejudice his asylum application – was arrested at gunpoint whilst walking home from a shopping centre in central Minsk. He was forced into an “avtozak” police van – a notorious massive lorry for transporting prisoners – where the balaclava wearing OMON paramilitary police treated him with utter brutality.
He and his fellow passengers were beaten mercilessly and accused of working at the behest of foreign political forces. “How much are they paying you?”, was a common refrain.
In the police van he was thrown onto a pile of people, around three deep. Those on the bottom of the pile struggled to breathe. Those on the top felt the full force of the OMON truncheons.
“We were like worms when they beat us” he says, “a woman begged for mercy and they threatened to rape her. The people on the bottom of the pile passed out for lack of oxygen.”
After his harrowing experience in jail, Kiril escaped to Poland. “I went to Grodno [on the Polish-Belarusian border]. I had to apply for a visa, but I wasn’t scared of being rearrested. At that time the situation was so unstable that the regime wasn’t interested in arresting people like me. In fact, they were probably happy that I was leaving. I wanted to get out before it was too late.”
Now living in Warsaw, Kiril is relatively lucky in terms of his immediate living situation. A software developer, he has been able to continue with his previous employment. He stays in a flat while he is waiting for the result of his asylum application. Nevertheless, the mental toll of being displaced is significant. “I know many guys who miss their friends and family so much. They go into despair because they miss them,” Kiril says.
Kiril has been in therapy, dealing with his experiences while living in a foreign country. “I had so much anger,” Kiril says, “I think if you are a man and you do not have this anger, do not express it, then maybe there is something wrong. You are suppressing it or something. I feel less angry now, but before I felt anger all the time.”
Zakharevich has also sought professional mental health treatment. “In the camp we get free psychological treatment, but most people, especially the men and boys don’t take it because of stereotypes. They want to cope with everything by themselves,” she says.
“I worked with a psychologist and she increased my dose of antidepressants. I was diagnosed with PTSD from my experience with law enforcement.”
With Lukashenko still in power in Minsk, it does not seem like there will be a change of government soon. “I am glad those that fled are afraid”, he boasted at a recent press conference.
But beyond fear a different emotion can be detected in the conversations of those abroad. Hope, anger, and the sense that they have started on an irreversible, irresistible path to a new beginning.
“I keep working and writing about the situation in Belarus,” says Zakharevich. “I don't have hope that it will change soon but I feel I don't have the right to stop. My colleagues are in jail, hundreds and maybe even thousands of people are in jail. We only know the list of those who were officially called political prisoners but if the person really did something aggressive he or she is usually not counted as a political prisoner. So in reality we don't even know the full list of people who are in jail because of the protests.
“I feel I can't stop because I can't just continue normal life knowing that they are there. I can't say ‘sorry guys, I am tired’.
“And me personally I can't forgive this government for the pain that it brought to my mother and the fact that I lost my normal life.
“I must continue to fight for a free Belarus.”