“If you see an ambulance driving by, be aware; it’s not real ambulance, it’s riot police,” a young man says under this breath. He smiles and disappears into a dark courtyard.
It’s evening on August 10 in central Minsk, the day after Belarus’s presidential vote. The city centre is full of protestors, most of whom are young adults. They aren’t ready to accept the official election results. They don’t believe that Alexander Lukashenko, who’s been running the country since 1994, really won 82 per cent of the vote.
In recent weeks, authorities jailed or forced his key contenders to flee abroad. The one remaining opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, around whom the opposition had rallied, left Belarus for Lithuania that very night, implying threats to her safety and that of her family.
Younger protesters seemed to be playing hide-and-seek with riot police. Some waved national flags. Others clapped their hands and chanted, “Time for you to go! Freedom! Long live Belarus!” Police chased them and they ran.
At around 9 pm on August 10 a large crowd of more than a thousand people gathered by the river at Prospekt Pobeditelei (or Victors’ Avenue). The police eventually dispersed the crowd, beating and detaining many over what was clearly a peaceful demonstration of the distrustful and discontented.
Usually when you walk the streets of central Minsk late at night, it seems like a very youthful city. Now, few people over 30 are out and about. Police apparently have license to hunt anyone who has the audacity to be outside.
Green vans drive slowly through the streets, the doors partly open. Armed officers peek out, choose their targets apparently at random, jump out, and give chase. If they catch the targets, they drag them into the van, arms twisted behind their back, head pushed down. If not, well, there is always another victim just round the corner.
When the vans slow down near us, my colleagues and I stare into the open doors. Luckily, we are older than the target age group, so they leave us be.
As we’re trying to take a short cut, a young man admonishes, “Not through this courtyard, it’s a dead-end. You’ll get caught.”
Police and protesters have this in common—they assume if you’re out, it’s to make a political statement. A young couple is trying to cross to the other side of the riot police. Officers in black uniforms stop them:
“Hey, we’re just getting home!”
“Why are you here?”
“Well, tell us how to get out of here safely!”
“Safely? What are you doing here then?”
Taxis aren’t running. Mobile internet is out. Restaurants close after 6 or 7 pm. Getting connected to WiFi isn’t an option. Stun grenades explode nearby. The sky lights up in flashes of piercing white. I walk for hours and do not see a single protester doing anything even remotely violent but see many getting detained. With no connectivity, I had no idea as to what was happening in other parts of this city of 2 million.
Well past midnight, I finally get online using a virtual private network (VPN) – the only way to access messenger services, key social media platforms, and some independent news sites (others seem to be blocked completely, VPN or not) and learned that protesters in several locations outside the city centre were tearing out blocks of the pavement and curbs. The police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. And also the very stun grenades I had seen in the city centre, fired at people who were merely hanging out shouting slogans and flashing victory signs.
The next morning, I go to the Pushkinskaya metro station, where the nearby clash the night before was reportedly the fiercest and at least one protester died from his injuries.
Pieces of pavement are smashed, apparently by protesters. Rubber bullet casings and tear gas canisters, still littered the ground about 200 to 400 metres from the metro station entrance. There are also some used casings from apparently blank cartridges. A young man who had been at the site the night before tells me the police were shooting blanks to scare the crowd.
At around 11 pm, when at Kamennaya Gorka on the city’s outskirts, I watch more groups of young protesters running around and riot police chasing them, beating the daylights out of whomever they caught. I shudder at the tell-tale sound of Kalashnikovs fired - three rounds in total - next to the metro station, reminiscent of a war zone. They were blanks, but these can still cause injuries if fired at close range.
Though the metro system is working, trains don’t stop in the city centre. Getting back home late at night means a long, long walk. Some cars – also banned from entering central Minsk – are honking non-stop, the drivers’ way of showing solidarity with protesters.
In one of the apartments facing the street, the windows are wide open and an eighties song is playing at top volume: “Our hearts are crying for change! Our eyes are crying for change!”
It’s song that opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya had played at her campaign rallies and its status a protest anthem was further reaffirmed after two DJs, against all odds, played it in Minsk at a governmental publicity event two days before the election, earning themselves a rough detention and 10 days under arrest.
“Change! What we want is change!” This song belongs to my teenage years in the Soviet Union of the mid-1980s. Hearing it now in the streets of Minsk is a throwback to those times of monumental change.