Kiev, Ukraine (NCS) — Sergei stood on a small sheet of ice within the Dnieper River and breathed within the icy air arduous. He had escaped, however that reduction was overwhelmed by each the ache of leaving his homeland and the worry he may not survive the remainder of his perilous journey.
His was a very exceptional run to freedom. He crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and was not capable of stroll by way of the forest and throughout sheet ice, like many earlier than him had accomplished. In a rush, and surrounded by melting ice, Sergei placed on a wetsuit and flippers he had purchased — and swam.
In a video he filmed on his telephone half-way by way of his two-hour journey, on New Year’s Eve, he recorded a part of his escape, which concerned not solely swimming in freezing temperatures and by way of dense reed, however stumbling over sheet ice and crawling by way of thick sludge. Such was his desperation to depart.
“My socks are freezing right to the ice. I will try to crawl there and hope that I will not freeze,” he mentioned at one level in his video.
“I’m navigating by the stars,” he mentioned, audibly chilly. “The feeling is indescribable, and I am all alone here.”
Sergei — who requested NCS to not reveal some particulars of his story and his actual identification — has now claimed asylum out of the country, and he wanted to share his story with NCS in order that the relations he left behind would possibly in the future learn what had occurred to him.
“I left my country, my friends and family, with the bitterness of defeat,” he mentioned. “I simply became a refugee and had to start again, as if all I had achieved for years was suddenly nothing. To this day, I am mentally exhausted, and sleepless worrying about those left behind.”
NCS has spoken to a number of different Belarusians who’ve fled the repression of Lukashenko’s regime, illegally throughout the border into Ukraine, as a part of a two-month investigation into the crackdown contained in the nation. In dozens of interviews, protesters and opposition activists have spoken of torture — from systematic beatings, to rape with a police baton.
Defectors from the police drive have additionally provided NCS with movies from the police’s personal archives — bodycam, dashcam and surveillance footage — that show the extraordinary ferocity of riot police in opposition to protesters who’re unarmed and peaceable, lots of them youngsters.
The Lukashenko regime has, activists say, barely softened its techniques previously weeks, as worry has gripped the opposition motion. Yet there are issues amongst activists the crackdown will intensify once more forward of a nationwide name to the streets on March 25.
The destiny of the Belarusian protest motion has gained better significance previously months as anti-government protests unfold inside neighboring Russia in opposition to the tried homicide and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny.
Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly moved to assist Lukashenko in August with a $1.5 billion mortgage and different unspecified help. The Belarusian protests, nonetheless, have continued. Analysts say the Kremlin is worried each by a persistent protest motion for democracy on its doorstep, and the influence of unprecedented ranges of police violence on how a youthful technology of Belarusians view Moscow.
After being offered with a abstract of NCS’s findings, a State Department spokesperson mentioned the US “strongly condemns the months-long post-election brutality carried out by the Lukashenka regime against peaceful protesters.” The assertion added there were over 500 documented instances of extreme abuse, 290 political prisoners and “a number of individuals still reported missing.”
“These violent actions have destroyed the Belarusian authorities’ legitimacy among their own people and the international community,” they mentioned, demanding the “immediate release of political prisoners and all those unjustly detained, and … for those responsible for severe abuses to be held to account.”
‘He lower my underwear utilizing this knife’
The police dashcam footage begins with a police automobile following a white SUV filled with protesters. It is September 13, 2020, and the automobile is carrying activists away from an illustration in central Minsk. The automobile pulls over, and then the devastating police onslaught begins.
The footage exhibits batons hitting the automobile’s home windows. A police officer fires a dwell spherical into the automobile. The protesters are yanked out violently, and compelled to lie face down on the bottom. Two males within the group are bleeding, one closely, and one other from his cheek after the aspect of his face is floor into the asphalt. The detainees lie immobile. Sometimes their heads are pulled again and they state their names.
A police physique cam exhibits an officer busy treating a small lower on his hand from the glass. The closely bleeding protester is finally given a bandage for his head.
The scene — in video given solely to NCS by BYPOL, an opposition activist group of former Belarusian police officers who’ve defected — is one among dozens they have launched that element police ferocity. In some, detainees are seen on digicam, visibly beaten, and marked with crimson paint, a grim signal of the police’s “traffic lights” system of grading protesters in detention. Those painted crimson ought to obtain the worst therapy.
Sexual assault allegations have additionally been made by males and girls in opposition to the police. Andrey, a protester from Minsk, instructed NCS he was raped with a police baton in a bid by officers to make him unlock his telephone. They wanted the identification of his fellow protesters, he mentioned, asking that some particulars of his expertise and actual identify not be disclosed for his security.
Andrey says he refused to provide the password, and was beaten. “They just hit me again. At this time, I probably had brain trauma, as I started to feel really dizzy. It was hard to move at all,” he mentioned.
The police officer then threatened to assault him together with his baton, requested his colleagues for a condom to sheath the weapon, and took a knife from a colleague. “He cut my underwear using this knife. He asked me again to give him the password. I refused again, and then he did what he did.”
Andrey felt ache, but additionally shock that an individual may do that to a different. “It’s not just police anger — they train to do this,” he mentioned. “We are just seeing it now at a huge scale for the first time. It’s touched nearly every family in Belarus now.”
The Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t instantly reply to NCS’s request for response to what the footage of police techniques and violence exhibits and the allegations of abuse made.
Mass arrests at protests in Belarus are additionally typically met with such brutalities. Another leaked police video from BYPOL exhibits the aftermath of an October protest, through which dozens of demonstrators are compelled to face in a packed police station hall, going through the wall, their heads bowed, some bleeding on the partitions, others affected by beatings or tear fuel they seem to have been uncovered to within the earlier protest.
In the video, the police officer passes between detainees asking for their particulars, and why they were on the protest. One man has had seven tooth smashed out. They are all visibly shaken, and the bulk would go on to face felony expenses for protesting, activists mentioned.
The footage additionally chillingly exhibits police strolling over the unconscious physique of a teenage boy on the ground. NCS has realized the detainee probably suffered from an epileptic match, and was left on the ground by police, who go over him. Witnesses mentioned the boy was sometimes kicked by police to see if he was responsive. “Are you a boy or girl?” one witness recalled the police shouting. The minor was later launched from police custody, in line with witnesses, who didn’t wish to be named.
Police in that central station that night time were additionally busy finding those that had escaped riot police, NCS has realized. One was Anya, a young person, who additionally didn’t wish to reveal her actual identify for her security.
She fled an advancing line of riot police, who were throwing stun grenades at protesters. The explosion that caught her was captured on video.
“I didn’t fall,” she mentioned. “I froze like a deer. I just stood, thought, breathed, looked around.” She mentioned she didn’t consider she was intentionally focused, and was swiftly put in a taxi by protesters because the ambulances close by were overloaded.
In hospital, she was put subsequent to a person who had been trampled by police till his hip broke, she mentioned. “I started screaming that I need help,” she mentioned. “Seven people came in the room. Everyone looked at me and at my body. Like ‘Wow. What happened to you?’ They didn’t help. They just looked at me.”
Doctors gave her fundamental therapy and painkillers, but additionally prioritized a blood alcohol take a look at and instructed the police of her whereabouts and accidents. She feared for her security and left together with her mom. But the police were not accomplished together with her, she mentioned.
She shared with NCS pictures of the accidents to her legs as she lay on a sofa at dwelling. That night, her telephone rang.
“It was the police asking where I had been,” Anya mentioned. “I began making up stories. They said they would come and get me, a unit of them. And if they take me, I thought, then I can say goodbye to my limbs, because no one will look after me. I was worried they would torture me on my injuries.”
She left Belarus shortly afterwards and exhibits NCS the fragments of grenade faraway from her leg. One fragment continues to be lodged in her thigh.
Anya hopes for change in Belarus for her technology, and mentioned that whereas the present peaceable protests have not labored, it has led to an awakening. “There is a saying among Belarusians now that we didn’t really know each other until the summer,” she mentioned, of the protests’ starting.
Her technology’s want for wholesale change is a thorn not solely in Lukashenko’s aspect, but additionally the Kremlin’s. Some analysts counsel Putin is cautious of siding too carefully with Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown, in case it turns youthful Belarusians in opposition to Moscow completely.
For that, it might be too late.
“Lukashenko wouldn’t be so arrogant and cruel without the assurance of Russia always having his back,” Anya mentioned.
“We are not their people, we are strangers. Russia does not care what happens to us.”