“Let us go, please. Let us breathe”: Belarusians share why they are protesting
As Belarus finishes its third month of post-election protests, we speak to people in Minsk about why they're protesting.
Tear gas, torture, water cannons, flash grenades and firearms - the Belarusian state is using its entire arsenal against citizens in order to suppress the post-election protest movement. But so far, this response is producing the opposite effect: more and more people are coming out onto the streets of Belarusian towns in response to police violence.
Indeed, the more Belarusian police beat the country’s more vulnerable citizens - pensioners, women - the greater the public outrage. After Minsk police used tear gas to disperse a pensioners’ protest on 12 October, people living with disabilities set up a channel (“Brave Disabled People of Belarus”) on Telegram, the popular social media app, and planned their own protest march. There are now demonstrations held practically every day of the week in Belarus - women protest on Saturdays, pensioners on Mondays and general protests happen on Sundays.
People with disabilities chose Thursday as their protest day - and last Thursday, I visited the second “March of people with (un)limited capabilities”. I asked participants about why they came out to protest. openDemocracy publishes their words in full.
I’ve been coming out to protest since the first days, because I don’t agree witht the election restults - we were deceived and then they started trying to scare us. I’m not frightened, what’s there to be scared of? Will they beat us? I have nothing to lose. The fact that people with disabilities came out on the protest march means we’ve already reached the limit. Everyone sees what is happening here, no one wants to stand by and watch as they beat girls and women holding flowers. People are arrested for 15 days or given fines when they aren’t making any money anyway. I’m prepared for the fact that I might be arrested, I have a bag with warm clothes and soap with me.
My conscience brought me here, I can’t agree to stay at home - I feel sorry for the young guys who are getting beaten up. I thought that there were no real people left in Belarus. But after the election I saw a lot of young people - mostly from the IT sector - who had good ideas about life, and that they want to change the people around them and the country where they live. I joined them and support them best I can.
I have implants in my heart, I have to take blood thinners. This means that if I get beaten up, I could suffer from internal bleeding, and it’s practically impossible to stop it. When I go out to protest, I’m risking a lot. I used to be an athlete in the past, so I look strong - and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to tell the police that they can’t beat me. I go out to the protest every weekend, so far I’ve made it away okay. I can’t sit at home while these gangsters tell people where they can and can’t walk.
Alla Ivanovna, 68
Jesus Christ is the God of light and God of love. He needs bright people in power who don’t create lawlessness and show compassion. God is on the side of justice. He is for peace, love and harmony. People with disabilities also need more love, justice and care. I don’t think they’ll detain people with disabilities? Well of course, I’m scared, but I’m relying on God’s mercy.
On 14 August, I got off the bus, had a smoke and was then surrounded by those werewolves in police uniforms. Despite my disability, they ripped a muscle in my shoulder, and now my arm doesn’t work as normal. Only an idiot wouldn’t be afraid of being detained in our country.
The last straw was when they turned off the internet after the election and then I saw how they were simply murdering our young people. I think that the teenagers have made this revolution, and that our women should be victorious. I’m ashamed to stay at home, I’m not so disabled in the end. I can walk for three kilometres no problem.
It’s unprecedented for Belarus, people with disabilities coming out to protest and declaring their civic position publicly. This year we reached some kind of threshold of lawlessness and evil committed by our authorities. We felt that we had to come out and say that we are against violence, lies and lawlessness. Of course, we hope that they won’t use gas and riot sticks against us. But I’ve already been detained once - I had run off from the riot police and was coughing from the gas. Overcoming fear is a constant task for us, we deal with it every time we leave the house. As our wonderful Maria Kalesnikava [opposition politician] said, we need to keep on hitting the government again and again and again. Everyone who comes out to protest is united by the fact the truth is on our side. We already had our victory on 9 August, now we have to defend it.
I have no strength left to watch as people get beaten up just for expressing their political and civic position. It’s awful that they don’t get the right to do this, although it’s written into the constitution. I first went out on to protest with the students on 1 September, I was detained, but they didn’t beat or touch me - most likely due to my disability - unlike my friends from university, who were dragged away and beaten.
Everything started from the elections, when I had my vote stolen. My position is that the rules of the game should be fair. Then the beatings and arrests started. Wherever people with joint interests get together, they start filming and detaining us. You can’t prosecute someone for their beliefs. But because someone thinks differently, they can get beaten up to the point where they can’t walk. The riot police attacked one girl four against one, and I took my cane and beat them across the shoulders, and I was detained. They had a recording from a dash cam, but in the arrest report they wrote that I was standing by the road and shouting “Long live Belarus!”. They gave me a $100 fine. This meant a less serious charge, so I agreed.
I’m for a free life where people - who are socially disadvantaged somehow - have an accessible environment and the opportunity to work as everyone else. We don’t feel ourselves to be equal to everyone, but our interests should be considered. Living on a monthly pension of 300 roubles [$150] is not realistic. We have no opportunities to work, we’re turned away everywhere. Even if a private employer wants to employ someone with a disability, then they have to deal with a bunch of paperwork and difficulties.
I’m not afraid of going out to protest. But I left my phone number and said that if I don’t get in touch, it means I’ve been detained. I’m not relying on their [police officers’] conscience. I hope that my friends and relatives will get me out.
People with disabilities want freedom just as much as everyone else. I drew this poster because I like the [Russian rock] band Nautilus Pompilus, they express my thoughts. We’re joined by the same chains [reference to a Nautilus Pompilus song] - that is our common tragedy - and we’re trying for the same aim, freedom.
This isn’t the first time I’ve come out to protest. I’m an individual, I have the right to vote and a civic position. If people with disabilities have come out [to march], it means we’ve already reached rock bottom. To destroy the country like this, to get people into this state - not everyone can do this. You can see that even retired people and people with disabilities are against you, so come on, that’s. After 26 years, you have everything, you’ve taken everything. So let us go, please, let us breathe.
I’m someone who respects himself and others. This is why I’m here. I’ve already been afraid of enough in my life. The only unpleasant thing is that I can’t participate [in the protests] everywhere I could have if I had two legs. I always had this kind of worldview, I was always against Lukashenka.
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