On 8 September, dozens of Minskers took to the streets in support of Maria Kolesnikova, who, according to witnesses, was kidnapped and forced into a van by unknown men who later tried to expel her out of Belarus. The detentions began almost immediately after the protest action at Komarovsky market started.
There were brutal detentions of girls and women on Masherov Avenue, where the protesters stood holding their hands together in front of the fighters in balaclavas. The photo of the confrontation was widely shared on social media. Journalists talked to the women in this picture if they were scared and why they took to the streets that day.
The interviewees asked not to indicate them in the photo and not to publish their names.
That evening mostly women came took part in a rally in support of Maria Kolesnikova. They put on red lipstick as a sign of solidarity with the missing opposition leader. They shouted “Release her!” and “Masha is not yours!” There were female students, doctors, employees of private and public companies, young people and people over 50. Many were strangers before that day, but they supported and protected each other as best they could.
“I can’t pretend that there were no atrocities”
Zoya is 55 years old. She says that she goes to protest actions not because of the election results, she was ready for them and did not have any illusions. The woman was outraged by police brutality and photos of beaten people.
“When I read about what Maria Kolesnikova did, I felt proud of what she did, a great and brave act, I think. She knew what she was dooming herself to, tearing up her passport and returning to Belarus. At the same time, she could not abandon her people. Therefore, I could not help but go to the rally in her support.”
Zoya recalls how she and other protesters marched from Komarovsky market towards Masherov Avenue. When it became clear that people could be snatched out and detained one by one, women and men joined their hands.
“Opposite me were two guys in green uniforms. Are these internal troops? They wanted to take the men who stood behind us. But we said that even if they themselves want to leave, we will not let them go, because we are mothers here. If my son is pushed somewhere, there will be another mother who will stand up for him, as I tried to. I tried to explain this to the guys in uniform who stood in front of me. One of them told me: ‘This is our job.’ What does your job mean, I asked. I told them: you swore your oath not to a specific person, you swore to the people, and we are this people, you must protect us. My conversation was calm. I try to see a person in everyone.”
According to Zoya, the fighters in green uniform “didn’t act in a brutal way until the man they called the ‘commander’ came running.
“It was a man with a tummy, aged, in a black jacket, masked. He came running and gave the order to detaim. The soldiers tried to persuade us: go to a paddy wagon yourself, so that we don’t grab you. To the right of us, terrible things were happening, I heard shouts: ‘What are you doing? You are kicking a girl!’ It was scary to watch the girls being dragged to the paddy wagon. “Commander” ran back and forth, from one capture team to another.
He grabbed the woman who was standing on the sideline, dragged her along the ground, and again ran to another capture group. And while this “commander” stepped away, we were allowed to leave. A woman, about 50, ran up to me, said that we were together, and took me aside. She screamed later that she needed to return, because her girls remained there. She returned, and I don’t know whether she was detained or not in the end. I recall this today and my conscience torments me, I wish I came back too. Maybe I could get one of the girls out. We, women of age, tried to stand in a front row, tried to cover up the young girls.”
Have you thought that you will never go to a rally again after what happened?
She answers immediately, without even thinking: “No, no, I didn’t have such a thought. You know, if not me, who? Maybe it sounds pompous, but if everyone hides in a burrow, who will change the country? I went out to protest because I saw what violence and lawlessness of security forces. I cannot turn a blind eye, I cannot forget it and pretend that there were no atrocities.”
“I have a position, and I must express it”
Alena was also among those who stood holding hands opposite the security forces on Masherova Avenue on 8 September. She says that she came to the rally at the Komarovsky market with a friend because she was outraged by the detention of Maria Kolesnikova.
“At first we just stood arm-in-arm, nothing was going on. We were chanting, singing songs. There were guys behind us, about five people. They were told: ‘Get out on your own, don’t waste time.’ They said they would not touch the girls. And I even promised one of the guys that I would take his package. And then an overweight man in a black jacket and a balaclava ran up, and shouted: ‘The order is to detain everyone!’ The soldiers told us to go to the paddy wagons on our own. But of course, no one wanted to go.
And they started breaking the line, pulling us out one by one. Then some said that they will go on their own. And I was the last one. I asked: ‘I have a small child, may I leave?’ But the commander told them to take everyone. Anyway, I went to the paddy wagon, a guy was being led in front of me, I let him pass. And it so happened that there was not enough space for me. Some man in a balaclava said: ‘Get out of here.’ This ‘commander’ scared me the most. The guys in the green uniform talked to us normally, there was no aggression from them at all, until that man appeared. Then I saw him in a photo from Komarovsky market, he was dragging a girl by her neck.”
Alena says that she can’t believe she wasn’t taken away, because she was standing right in front of the paddy wagon.
“I can’t say that I was very afraid, but I was stressed, I had a small child left at home. I do not take him with me, but I myself cannot sit at home, I cannot silently watch the lawlessness. I have a position, and I think I must express it. I do not want to leave Belarus, I want to change everything here. I see what potential has been hidden and what we could have done in these 26 years. For this month Belarusians have become such a pleasant discovery for me! I want to live next to these people and just hug each of them.
Honestly, after this catch-them-all order, I thought maybe I shouldn’t go to the rallies anymore. But then my friend and I were in the courtyard of Svetlana Alexievich [on 9 September, unknown people called the Nobel laureate’s apartment, Svetlana was afraid that she may be detained, since she is the only member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council who remains at large and at home]. I will definitely go. The actions of the security forces will not stop me. I think this is their goal – to intimidate, so that no one goes out, but they can’t put everyone in jail.”
“Mother said she will always go to rallies with me now”
Alexandra came to the rally with her mother. The 20-year-old says they were outraged that the authorities had tried to forcibly take Maria Kolesnikova abroad.
“Honestly, we did not think that it will last for so long. We thought we would stay at Komarovksky market for a while, and then go to a cafe with my mother. As a result, we found ouselves on Masherova Avenue together with other protesters. Fighters who were in green uniform did not talk to women at all. They only talked to the men standing next to us. The women told the guys to sit down, we tried to protect them. People in uniform told them: ‘Why are hiding behind a woman?”.
It was psychological pressure, one of the men came out, obviously he was immediately detained. My mother and I stood closer to the wall, there were about five rows in front of us. People shouted to the fighters: “Take off your masks!” But they did not react. I was not scared, because I had been to rallies before. My mother was scared because she was scaredd for me. I tried to calm her down: I smiled, kissed her, told her not be afraid, that everything would be fine and I’m with her.”
After 8 September, have you thought that you have had enough and won’t go to rallies anymore?
“I had no such thoughts. The more people they detain, the more I have a feeling that I am in danger: no matter what I do, I will still be detained someday, it’s only a matter of time, so why, in fact, sit at home? I told my mother that I would probably never go to the rally with her again so that she would not worry so much about me. To which she replied: ‘You misunderstood me. I will always go to rallies with you now, because I will be able to beat you off.’ Now she doesn’t want to let me go alone, both of us will continue [taking to the streets].
What makes you take part in protest rallies?
From August 9 to 11, I was in the thick of the action, and then when the internet was returned, and we saw the stories of the beaten. I will never forget it and will not forgive. I have a principled position: I want to live in Belarus, where I will not be afraid for myself and my family. I do not want to live in Belarus in two parallel worlds: real and the one they show on state television. I look at our people who have not been broken, who continue to stand their ground, and I feel honored to be Belarusian. And our women! Smart, bold, and the Constitution is made for us too, we can all. When we were standing in front of the riot police, one woman aptly remarked: “It’s not scary to get stuck here in such a wonderful company!”
“If we surrender now, the situation will get worse”
Anna is 23 years old, and she also knows no other government than the current one. She says that she takes part in rallies to stop brutality of the security forces in Belarus.
“When I found out what happened to Maria Kolesnikova, I decided to go out and support her, to show that we care about her fate. We were marching in a column along Masherov Avenue, suddenly the soldiers began to run at us, that is, people in green uniform, I don’t know what to call them correctly. And some women began to run away, but the girls shouted ‘Stop!’. If everyone ran away, there would be many more detainees, it became clear that it was better for everyone to stay together.”
Anna says that everyone quickly realized that they will catch men first, there were far fewer of them than women.
“We tried to cover them up as best we could. One of the fighters was trying to pull out standing behind me. He didn’t pay any attention to me, didn’t even look in my direction. But I looked at him very carefully, it seemed to me, he had scared eyes, his gaze ran nervously here and there. He shouted at the man: ‘We’ll get you anyway!’ As I stood in front of him, he began to press his elbow on me. He did it on purpose so that I would let go of my hand. And then the man started shouting: ‘Stop beating the girls, I’m going out!’ We told him: ‘Wait! No problem! We will endure this!’. But he couldn’t look at it, he came out, and our line fell apart. He was immediately knocked to the ground, held and beaten by five fighters at the same time. There were no warnings about the use of physical force.”
The law “On Internal Affairs” regulates the use of physical force and special means, which include a rubber stick (baton). The algorithm is the following: first, the security force employee must introduce himself, explain to a citizen which law he has violated, and in case of detention, also report it. If a citizen refuses to be escorted to an official vehicle for further proceedings at a police department, he is warned that physical force and special means may be used against him. And only if the citizen continues to resist, force and special means can be applied. According to the law: the use of physical force, special means, weapons, combat and special equipment must be preceded by a clear and obvious to the person against whom they are used, warning of the intention to use them, unless a delay in their use will create an immediate danger to the lives of citizens or may have other serious consequences.
“Of course, many were shocked. When you see a peaceful person being beaten in front of you, it is impossible to look at it calmly. But that won’t stop me. I will continue to take part in rallies, now I will do it even more often, because I am sure that the violence must stop. As scary as it is, if we swallow it, it will only get worse. If we surrender now, the situation will get worse. The braver ones will still come out, and they will get stronger. The more people come out, even if they are scared, the less cruelty they will be able to apply to us. I’m a pretty stubborn person and will stand to the bitter end.”