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Diaries of dissidents

Av Maria Eriksson | 17 December 2010

We fear no more”, så beskriver Vytautas Landsbergis, Litauens första statschef efter självständigheten, den känsla som uppfyllde litauerna när de äntligen kunde fira sin frihet. Han har skrivit förordet till boken Diaries of Dissidents, Daily Routines in a Belarusian Prison, som består av dagboksanteckningar skrivna av vitryska oppositionella som frihetsberövats för att de demonstrerat mot president Lukasjenkos regim, ibland bara genom att ha regimkritiska vykort på sig.

Ingen vet hur länge det dröjer innan vitryssarna kan uppleva samma frihet som litauerna, men Diaries of Dissidents är inte en bok främst om rädsla, utan framför allt om optimism, hopp och om att upprätthålla mänsklig värdighet i ett system där mänskliga rättigheter kränks dagligen. Som att åtminstone få en dusch eller en ren tallrik, även om man sitter inlåst i en liten cell bara för att man vågat drömma om ett fritt land.

På söndag hålls presidentval i Vitryssland. Med anledning av det publicerar Svensk Tidskrift ett av bokens kapitel. Boken går att beställa från Jarl Hjalmarsonstiftelsen.

Seven “Cutlets”
by Franak Viachorka

Franak Viachorka, at that time one of the leaders of the youth branch of the BPF party was arrested on July 27, 2007, near the Square of Independence in Minsk. The police found ten greeting cards among his belongings and issued a protocol of administrative offence in accordance with Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Republic of Belarus – “breaking the order of organization and conducting of mass events”. He was sentenced to seven days of administrative

Independence Day
I was walking from the centre of Minsk to the Independence Square when I realized I was followed. Approaching the Square, a policeman asked me to show my documents, as well as the contents of my pockets and bag. He brought me in, allegedly to identify my person.
In the District Department of Internal Affairs they found in my bag ten postcards dedicated to the celebration of the Day of Independence on July 27. The postcards were very abstract, only black silhouettes of dancing young people in front of a red background and no political slogans whatsoever. I got seven days of detention for those postcards.

Never trust, never fear, never ask

First I was kept at the police department, alone, in a cell, cold and narrow. I was afraid as I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would die or go insane if I spent more time in there.

However, I was most afraid in the police van – a big police vehicle that transports criminals and political prisoners to the prisons all over Minsk. It arrived approximately at 1 am. Inside, I saw metal boxes, 50 x 50 cm, without any windows or light. You can see nothing, you just have to concentrate on what you hear. You hear the gates squeaking – first, second, third … I guessed it was Valadarka – the most famous prison of Minsk. The guards dragged the criminals out of the van; I heard screams, sounds of beating … We proceeded to the next prison.

I heard one of my “colleagues” ask for permission to go to the toilet. The policeman laughed, then dragged him out of the van and punched him. The prisoner screamed. The police can beat you any time they like in the police van – to them you are just another criminal. They know they will never be punished for that.
No one beat me. It was useless to say anything or to ask for anything. They shout, so it’s better to keep silent. That is the only way. In the Police Department prisoners are supposed to ask for permission to go to the toilet. I didn’t do that – I was hoping I would endure, and tried to stay calm.

When the police van arrived I said something in Belarusian. This drove the policeman mad. He started shouting in Russian “what the f***k d’you think you’re doing, speaking that language to me?”

Lukashenka does not speak Belarusian and people on the street speak Russian. Still, language is of national value. Today the Belarusian language is the language of the elite and the intelligentsia, and I suppose that was the reason why the policemangot angry. He thought I was teasing him.

Meeting Akrestsina
My father has been here more than twenty times. I am used to see Akrestsina from the outside – I came here with my Mom.

Third floor, windows like in an ordinary building. However, once inside, you realize that three fourth of them are walled up. All you see is a small piece of the sky, the windows face the inner yard, so you cannot even hear your friends come outside the prison to support you. All you hear is exercises of the internal troops and the police.

I spent the first three nights with the so-called “kitchen fighters” – this is what those who beat their wives are called here. There was also another prisoner, S., in his late twenties, who had spent four years in prison. He boasted that this was the 13th trip to prison for him during one year. He sort of liked me because he had studied at the same lyceum as I, in the early 90’s. He was expelled during his second year. Now he is a notorious criminal. S. was an “alpha dog” at Valadarka – a kind of boss among all the prisoners. In addition to this, we had mice as cellmates. When a newspaper was left in the cell for the night, it was completely nibbled through by the morning. We waited for the court trial together.

Court Trial
The court is like a comedy show. The judge obviously was engaged in a political court proceeding for the first time so she didn’t know what to ask. She looked like professor Umbridge from “Harry Potter”, a lady of character. Instead of “All rise, the court is now in session” she said “Good afternoon”. The audience laughed.
One of the witnesses was a policeman.

“I, the driver of the police car, saw this young man…”
“What was he wearing?”
“I don’t remember, I just saw him passing someone some papers…”
“Which papers?”
“I don’t remember…”
“Well, thank you, the situation is clear”, said the judge. Then she turned to me: “You say you did not hand out propaganda, but the policeman saw you!” The audience laughed, including the journalists, making the judge angry.

After a 15 minutes break the judge read out the sentence. “Taking into consideration the personality of the accused” and “with an aim of prevention and correction” the court confirmed my guilt and sentenced me to seven days of administrative detention.

My cellmate-criminal also got detention, but the “kitchen fighters” only had to pay fines, so they could get back to beating their wives. Anyway, I was told that I would be imprisoned even before the court trial started.

When I was led out of the cell to go to the court, the criminal said in a rough voice, in Russian: “Listen, if you’re detained, ask them to put you in my cell, we’re gonna have fun, hahaha”. A nice invitation, but I decided not to accept it, as it could end badly.

“They’re not gonna defeat us!”

Teckning av en av cellerna på Akrestsina

This was my first prison sentence. When they threw me into the cell, I recalled everything I had read about the Stalin times. It was very much alike. Even the prison newspaper was the same – “Trudovoj put” (Way of Work). Prisoners and the prison administration have read it for 80 years. The criminals write articles on the topic “I killed five people but now I have returned to God” etc. They do so because they believe it could help them to be released earlier. A dim lamp was also described in the literature. It was covered with some piece of black fabric so you could see nothing when you enter the cell.

When my eyes got used to the dark, I started reading signs on the walls. All the walls were decorated with all sorts of messages – names, surnames, threats of revenge. Someone appealed to God, someone anticipated close victory. Such small things sure lift one’s spirits. I wrote “They’re not gonna defeat us! Franak Viachorka. Long Live Belarus!” and the time of my prison term “July 27-August 03, 2007”.

There were approximately six prisoners in my cell at different times – someone left, someone came. Among them there were three political prisoners. There were also several alcoholics.

When a new cellmate arrived, he was immediately asked a series of questions, like: “What for?” “I had a drink and beat a policeman”. “What about you?” “I am a political one”. “Aaaa, oh, a political prisoner!” And the conversation usually stopped. They had voted for Lukashenka, and now they said he was bad and cursed him. The only thing which comforted me was that those who came through prison or had any encounters with the police would never again support Lukashenka.

Smell of Akrestsina

Everything in the cell was old and broken, including the hole that prisoners were supposed to use as a toilet in front of everyone. The water had too much chlorine in it. A wooden stage occupied half of the cell – that was the place for sleeping. All the prisoners slept together. My parents passed me a sleeping bag as it was cold in the cell and we had nothing to cover up. Those prisoners, whose relatives had passed them nothing, marched across the cell, frozen, their eyes red, and smoked “Astra”. The smell of these cigarettes mixed with the smell of the “toilet”, and the prisoners’ sweat. Such was the smell of Akrestsina. I remembered it from my childhood, when my father returned from prison. Now, I smelled like that myself.

At the court trial, Dad advised me not to sleep near the toilet and to wash my hands very often, as I could have problems with my skin otherwise. Many different people sleep on that wooden plank, including tramps, so they could bring different diseases or parasites with them. He also said I should ask for a shower. People don’t know they have such a right, and the policemen take advantage of that. In the end the prisoners do not take a shower for a long time.

Stockholm and “cutlets”

Watches are not allowed, so we measured time by different sounds. When the plane Stockholm-Minsk flew over the prison, it meant that it was 4 o’clock, dinner was coming. Experienced prisoners passed this knowledge to newcomers. Everyone was hungry and waited for the Stockholm plane to fly over Akrestsina. It made such a noise that it was impossible to speak.

They served the same soup every day: water, a little fat, a little cabbage. Same cutlets: a substance looking like powdered grass, a little meat, carrots. Prisoners called days “cutlets”. They never asked, how many days of imprisonment you had got, they asked, how many cutlets you had got.
The “library”

I read a lot: Aliakhnovich, Kundera – my friends passed me the books during the court trial. The policemen asked if they were political books. I denied that. They double-checked if there was something against Lukashenka in those books. Prisoners and policemen called our cell “the library”.

It was allowed to pass newspapers like “Soviet Byelorussia”, “Komsomolskaya Pravda” (Comsomol truth) – sometimes we tried to read them. A short article stating that “the Belarusian opposition tried to organize an illegal street action with participation of drunk and greedy for money youngsters, blah blah blah” made us think that more people had been arrested so we would soon have new cellmates. When a guard on duty brought a list in which we were supposed to sign for the next day’s food, we looked for familiar names. When I left the prison, 17 people were still there.

J. was released at the same time as me. He was also arrested on July 27, got 15 days of detention, but his lawyer filed a complaint and the court admitted the sentence was biased. For the first time ever since the Belarusian regime settled, thus, he was released prematurely – after seven days of detention. After that, everyone wrote complaints. I don’t know what it was – a struggle for power between two clans, or our arrests were just convulsions of a dying regime?

Games are not allowed at Akrestsina, however, the wooden planks on which prisoners sleep are covered with drawings – chess-board, “crotch-pheasant”, “hinchyk” and other games. We sculptured figures and dices from bread. There always was too much bread left – each prisoner was given a whole loaf of rye bread per day. We painted the dots on the dices with toothpaste.

We didn’t play chess as every other day there was a shakedown – all the prisoners were ordered out of the cells in to the corridor, and the cells were searched, and all the illegal things, like chess figures or dices made of bread, were confiscated. They even checked the toilet hole to see whether we had hidden something there. So in the end no one wanted to make new chess figures every other day.

Life School
Two hundred years ago people were tortured, their arms were cut off, but they still shouted “Free Belarus!” People like Kastus Kalinouski. Later, during the time of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), someone was killed every day.
So why cannot we endure prison, or transportation in a small box?

We have to do that. It’s a great school for life. Some time spent in Akrestsina gives a very strong motivation to fight against the regime, I would even say, an extremely strong motivation.

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