Inside Minsk. Swarms of OMON use ambulances and extreme violence to supress dissent

Benas Gerdžiūnas,
2020.08.14 11:47
Clashes in Minsk on election night, August 9.

A day before the election, Minsk was filled with anxiety, but also a sense of hope. "Revolution tomorrow,“ joked young Belarusians as they sipped beer in the city centre. But what began the next night, shocked even those who had witnessed the previous mass protests of 2010.

“They are are beating our mothers, I don’t care anymore,” swore a young protester, as he broke apart stones to face the military that continued firing blankly into the crowd. Nearby, a man was killed just several hours ago.

The scale of brutality is simply unreal, as if taken from the totalitarian pages of history books.

On Tuesday, we managed to safely reach Vilnius, a mere 30 kilometres from absolute repressions. But the people are still there, trapped in cities that have become hostage to Lukashenko‘s regime and its indoctrinated, militarised forces.

Journalists gathering in the election headquarters of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Sunday awaited the next steps of the Belarusian opposition. As the official exit polls were announced, showing a stunning ‘victory’ for Lukashenko, hundreds of signalling cars and thousands of people began moving towards the centre of Minsk.

The violence unleashed by the authorities caught the eye of the international community, but alongside it, the regime continued to instil fear through the persecution of every individual in Minsk. Cars that were signalling en masse to show support for the opposition were replaced at night by convoys of KGB minivans and trucks of the dreaded OMON riot police.

To move freely in the streets became impossible.

No one is able to escape from the attacks; there are simply no safe spaces. Random passers-by walking their dogs are mercilessly swarmed by OMON, who also storm city buses and trams, beating everyone in sight.

Your own fate can be decided by a sheer coincidence. Earlier, we walked a few metres away from the entrance to Tikhanovskaya election headquarters. Together with three other journalists, we sat down to take a break after running from riot police, which already on Sunday night were firing into the crowd with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons.

A blue, unmarked van appeared in front of us without notice. And that’s where the survival lottery began. Three random people who remained at the entrance of the building were smoking, chatting, and observing the mass of security forces speeding through the streets.

This coincidence saves us, but was paid for by their freedom. Four OMON officers jumping out of the unmarked vans, started dragging and beating the three unsuspecting men. Eyes of the last officer turned to us. There was nothing left to do but run – cameras and accreditations hanging around the necks of my colleagues often do little to stop their brutality. According to the European Federation of Journalists, 65 reporters were detained in the first several days of protests, with some missing in the corridors of a repressive system.

As we start to run, two OMON vans sped past us. Without waiting for their next steps, we turned toward the dark courtyards of apartment blocks; they did not follow. It’s likely that the vans were already full, as thousands of people were detained on just the first night of post-election protests.

We turned back to the election headquarters, where Maria Kolesnikova – one of the three opposition leaders in Belarus – and her team kept watch. Laying down on the ground, at least five other journalists found refuge until the morning.

With silent voices, the remaining people at the headquarters continued discussing their future. Already the next day on Monday, the whereabouts of Tikhanovskaya were unknown, and on Tuesday, she appeared in Lithuania under still unclear circumstances.

Meanwhile on Monday morning, the regime already cleaned up the remnants of last night’s protests. The city was completely cleared, with people and machines working tirelessly to whitewash the scenes of mass discontent.

In a Kafka-like absurdity, according to my colleague Denis Vėjas in Minsk, even cyclists were seen as symbols of the opposition by the security apparatus. After several critical mass gatherings, when groups of people joined together for a ride, cyclists were being detained and even chased on foot by the military and the police.

Interludes of violence, according to the locals, have become the grotesque norm in the face of Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year-old rule.

Passing through MInsk in a taxi, scenes of urban life unfolded outside. Suddenly, the rolling landscape was interrupted by several teenagers rolling on the ground, with KGB officers towering above, striking them with feet and batons. As the taxi moved off, the ‘tape’ changed again to idyllic views of a city built according to an utopian Soviet template.

As the protest continued, OMON began using ambulances to transfer forces and abduct people from the streets. During clashes on Monday, the day after elections, a person cried out from a balcony: “Be careful guys, OMON are using ambulances.” He was right.

Even in day-time, balaclava-wearing officers were seen driving around in clearly marked ambulance vans, despite all the moral and legal imperitives.

What’s happening in Minsk is driving an absolute, sometimes even paralysing, fear knowing that there simply are no safe spaces or secure exit routes.

As another barrage of tear gas canisters and stun grenades descended upon protesters on Monday night, people dispersed in every direction. Behind, the sounds of approaching riot police beating their shields became louder.

From another direction, flashes of yellow-tinted explosions boomed in the distance. In the third direction, silhouettes of OMON trucks were approaching closer.

Only a small group of teenagers and even children remained. Sensing the impending encirclement, they began running. Only several hardened youths and men remained standing; there were just a few dozen of us left.

Approaching from the last obvious route out, local people from the area shook their heads – another military cordon is further up that road, they said. Meanwhile, the mass of cars acting as mobile barricades began signaling, warning of imminent assault. Those remaining started to run toward the courtyards.

But even there, as we saw later, police and OMON were waiting for protesters attempting to flee the scene, or simply beating unconsciously those merely passing by. Through balcony windows, neighbours started screaming out to run from the approaching security forces.

Meanwhile, protests erupted even in Ashmyany, a town of some 14,000 people near the Lithuanian border. According to an elderly local, even here, the black figures of OMON entered the town.

When asked if she will go out into the streets to support the protesters today, she nodded – “Of course, what else can I do.”

As our bus turned towards Lithuania, unmarked tip trucks began blocking the main streets of this provincial town, which became yet another hotspot of the resistance sweeping Belarus.

Read more: As shots and explosions shake Minsk, people call for help from Lithuania

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