2020.09.25 08:00

After falsely proclaimed dead, Belarus 'first victim' finds refuge in Lithuania

Natalija Zverko, Benas Gerdžiūnas, LRT.lt2020.09.25 08:00

Eyes wide open, Yauhen Zaichkin laid on the ground unconscious. On August 9, the first night of Belarusian protests, Zaichkin was proclaimed the first victim to be killed by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. But almost a month later, he appeared in Vilnius.

“I woke up in a police wagon, my lip was bleeding. As it turned out, my upper lip was torn in two places and my body ached from all the blows. I felt nauseous,” said Zaichkin while sipping tea in his temporary home in the Lithuanian capital.

Telegram channels that both guide and report on the protests in Belarus first published news of his death in the early hours of August 10.

In reality, after spending several hours in a hospital, Zaichkin was recommended by a doctor to go home. With his phone smashed during the beating he received from the OMON riot police, he didn’t respond to frantic calls from friends and family.

When he woke up some 12 hours later, one of Zaichkin‘s friends finally managed to get through to him.

“You have already been ‘buried’,” the friend told him, describing how some of his friends and family had already prepared for the worst.

How do you feel when you look at this photo now?

The first reaction was the worst. In general, I try not to look at this photo. Sometimes I'd get a glimpse of it somewhere in the press. But I take my eyes away, it's hard for me.

How many hours did your family not know what had happened to you?

About 12 hours. All my friends who were in contact with me on Facebook began to write to me. A friend advised me to talk to journalists and say that I was alive, because everyone thought I was the first victim. I agreed.

What were the emotions when they found out that you were alive?

My sister was hysterical and cried. When she heard my voice, she swore at me and hung up. Of course, she was glad, it was just a reaction. As I was told, some of my relatives had started organising a funeral. It was hard to listen [to the stories]. Twelve hours of such pain, I can imagine how hard it was.

The first photos appeared somewhere around two in the morning. And the captions said that I had died. But the hospital didn't have my ID. When they [my relatives] called morgues, hospitals, they said that there was no one by that name.

I have an 11-year-old son. I immediately called home, asked if he knew, they told me that he didn’t know, and I asked to take his phone away [...] But when we met a day or two later, he nevertheless began to cry and I realised that he had seen something somewhere.

On August 13, I started going to protests again. And then the news began to appear that people who had appeared [on the media] were beginning to be persecuted.

The time to leave for Lithuania came after a suspicious call came to the apartment, which I rarely visit. [...] And all this prompted me to look for options for departure.

Besides, disinformation about me had already started to appear – that I myself jumped into this police wagon. It is interesting that [Interior Minister] Karayev said that I jumped into this wagon, that I was drunk, and that I cut my lip while falling from it, that I had been convicted several times, and so on. But I was sober.

What happened on August 9?

I was actually going to leave for Malta on that day. But in Minsk, I worked for my friend [...] in interior decoration. We had a project, but we did not have time to finish it. And we decided to stay for the elections, and we were going to finish everything on Monday. [...] And in the evening we decided to go to the city centre.

On August 9, did you see the plan by NEXTA – the leading Belarusian Telegram channel that helps organise and report on the protests – on what to do on the election day?

No, I didn't. But we foresaw that violations would occur precisely during the counting of votes. [...] I remember that it was exactly the same in 2010 when the votes were faked.

We drove along Victory Square [and] saw a lot of people who were also walking to the centre. Then law enforcement agencies began to appear, there were no arrests yet, on Independence Avenue we [...] saw a wall of troops with shields and clubs.

The police vans were behind them. But they just stood there and did nothing. There were four of us, and there were several such groups. The rest of the people stood in Stella [area in the centre] and waited there. We decided to go around the soldiers from behind.

And then I saw a white minibus, then 7–9 riot policemen [jumped out and began] running at us with their batons raised. I realised that they were running after me in order to detain me.

I got down on my knees, put the phone near my left leg, raised my hands so that they could see that I was not resisting, that I had nothing in my hands.

But this did not stop them and I received the first blow in the face with a truncheon. I covered my face with my hands, pressed into my knees, my back was bare and they began beating me.

And I don't remember what happened next. I woke up in a police wagon, my lip was bleeding. As it turned out, my upper lip was torn in two places and my body ached from the blows. [...] There were 10 of us inside and about six officers who guarded us. [...] We sat down and then, because of my emotional state, or the loss of blood, I lost consciousness.

Do you have any illnesses or is it all a consequence of beatings and emotional shock?

Most likely due to the shock. There hadn't been anything like it before. The bleeding from my lip did not stop, and the next moment I remember how I was lying on the ground, a military man stood over me, maybe not alone, and guys in red vests.

Some of them asked what my name was, if I could speak, they asked me to move my limbs. They checked my pulse. I remember that one paramedic was very frightened and when he felt for a vein, his hands were trembling. [...] They also thought that my neck was broken and they did not want to touch me.

When I woke up at around 6:00 in the morning, two policemen were already standing by my bed. [After they had left], I also wanted to leave as soon as possible because I assumed they would return. And I didn't want them to identify me.

The doctors did not have your personal details – name, surname?

Not at first. My body was aching, but I could walk. Then the doctor came and I asked if I could leave. The doctor said that my internal organs were not damaged, there were no fractures, so I could leave. The hospital said that they would prepare my documents a little later. My phone was broken and it kept ringing.

At home I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the afternoon, my friends managed to get through to me and then they said that I had already been ‘buried’.

Getting to Lithuania

However, his path to Lithuania was not an easy one. At the border, Zaichkin found out that his Lithuanian visa had been canceled: “And now I stand and don't know what to do – I can’t get to Lithuania, and I can’t go back to Belarus.”

He was left with no choice but to request asylum – at the time, Lithuania hadn’t yet started offering the so-called humanitarian corridor to Belarusians fleeing repressions.

Zaichkin spent two weeks in self-isolation in a border guards’ facility, before being transferred to a refugee centre in Pabradė, a military town near the Belarusian border.

There, he befriended a Belarusian family who were searching for information on what to do next. From them, Zaichkin found out about the Belarusian diaspora helping all the new arrivals.

“Every person has a mentor” that can help with bureaucracy and the adoption process, he said. In Vilnius, he was placed inside a rental home owned by a Belarusian, which he shared with several other new arrivals.

Now, with the asylum request in process, his main worry is how to find work. “The only way I can get a visa [that allows having a job] is if I cancel my asylum request,” said Zaichkin.

But this would also mean he would have to return to Belarus – an option that is no longer viable.

As of September 21, Lithuania has granted 262 request for Belarusians to use the so-called humanitarian corridor, while 18 Belarusians have applied for asylum.

“Everyone is waiting for that last possible moment before taking a decision to leave,” said Zaichkin.