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The mutual aid corridor ‘Meduza’ visits the volunteer camp outside of the infamous Okrestina detention facility in Minsk

Source: Meduza

The Okrestina Street detention facility in Minsk, where many arrested demonstrators have been processed and held, has become a symbol of police brutality in Belarus. Just outside its walls, volunteers established a camp where they offer medical, legal, and psychological aid to released detainees — hundreds of whom say the police abused them in custody. On August 19, as law enforcement has backed down from mass arrests at protests, the volunteers began dismantling the camp. Some say this was at the authorities’ request, while others maintain that it’s because there are hardly any political prisoners left inside in the jail. Meduza shares photos of the encampment while it stood and explains how it worked.

The camp near the Okrestina Street detention center was set up immediately after the first protests in Minsk. By the time the number of people arrested in the Belarusian capital had reached the hundreds, many of them were unaccounted for — there was no information about their whereabouts, or the reason for their arrests. At this point, relatives of the disappeared began gathering at “Okrestina” — the local shorthand for the detention facility. They refused to leave until they received some information about their loved ones. From time to time, those in the camp could hear the detainees screaming from inside of the jail. Later, those who were released recounted how they had been tortured and beaten.

Within a few days a couple hundred people had gathered outside of the detention center’s walls. The first volunteers appeared around the same time — random people who had learned about what was happening inside the jail from friends, Telegram channels, and the media. They started bringing food and medicines. Many relatives of the disappeared never left the square. From time to time, badly beaten detainees were brought out of the jail and taken to the hospital. 

By August 15, there was already a lot of information circulating about law enforcement officers using violence against detainees. Medical workers, lawyers, and business owners came to the detention center to help. A nearby park was transformed into the so-called mutual aid corridor — a volunteer camp for several hundred people, stretching for dozens of meters. They began digitizing lists of detainees, so locals could find information about their loved ones faster.

The volunteers were self-organized. They set up medical tents outside the detention facility, along with generators to provide the camp with electricity. There were also drivers offering free rides home to released detainees, their family members, and the volunteers. To the right of them were several tables with hot food, drinks, and snacks.

At the end of the “corridor” was a tent with medical workers. In conversation with Meduza, one of the volunteers, sports doctor Dmitry Krishchanovich, compared the actions of the security forces during the protests to those of Islamic State terrorists, noting that in some sense the latter are more humane.

“I can hardly wrap my head around the fact that someone living in Belarus could do this,” the doctor said. “My only thought is that not a single one of these bastards should get away…This is a war, a real war, that both women and children took part in.” 

Lawyers, offering help free of charge, are located nearby, as well as priests. Father Pavel Aksenyuk told Meduza that he was “ashamed to look people in the eye” after Metropolitan Pavel, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, congratulated Lukashenko on his re-election. Things got easier after Metropolitan Pavel addressed Lukashenko again on August 14 — this time, he asked him to stop the violence.

“The church authorities set us up. It hurts me in a purely human way. We must call things what they are, because there really is fascism and beatings here. This government is already over,” Aksenyuk says, adding that even all the members of the clergy chat groups have turned against Lukashenko.

A group of psychologists were seated on folding chairs outside of the jail. Psychologist and psychotherapist Sergey Petrov told Meduza that in addition to working at Okrestina, he was also on duty at the detention center in Zhodino — an hour away from Minsk. There are protesters in custody there too, and there are volunteers ready to help.

“I’m here because I couldn’t sit at home anymore. When I went to Zhodino I was in shock over how organized everything was. I’m still impressed. In Zhodino, people came out of the detention center and had tears in their eyes at the site of such support,” Petrov said.

The psychologist offered a simple explanation for the police brutality directed towards the protesters: they truly believe that the demonstrators are being paid. “It seems like they honestly believe that this is the work of the West. They beat [the detainees] and made demands — “tell us how much they paid you, bitches.” They honestly believe this…It looks like it’s all about ideology,” the doctor explained. In his words, the only analogy that comes to mind is fascist Germany.

At the same time, the psychologist underscored that many of the people injured at the detention center have yet to fully realize what happened to them. Things will get more difficult in a few days, when the euphoria from being released and the news about record protests in Minsk wears off.

One volunteer told Meduza that the jail’s administration was immediately embarrassed at the number of people outside the prison walls. Those released from the detention center explained that the noise from the streets made the security forces nervous. Afterwards, they started beating the detainees. Due to the reaction from the jail’s administration, on August 17, the volunteers stopped a crowd of several thousand protesters from approaching the detention center (they had marched all the way to Okrestina Street from Independence Square).

In Minsk, the word “corridor” has another, more sinister meaning — it’s a form of “entertainment” used by riot police officers: they form two lines and beat detainees with truncheons as they run through the “corridor” to get from the police van to the jail. At the camp, Meduza spoke to a young man who had personally experienced this “corridor.”

He was arrested on August 12. On that day, he decided to go to a women’s rally opposing police violence. During the protest, the young man caught the attention of men in plain clothes, who later arrested him. He was beaten at the police station and then sent to Okrestina.

At the detention facility, the young man saw Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Barsukov (Alyaksandr Barsukou) — the very government official who, on August 13, said that there wasn’t any abuse at the Okrestina Street jail. Later, sound engineer Uladzislau Sakalouski — who was sentenced to 10 days in jail for playing the protest song “I want changes!” at a pro-government rally in Minsk on August 7 — told journalists that he was beaten by Barsukov while in custody.

The young man told Meduza that the Deputy Interior Minister dropped hints that the detainees might soon be released and mocked them. When the detainees were finally taken from their cells, they were given a piece of paper to sign confirming their release, which also said that if they continued to participate in the protests, a criminal case would be opened against them. However, instead of releasing them afterwards, all of the detainees were then taken to another room in the detention center. The young man underscored that at that moment he thought all of the detainees would be shot. They were released a short while later.

“When I came out and saw all of these people outside [in the camp], I couldn’t do anything,” the former detainee said. “I was simply [in shock]. Is it really true? I hit rock bottom [in the detention center] and came back to life at that moment.” 

On August 19, the volunteers started dismantling the camp — it will keep working, but at a very reduced capacity. Activists told the Belarusian news outlet that this was because there are hardly any detainees left inside the jail. However, Euroradio reports that the camp was taken down in response to demands from the prison administration — allegedly, the volunteers are spoiling the park’s “green spaces.”

Photos by Maxim S. for Meduza

Text by Ludmila Pogodina 

Translation by Eilish Hart

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