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‘I saw similar scenes everywhere’ The photographer tells the story behind a remarkable snapshot from yesterday’s women’s march in Minsk

Source: Meduza
Yevgeny Yerchak / EPA / Scanpix / LETA

On September 8, Minsk witnessed another solidarity rally in support of those arrested during opposition protests. The demonstration was predominantly attended by women, some of whom brought their children. Belarusian law enforcement typically only arrests men during protests, but this time it was different. A photo taken by Minsk photographer Yevgeny Yerchak began circulating widely online and in the media: it showed a group of women with their arms linked, backed against a wall, looking at a security officer in an unmarked uniform. “Meduza” asked Yevgeny Yerchak to tell the story behind this photograph and explain what happened to its subjects.

Yevgeny Yerchak, photographer

On September 8, a march was held in Minsk in support of everyone arrested during protest actions — including Maria Kolesnikova, who they [the Belarusian authorities] tried, but failed, to transport across the border to Ukraine. According to the Coordination headquarters, it was because she tore up her passport.

At first, people gathered at the square near the Kamaroŭski Market — the same place where the very first women’s rally was held on August 12. A policeman with a megaphone walked around the square and said that the gathering was illegal and violates the law: “Disperse, otherwise forceful methods could be used against you and you could be arrested.” At the very beginning they arrested about 10 people. And then people went to the city center, to Independence Avenue. They walked along narrow streets, so the column, which included up to a thousand people, stretched out in a long, narrow chain for half a kilometer. At some point a bus with no plates [carrying] security officers arrived and the arrests began. Some tried to run away, the rest split into dense groups near the fence of the former “Gorizont” plant. I photographed one of these groups.

The main arrests were in the center of the column, there were soldiers everywhere. I don’t know exactly who they were: people in unmarked military uniforms with balaclavas on their heads. They were either police officers, or officers from other security structures. This is an innovation from the last few days — previously we didn’t have these people on the streets here. There were those who managed to escape, the rest huddled together in tight groups, they formed chains. It was mainly women, but there were a few men. Across from them stood people in balaclavas, waiting for orders about what to do next. 

And then a few people in military uniforms began pressing people against a wall — although in fact they weren’t pressing them, but rather trying to pull people from the chain.

I took this shot and moved on. I don’t know exactly what happened to these people afterwards: some of them were arrested, some left. But they definitely didn’t arrest everyone — there were about a hundred detainees, but there were many more people [at the rally]. I saw similar scenes everywhere, this is a typical scene from yesterday evening. Someone is arrested, taken to a bus, the women run up and try to fight them off, they show icons and shout “What are you doing, aren’t you ashamed?!”

They began to arrest women in the last couple days. Previously, they took almost only men, women had to really pick a fight [to get arrested]: as far as I know, there was an order not to touch them. But for a week and a half there has been an increase in the use of force. Yesterday they took everybody, because it was a women’s march and there were few men.

I’m a journalist, so I will refrain from [making] personal assessments, this is the task of political scientists or the protesters. It’s better to let my photos speak for me. Each time I go out to shoot, there’s a chance that my press identification won’t work and they’ll take me away — like my colleagues, who were detained for three days last week, first at the [police department], and then in a detention facility. They were later found guilty of participating in an unauthorized rally, and were sentenced to the three days that they spent at the [police department] and in Okrestina. I understand that there’s a certain chance of the same thing or something worse [happening to me]. I hope that I can avoid this.

Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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