oDR: Feature

‘The revolution has made me stronger, more nervous’: Belarusian journalist writes an exile diary

Since the protests that shook Belarus in 2020, thousands of people have left the country in search of safety. We ask one of them, photographer Tanya Kapitonova, to write a diary over a month in forced emigration

Tanya Kapitonova
8 November 2021, 12.00am
The author after 10 days in Minsk's Akrestsina Street detention centre, 23 May 2021
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Image: Tanya Kapitonova

More than a year after post-election protests rocked the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenka, Belarus appears a quiet, sad place.

The vibrant civic protests that sprung up in response to widespread electoral fraud and horrendous police violence have been suppressed. The tentative protests by workers and the “solidarity chains” organised by women in Minsk are no more. Then, since the regime’s forced landing of a Ryanair plane carrying a dissident in May, the country has been increasingly cut off from the outside world as transport links are shut down and international sanctions hit. Thousands of people have been left injured, imprisoned and increasingly isolated.

Many more people have left Belarus in fear of what might happen to them if they stay. Belarusians from all walks of life have left for Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – seeking new jobs, homes and lives, yet still living in the aftermath of the country’s revolution.

openDemocracy asked Tanya Kapitonova, a Belarusian photojournalist now living in Poland, to write a diary of her experience of exile. Here, Kapitonova reflects on how the protests – and forced emigration – have changed her.

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10 August 2020: protests at Pushkinskaya metro station, Minsk | Image: Tanya Kapitonova

21 September

My name is Tanya Kapitonova, I am a photographer and journalist from Minsk. For the past year and a half, I used to work with a media outlet that the Belarusian authorities recently declared “extremist” – like many other independent media.

In the aftermath of 9 August 2020 – the day of the presidential elections in Belarus – I was still slightly concussed from an exploding flash grenade [from the police]. But I continued to photograph the subsequent protests and people’s stories. I may not have taken any ‘iconic’ photos or videos, but documenting the events gave me a sense that my work meant something.

Since the elections, I got used to living with a constant background feeling of fear and tension. I learned how to figure out who the plain clothes officers were on the street and to run away when I saw their minibuses approaching. I became afraid of loud, harsh sounds. The flash grenade explosion left a constant ringing in my left ear, my clothing size dropped from medium to small, and my hair suddenly turned grey.

This was my first experience of detention: in all my 28 years, I’d never even been fined for running a red light or travelling without a ticket

During the first nine months of the protests, I managed to avoid being detained. Many of my colleagues were repeatedly taken to the Akrestsina Street detention centre in Minsk or even ended up in prison in connection with criminal investigations. All this time I was gripped by the thought that to wind up behind bars is, well, heroic. As if this means that you’re doing something significant and noticeable, because you’re an undesirable person in the eyes of the state. Many of my psychotherapy sessions have been devoted to these reflections.

Then, in May 2021, the security services came for me. It took them a long time.

Here’s how it happened. Nine months after the first women’s “chain of solidarity” protest was held at Minsk’s Komarovsky market, the women decided to hold the action again, and again I photographed it. Hundreds of people had taken part in the first demonstration, but this time, nearly a year later, the protests had been almost completely suppressed, and there were about ten participants.

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May 2021: Women's solidarity action, Komarovsky market, Minsk | Image: Tanya Kapitonova

Indeed, by May 2021, there were two types of street protests that were still possible in the country, in my view: marches through apartment buildings’ courtyards, which were rare; and the women’s solidarity actions. These mysterious protesters took to the streets of Minsk about once every fortnight. They usually wore light-coloured clothes, camouflaged their faces and sometimes carried white and red umbrellas – the colours of the country’s national flag. They didn’t shout anything, didn’t block the roads – they didn’t do anything for which Belarusian judges are now handing out prison terms.

But the next day, when the police came for me and took me to a district police station for a "conversation", three unknown men (probably investigators, but they did not give their job titles) told me that these “girls in white” should be declared “terrorists”, “extremists”.

That included me too, they said, because I photographed them and then distributed the images, which meant I was involved in their “terrorist organisation”. The officers said they would put me in prison for several years, and tried to find out if I had any contacts among the protesters. In the end, they got nothing, and a judge sentenced me to ten days of jail.

This was my first experience of detention: in all my 28 years, I’d never even been fined for running a red light or travelling without a ticket.

My plan was to leave for a week – to unwind and then return to Belarus. The day before my departure, two people called and explained why I shouldn't return to the country

The conditions at Akrestsina Street detention centre, according to people who’ve been there regularly, were at their worst in May 2021. At its peak, there were 16 people to each two-person cell. We had to sleep on the floor, we didn’t get any parcels from our relatives, homeless women with lice were moved into our cells, they didn’t open the windows orus out for exercise and they woke us up twice a night. A cellmate, who was serving seven years for robbery, called the conditions worse than prison.

Soon after my release, I was invited to a photographers’ festival in Poland. My plan was to leave for a week – to unwind and then return to Belarus. The day before my departure, two people called and explained why I shouldn't return to the country. Then an acquaintance, who previously worked as a police investigator, confirmed their fears.

Exactly three months ago, I made the decision to stay in Poland, although I had never thought about emigration before.

23 September

I have heard all sorts of stories about what happens when you’re forced to emigrate. Some people crossed the Belarusian border through forests and swamps, some managed to use secret minibuses, others ended up in a refugee camp or were left without work in a new country.

I’ve been lucky. I got a new job. Most of my friends had already moved here, and I also found a new life partner.. I just moved my life to another location and, at first, hardly had any problems with migration at all. It’s only recently that I began to miss home, but I don’t want to return to that Belarus yet.

The only thing I still can't get used to is that I can just ‘do my job’. Now I don’t need to be afraid that the police will come after me, that they will arrest me during a photo shoot, that I need to move around the city carefully or watch out for suspicious-looking minibuses.

My feeling of fear has been replaced by a feeling of guilt. Although it was very uncomfortable in Belarus, I felt the importance of being inside the country. It seemed that if all the ‘active’ people left, then that’s when the never-ending terror would start. Throughout the past year I tried not to get angry at those who had left the country – though I didn’t always manage it. I tried to remind myself that people were not leaving me, they were escaping the regime and repression. Or for a better future for their families.

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August 2020: Akrestsina Street Detention Centre, Minsk | Image: Tanya Kapitonova

So, when I myself left the country, I felt ashamed – as if I’d betrayed my ideals. Although I understand that being free in another country means I can do more than if I’m behind bars in Belarus, and even though no one has ever accused me of leaving, and even though my parents are calm for the first time in a year – I still sometimes reproach myself.

My self-flagellation has only started to ebb recently. Now, many journalists are leaving Belarus en masse, because the authorities have closed all independent media in the country. For some reason, it is easier to emigrate when you realise that you are not alone.

Over the past year, I have become so focused that I find it hard to relax. The revolution has definitely made me stronger, bolder, more determined. At the same time, I’ve become more nervous, more jumpy and emotional. However, my therapist says that this is not a bad thing – I kept all my experiences inside for too long.

I remember how painful every hour at Akrestsina Street was and how I wanted to return to freedom as soon as possible. I spent ten days in detention; others have been in custody for more than a year

28 September

Today brought some strange news. KGB officers broke down the door of an apartment in Minsk, where, they said, “there could have been a person involved in terrorist activities.” Guns were fired and two people were killed: the guy who lived there (an IT programmer) and a KGB officer. [The shoot-out was captured in a series of videos from inside and outside the apartment.] The programmer’s wife was also in the apartment. Towards nightfall, it became known that a criminal case had been opened against her for complicity in the murder of a KGB officer.

Immediately, everyone began to discuss this news: why was the raid filmed by several cameras? Why were the security forces in civilian clothes without bulletproof vests? Where was their search warrant? The whole evening was devoted to discussions about whether the shoot-out really happened or not.

If fake, then what is the shoot-out supposed to distract us from? If this is a provocation, should we expect even crueller treatment of dissidents?

If the shootout isn’t a fake, then what will be the consequences?

12 October

There are days of terrible news. Today it was reported that two more people from the protests had died.

Pavel Sibilev, a bus driver from Minsk, has died. He was wounded by a grenade during protests on 10 August (the day after the elections), and developed health problems afterwards. He spent a month in a military hospital: he was diagnosed with a spinal fracture resulting from gunshot, multiple wounds to his left shoulder, bruised kidneys and a wound in his lower back from the explosion. Investigators refused to initiate a criminal investigation against the police forwhat had happened to him. Later, 49-year-old Pavel was diagnosed with cancer – perhaps this is why he died.

Then came news of the death of Elena Amelina, who had contracted coronavirus at Akrestsina Street detention centre. An acquaintance of mine was in the same cell and said that Elena, who was 53, was the most lively and energetic person there – until she got the virus, which all the inmates got.

They only gave us paracetamol to deal with it – antibiotics in the most severe cases. I remember that it was the same with me; I had to beg the prison staff for paracetamol and prove in every possible way that it was really needed.

It is frightening to imagine that someone has already served their sentence for participating in the protests and has been released, but there is still no result. What are these people thinking?

On these days of terrible news, I dream of falling asleep as soon as possible so that I can forget. I still worry about every event, every arrest of my acquaintances, every unfair sentence, every death associated with this revolution.

A year ago, Belarusians killed Belarusians in the streets – then in the courtyards of their buildings, then in their apartments. In 2020, Belarusians died from bullets; in 2021, they are dying from the after-effects of repression.

I don’t know how you can separate yourself from this, especially if your daily work revolves around what is happening in Belarus.

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October 2021: the author at a photographers' residence, Poland | Image: Tanya Kapitonova

15 October

I left Belarus four months ago. This is the longest time that I have spent away from home. When I left for “a week”, my parents winked slyly at me and said: “Stay there.” They always wanted me to leave Belarus “for a better life”. But in the last five years I was sure that I could figure out how to create a full-blown life for myself in Minsk – and was confident that I would do it.

Now I am at a residence for photographers who covered the protests. We live a leisurely life in a house by the Baltic Sea, walk in the woods and breathe fresh air, work on our archives and have heated debates every day.

Other photographers, who have come from Belarus, say: “There is life there too. We feel united and try to support each other. Please stop talking about these negative scenarios.” And then this, which I often hear lately: “We’re tired of whiners and sceptics. Stop being so negative, it’s hard enough without it.”

Like many others, I am now depressed. The revolution has had no clear result. Sometimes, it seems that all this repression will last for a long time, and nothing good will happen any time soon. I realised that, for myself, it is really better to shut up during these periods of depression, not to speak out loud and not to write anything hopeless.

At the same time, I understand how painful it is for political prisoners. While we are brewing freshly ground coffee, discussing photo projects and saying that “it’s just this kind of time, we need to wait”, hundreds of people are imprisoned – in detention centres, prisons and punishment cells – waiting to be released.

I remember how painful every hour at Akrestsina Street was and how I wanted to return to freedom as soon as possible. I spent ten days in detention; others have been in custody for more than a year.

It is frightening to imagine that someone has already served their sentence for participating in the protests and has been released, but there is still no result. What are these people thinking?

Last week, I made the decision to leave my partner. We do not agree on global ideas that are important to me. Now I have to search for a new flat, speak to apartment owners. I will need a lot of money just to move in and set up a new place. I have the feeling that I’m becoming the subject of a story that I’ve already photographed and written about dozens of times before.

I took Luscher’s personality test, specifically to measure anxiety. I scored low: 4 out of 12. The further you are from Belarus, they say, the lower your anxiety levels. Someone I know who left Belarus for Georgia had a test result of 0 out of 12. Perhaps this is how Belarusians should choose a country to emigrate to?

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