In the GDR the same methods were used to harass women as in today’s Belarus.
Recently Radio Svaboda told the story of Edda Schönherz, a famous German anchorwoman who was a prisoner in the Stasi jail between 1974 and 1977.
I was shocked by that story: it turns out that for 40 years ago, in the GDR Ministry of State Security women were tortured the same way they are tortured by the Belarusian KGB today.
And now it seems even more odd and dreadful that right before the “bloody” December 19, 2010 Belarusian punishers went on a training course to Germany, the real democratic Germany, not the GDR of the 70s.
When I was reading “Prison and Freedom” by Mikhail Khodorkovsky I noticed an interesting thing: the harder it is to survive a conviction, the less emotional the story gets. The feeling must be hidden really deep inside, so that only facts are translated to the paper.
This article, too, merely compares the tortures.
Stasi jail: Their attitude was horrible. We were the enemies; we weren’t treated as human beings. My period stopped in jail. The cycle was restored only some time after I was freed.
KGB jail: Once, during a night interrogation, chief of the investigation isolation cell of the Belarusian KGB, colonel Aliaksandar Arlou, who was trying to force me to “acknowledge guilt”, said: “You will not leave the jail earlier than in five year. And mark my word; by that time you won’t be able to have children.”
And indeed, he did everything to keep his promise. First of all, he commanded to put me in a cell with no toilet or bed. I had to sleep on the wooden planks on the floor in a cold cell in January. I was allowed to go to the bathroom once in three-four hours, only during the daytime, only accompanied by warders. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. I had to stay in the cell.
I stopped drinking water. I could only drink one-two tiny cups of tea, just to keep myself warm. But my body was torn by pain. The bladder seemed to be exploding. Sometimes, at night, I had to sit up and swag as a lunatic. And I immediately heard the warder’s angry shouts. He was watching us 24 hours per day. He yelled at me to lie down, because it was prohibited to sit up during the night time.
As a result, my pains became chronic. After an examination, the prison doctor told the nurse to write an application to the prison chief and demand to arrange for more frequent toilet visit for the inmates of my cell. I recall how he whispered to her: “They’ll regret if they don’t stop, because the consequences for the health will be deteriorating.”
After that, we were taken to the toilet once in two-three hours. But the same routine remained for the night time.
Stasi jail: We had to undress in front of a female warder and put our hygiene pads on a table. We had to stand there naked while she was searching through the tampons. Then the woman would put on gloves and examine every orifice on my body. It was shocking.
KGB jail: There were no female warders in the KGB jail. The female inmates of the isolation cell were “guarded” only by men, mostly in black masks, armed with batons and tasers. They were defiant; they were yelling at us and insulting us.
I recall how shocked I was when one of these “masks” shepherded me, like cattle, to an interrogation. A gorilla-like warder ordered me to run on steep stairs with very narrow steps “face down, hands behind the back”. Stumbling, nearly falling, tears covering my eyes, I could see nothing when I was running downstairs.
A woman who worked in the accounting department took us to shower once a week. But when she took a sick leave, the same masked warders took over her role to accompany us to the bath. The door to the showers had a window that was not to be shut. While we were trying to wash ourselves in the short time we had, the entire warder shift would gather by that window. After such a shower I felt dirty, as if they spotted on me. Even in the toilet, male warders were watching women through a pip-whole.
There was only cold water in the cell tap, which made it very difficult to perform the necessary daily hygiene routines. They gave us water-boiling devices for one hour every morning and evening. During this hour we had to heat several jars of water for all the women in the cell. The jars were so small that we only could heat one jar per person.
All the cell inmates were watched 24 hour per day. The warders (only men) were watching us through a special pip-whole nearly non-stop, with five-minute breaks. We had to cover a part of the cell with sheets to wash. Sometimes they would allow it, sometimes they would demand to take away the sheet because it “blocked the view”.
Once a month the public attorney paid a visit. His inspections were nothing but a show. It was meaningless to complain and expect him to help. But the prison administration’s reaction was quick. Once a prisoner complained, and right after that most of the inmates, including us, were prohibited to lie down during the day time.
It is nearly impossible to be sitting from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m. on the iron beds, the back starts to hurt. You get very sleepy if there is no interrogation, or if you’re tired from reading. If you lean against the cold walls you risk getting ill. So we were sitting leaning on each other’s backs until we got the merciful permission to lie down.
Stasi jail: Psychological tortures were numerous and diverse, designed to break the person. For example, you don’t know what’s going on with your family, and they tell you: your husband says that he is with another woman now and that it’s over between you two. You are completely isolated, and the only person that tells you about your home is the investigator. It almost drove me insane.
KGB jail: We were also kept in complete information isolation. We got neither letters from our families, nor even newspapers (TV-sets were removed from our cells during the first days of the arrest).
I wasn’t scared for myself, I didn’t care. But I worried a lot about how my elderly parents were dealing with my arrest. My mother anticipated the disaster. She came to visit me in Minsk just two days before the presidential elections, and already during the first days of my arrest she stormed the KGB isolation jail and insisted on leaving parcels for me. Meanwhile, my father got even older. He had no energy for the publicity, he kept everything inside his heart, his home, in Kobryn.
I remember worrying about my mother’s fragile health already when I was a child. She went through several surgeries, she suffers from chronic diseases. The KGB knows that. The chief of the jail was obviously enjoying himself when he told me: “You’ll be released in five years; your mother will be dead by then. She can hardly stand on her feet when she comes here to leave those parcels for you.”
And I was going insane thinking about my family’s suffering…
Stasi jail: Threats and physical violence were common during night interrogations.
KGB jail: It is against the law to interrogate prisoners during the night time. However, in the KGB jail I was raised from the wooden planks even after 10 p.m. I had to throw some clothes on and go.
Igar Shunievich, today – minister of interior affairs, back then – head of the KGB department on corruption and organized crime, summoned me to one of those night interrogations.
I was exhausted by day-time interrogations that could last for hours, and almost always I was there alone, without my lawyer. Sometimes there were 3-4 interrogations a day, with the investigator or prison chief. For me, it meant no lunch and no dinner.
In the evenings, after all the interrogations where I had to concentrate in order not to say something that could harm other political prisoners, I had no strength left. Those who summoned us to night interrogations planned to finish and break the exhausted prisoners.
As we found out later, the men were tortured both psychologically and physically. The former political prisoners Andrei Sannikov, Ales Mikhalevich, Dzmitry Bandarenka, Aliaksandar Atroshchankau and others have already told about these tortures.
I believe that we’ll hear much more about it when Mikalai Statkievich will be released. Sometimes I was placed in cells close to him. I couldn’t sleep because of his cough attacks that were so strong that one could hear them through the thick prison walls.
Stasi jail: They didn’t let us sleep, they made us stand, they kept the lights on for days. We got no blankets, and in winter it was freezing.
KGB jail: In the cells, the lights were on all the time. It was prohibited to cover one’s face with a handkerchief or blanket to rest from the bright light of the bulb. If we did that, they could come in to the cell and order to remove the blanket.
It was cold in the cells. Right under the ceiling, there was a tiny window with a grid. I was freezing; the cold went up even from the floor. We got blankets but they were worthless. It was a great relief when they allowed families to send one blanket per inmate.
My bronchitis became chronic. The disease came back each time I got a little bit better. The cold tap water that we used to wash the dishes, the floors in the cell and our clothes made it even worse.
It is better to stay healthy in the Belarusian prison. They won’t let you die - they don’t want the paper routine. But they won’t give you any medical aid. That night on the square I was assaulted and definitely got a concussion, my ears were bleeding, but the prison doctor concluded that I was “adapting to the cell environment”. They called the ambulance when the headaches became unbearable, but they didn’t let me go to the hospital for a scan despite the recommendations of the ER-doctors. They just gave me a pain-killer.
You breathe dust instead of air in the cell. This dust has been gathering for decades in thick layers on the radiators. You wash your face in the morning, and in the evening the cotton pad you use to clean your face is black.
The most important thing: in jail, you’re not a human being, you’re cattle. Their goal is to destroy you human dignity. You can forget who you were before. There, in jail, you’re nobody. A creature with no rights, somebody they can do anything with. And you get this message every day and every minute from everyone – the warders, administration, investigators.
You feel it when you are walking to an interrogation with your head bent down, your hands behind your back (the men were even handcuffed); when they come with individual searches and raids several times every week to inspect all your belongings, every hygiene pad and every tea leaf; when they move everyone around in the entire jail and switch cells – which means that you must leave the cell that you did your best to make better, pack all your stuff (even the heavy madras, pillow and “bed” - wooden deck) and move to another dirty cell in 10 minutes. First you think you’re being released, and your heart stops – but then it falls back down to the pit of hopelessness and despair.
When you are in the investigation cell, you haven’t been convicted yet, your guilt hasn’t been proven. But it doesn’t matter. For them, you are a criminal, a finished person not worthy of any respect.
At first I was scared of the warders in masks. But then it even gave me hope. I realized that they were afraid to be recognized. So maybe they did understand that sooner or later they’d have to pay.
The people who were responsible for the repressions in the GDR, communist Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania have been punished. In these countries, the victims still find and recognize their tormentors. And all of them are tried, disregarding their age.
I am convinced that the same will happen in Belarus. I think I can recognize them by eyes. I tried to look in their eyes, tried to memorize…
Natallia Radzina, editor-in-chief of charter97.org