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Viktar Babaryka’s Four Birthdays

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Viktar Babaryka’s Four Birthdays
IRYNA KHALIP
PHOTO: NASHA NIVA

We remember everything.

Viktar Babaryka is 60 years old. This is his fourth birthday behind bars and his first anniversary there. I'm trying to imagine these birthdays of his. I do not succeed in that though. Because it is practically impossible for anyone who is free to imagine what is happening to political prisoners today. Even for those who have been in prison.

However, probably, that first birthday, November 9, 2020, was still celebrated — a pre-trial detention cell, parcels from the outside, bags of letters, postcards and telegrams that were not yet taken somewhere in the basement and burned, but handed over to the addressee. Babaryka met with lawyers and learned the news. And the news was encouraging. There were also marches around the city every Sunday. On Mondays, pensioners took to the streets, on Saturdays women walked with white and red umbrellas. Raman Bandarenka was still alive. Katsiaryna Andreyeva broadcasted live. Rescue and police cars still drove around the city in a senseless bustle, tearing down national flags and cutting off ribbons, but every day the flags appeared again. The walls of houses were still blooming with spontaneous murals. The words “Long Live Belarus!” still appeared on the asphalt, even under the dirty communal paint. And it seemed that everything was moving towards its logical conclusion, all that remained was to hold out a little, and there would be spring, and with spring thousands would turn into millions, flags would bloom like violets on every windowsill, and the walls, of course, would collapse. And there would be no trial, no verdict — you just needed to be patient for a little bit longer.

November 9, 2021 was a completely different date. More precisely, in a completely different country. Not a pretrial detention cell, a hundred meters away from the march of thousands, so “Long live Belarus!” flies through the prison walls, but the dull barracks of the Navapolatsk prison and the number buzzing in the head: 14 years of imprisonment in a reinforced-security colony. Yes, spring did come. Along with swallows and other migratory birds, a Ryanair plane landed in Belarus, after which all other planes in the world forgot their way to our country. Tut.by and BelaPAN had already been destroyed, editors and journalists were already placed in the cells of another pre-trial detention center. There was no longer a single flag, white and red umbrella, inscription, or ribbon on the streets. A clean city, a grave crypt, slowly sinking into the Middle Ages. And on the eve of the birthday, the licenses of lawyers who conveyed at least some news from outside were revoked, and a ban on calls and letters was imposed. But this was not the last spring, you just need to wait for the next one, the darkness thickens before dawn, and in general, “take courage, people, summer is coming.”

And another spring, and another summer, and another November 9, and the man is already 59 years old, and there are fewer and fewer hopes for the upcoming springs. What are you going to think if, on the very eve of spring, when there are only a few days left until the coveted March, a war begins, and missiles from another country are flying from your country to a third country. And you still burn charcoal in prison, then you don’t get out of the punishment cell, you no longer receive letters, and other prisoners are forbidden to even greet you. There is war all around, all the punishment cells and cell-type premises are filled with political prisoners, penalties for “propensity towards extremism” are handed out right and left, and you begin to feel like a veteran of the Gulag, because it’s already three years, and all the time while they, the newly arrived holders of yellow tags, walked freely around the city, hung flags on balconies and sang “Mury” and “Changes!” in the evenings, with guitars in the courtyards, you were already sitting in a pre-trial detention cell, and this whole holiday of disobedience, this whole marathon of freedom passed by, but you knew more than they did. You already knew everything.

And finally, 60. Anniversary. If it weren’t for 2020, telegrams and visitors with gifts and congratulations would have been flying to Belgazprombank already in the morning. Cheerful employees would be running around, setting tables, making toasts. Festive bustle, carelessness of today and strict plans for tomorrow. I wonder if Viktar Babaryka is trying to imagine what this day would have been like if nothing had happened three and a half years ago? Maybe yes. Or maybe not. Now we can no longer assume or imagine anything with at least some degree of probability. Simply because any connection with Viktar Babaryka was lost more than six months ago. No letter, no call, no lawyer. Where he is remains unknown. Whether he is healthy or not is unknown. In the punishment cell or in the cell-type premises — unknown either.

The only thing we can all say with sniper precision: without Viktar Babaryka, 2020 might not have happened at all. Queues for signature collectors; instant gatherings of people in places where someone needed help; T-shirts with the “Eva” painting as a way to recognize your own people; the sweet premonition of change is largely his merit. Maybe he didn’t realize this. But we do. And in voices hoarse from sobs and screams we say: happy birthday, Viktar! We remember everything.

Iryna Khalip, exclusively for Charter97.org

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