12 April 2024, Friday, 23:29
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Paper Stork Waves From Prison Truck

Paper Stork Waves From Prison Truck

Nevertheless, we hear each other.

We have had different Freedom Days. Also, we’ll have more different ones. The main thing is that they will always be.

The first Freedom Day was held in Soviet Belarus on March 25, 1989, and it has been forever associated with the name of the artist Ales Pushkin since then. At that time, he was still a student of the Theater and Art Institute, and most Belarusians did not know about such a date as the BDR (Belarusian Democratic Republic) foundation day. Pushkin knew. On March 25, he took a paper stork to the entrance of the institute and walked along the avenue with his friends-artists. They were carrying balloons – exactly 71. It was the 71st BDR foundation anniversary. The protesters then reached the first police cordon. 35 people were arrested, and Ales was convicted for the first time. It was still a conditional sentence then.

Many Belarusians born in the eighties and earlier probably remember March 25, 2000. Minsk did not look so militarized, perhaps, even during the Nazi occupation. In the morning, APCs, water cannons, prison trucks, and a huge number of police cars drove into the city center. Minsk was occupied by internal troops. They began to catch everyone and wherever they got without waiting for the gathering of citizens on Yakub Kolas Square. For example, they broke into a cafe, where people were just drinking coffee, and took them outside and in an unknown direction. Journalists and diplomats were arrested. I remember that the employee of the OSCE mission Christopher Panico, who was always at all the protests, also drove in a police car.

Hundreds were detained. At first, they were taken to all the Minsk police departments, and then, when there was no place left even for the police officers – absolutely packed – people were taken directly to the internal troops base #5448. They drove everyone to a huge gym, called somewhere, not knowing what to do next, fussed and ran from the hall to the offices and back. The prisoners had fun, staged a flying rally right in the lair of the internal troops and chanted "Long Live Belarus!". Meanwhile, footage of APCs and water cannons in Minsk scattered on all world TV channels. The spectacle was truly frightening. They started to release the detainees by the evening: no one could think of what to do with them. Those who were then detained still remember how they held a spontaneous rally right in base #5448.

There were the same water cannons at Freedom Day 2017 as 17 years ago, more modern and intimidating police trucks, military vehicles and a completely covered city center. Empty streets, on which groups of Minsk residents somehow inexplicably seeped. Of course, they were "grabbed", beaten, "packed" into paddy wagons, but the people did not retreat. Instead of fleeing from the enforcers, they again appeared near the Academy of Sciences, knowing that they would be arrested now. And, perhaps, they will be beaten. And maybe they will be imprisoned for a long time. But the city was boiling all day long. And flags appeared in different areas, and "Long Live Belarus!" coming from the windows.

There was Freedom Day 2006 after the destruction of the tent camp on the square, when tens of thousands of Belarusians marched on Akrestsina demanding the release of those arrested in the previous days of resistance and met the strong cordon of special forces. Then there was everything: gas, stun grenades, panic, brutal beatings, mass detentions, and the arrest of Aliaksandr Kazulin. Many other Freedom Days – with enthusiasm and fear, detentions and beatings, the joy of meeting like-minded people and suffocation from the special suppression means used. But be sure – with flags and the common "Long Live Belarus!". And the exact knowledge that next year we will get together again. Maybe thousands will come. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands.

Freedom Day has gone underground now. To celebrate it in Belarus is to draw the curtains so that no one can see anything from the street, to get a well-hidden flag (preferably a small one, it will be easier to hide later) and say in a low voice "Long Live Belarus!". Maybe that's why this holiday has become very sad abroad. There is no roll-call, no "Long Live!" come in response, no matter how loud you shout or yell. Those who could shout in response so that they could be heard in Vilnius, Chicago, and Sydney, hid in the twilight and whispered: "Long live...".

Nevertheless, we hear each other.

Iryna Khalip, specially for Charter97.org

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