From The Diary: 11 October
Letters from Belarus
On the trolleybus we’ve jumped into, I am furling an umbrella. It has been raining the whole morning and theweather forecast doesn’t look too hopeful. You are not in the mood again because of your headache and reluctance to go. Feeling a bit guilty, I look away. A group of women seems to be a bit tense, they have been discussing something. One of them looks appraisingly at us, our eyes meet and at once I realise where they are going. I tell them the last news we’ve read at home while we still had an Internet connection: about thesting-ball and stun grenades used near Stela. They share what their friends have told them on the phone. But where are people meeting now, where shall we go? Suddenly we spot a big flow of people crossing the road ahead of the trolleybus, flags are lying on their shoulders and flying above their heads. We all get off at the next stop.
We have to be on alert all the time. The riot police seem to have planned to follow the demonstrators and to disperse them in order to prevent separate groups from forming a column of one hundred thousand people. We were already running today with others on the wet grass and muddy tracks by old detached houses. It felt like in a horror film or a bad dream. Luckily, we’ve managed to hide in the big “Corona” mall where we could catch our breath and call my brother to learn the news. While calling, I looked at the bright and colourful advertisements with beautiful, half-naked women who are relaxed and smiling. Their gazes invite you to stay in this gleaming, dry and safe shopping paradise. But we just walked through the mall to the door on the opposite side and found ourselves in front of the huge demonstration going along. We joined it.
It’s raining, and in spite of the umbrella over my head, my backpack is wet. There is a photo camera in it that I’m concerned about. I usually take a lot of pictures at the demonstrations, catching the historical moments, though recently I’ve been avoiding photographing faces. People could be sentenced to 15 days in jail for their Instagram selfies at demonstrations. So, I mostly take pictures of the front of the column, where only the backs and flags can be seen.
Today it’s too wet and too unsafe to get my old camera out. I take just a couple of dim shots with my smartphone.
We have been walking in the traffic area of the Pushkin Avenue for long, when I start dreading something – something sinister in the air. We’ve marched enough, you are sick, we’ve got soaked, maybe it’s time to go home? Our mission could be over… And it’s just a half-hour walk from home. We climb over the metal fence that divides the road into two lanes. It’s quite low, you just have to lift the leg, but your jeans are too tight, you are afraid of tearing them apart. Crossing the lane, I suddenly look back and see how the demonstrators are spreading out and running to the sides of the road and deeper into the courtyards. They are running from the blue water cannon and cosmonauts that are following them, following us.
We run and run like everybody around us: young and old, women and men, workers and students, doctors and programmers. It doesn’t matter who you are at that moment, the most important thing is how fast you can runaway from the police, across the playgrounds, across the parking lots, between the apartment blocks with the doorways open by their compassionate dwellers. They invite strangers inside their flats. Their flats become shelters to up to thirty people. It reminds me of WWII stories about saving Jews. But we don’t need to hide and find shelter now, we need to get home.
When it seems that the danger is over and at last we can walk gasping for air, behind the trees we notice another group of protesters running towards us, and we go on running as well.
Suddenly you stop and say that your head is aching so badly it could explode if we run any more. We have to hide somewhere and you suggest to drop into a local grocery store. We quickly enter, take a shopping basket and stop at the bread section as if we were regular customers. Actually, any cosmonaut could recognise that we are not usual customers. Firstly, we are entirely wet, our hair is soaked with water. Secondly, our faces are red from running. And thirdly, our eyes are wild like the ones of animals escaping the hunter.
I dry my face and hair with a paper napkin bending over the refrigerator full of pelmeni, I try to normalise my breath, I try to calm down. There are no cosmonauts in sight. Just customers wandering among the food shelves or demonstrators pretending to be customers, who knows. Finally, holding a shopping basket with wine and food for dinner, we head towards the cashier. I have my backpack on and we usually try to be ecological, refusing plastic bags but not this time.
Through the store windows we see that the demonstration is going on, people are still marching, we can even hear snatches of chants. But the store manager has already closed the door and is angrily shouting at anyonemaking the door handle twitch from the outside. “Go away!”, she cries at them, and “We are closed!”. Heavy keys are tinkling in her crossed arms and bitter words are coming out of her mouth. She lets us out, and closes the glass door at once behind our backs.
Heading home you suggest not to go through the courtyards as there could be a police ambush waiting for protesters. On Pushkin avenue, we walk as slowly and calmly as we can, pretending to be a young family: you are holding a white plastic bag full of groceries and I am pressing close to you. Military vehicles leisurely drive by.
At home we learn that two Belarusian philosophers — a young family like us —, have been detained today near Niamiha street.