Belarus protests: ‘We can breathe for the first time in our lives’

A car passenger displays a Belarusian flag
Image captionMany protesters feel that change is on the way

There is a sense of euphoria on the streets in Belarus. Thousands of people gather in the capital Minsk to voice their opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko and the violent crackdown he unleashed against protesters. People wave the opposition flag – white with a red stripe – and they carry flowers and balloons to show that their movement is peaceful.

Car horns have turned into an instrument of opposition here. Drivers honk in support of the crowds. People wave back and cheer.

“[We] can breathe freedom for the first time in our lives! It’s an amazing feeling,” said Andrey, 33.

Many feel elated and optimistic that a new beginning is awaiting Belarus after 26 years of President Lukashenko’s rule.

Media captionProtesters chant anti-government slogans in a show of defiance

“We are sure that everything will change. We believe in our victory. That’s why we will come out onto the street every single day,” said Yekaterina, who joined the crowd in the centre of Minsk on Saturday.

Anger has overcome fear here. Now, people openly go out to peacefully protest. But just a few days ago, violent clashes between police and protesters spread terror amongst Belarusians.

We witnessed how riot police and special forces grabbed people on the streets at random and threw them into police vans.

Pedestrians, passers-by – anyone became a target. Police stopped cyclists, tackled them to the ground and arrested them. They bent the arms of those who were talking on the phone and dragged them away. Even those who just got off a bus on their way home were detained.

Media captionSergiy says riot police in Belarus threatened to burn him alive

At night it only became more violent.

On Tuesday, we went out for a night watch to observe the protest. A large crowd gathered at the Kamennaya Gorka metro station. Soon police trucks and buses arrived.

Men wearing military camouflage emerged from police vehicles, pointing their guns at protesters. They fired rubber bullets at people who tried to take cover behind buildings.

A projectile landed in the middle of the road with a whistle and exploded. A second later the deafening bang of a stun grenade forced people to flee in all directions. A big plume of smoke rose on the pavement. People coughed and spluttered, rubbing their eyes, stung by tear gas.

An entire police squadron descended on the area. In black uniforms, with helmets and shields, they chased protesters into the courtyards of buildings.

One man was caught at the entrance to an apartment block, and a dozen officers jumped on him, ferociously beating him with their batons.

As people were thrown into police vans, they were viciously assaulted and tortured. We heard sounds of beatings and cries for help coming from inside. Today, more personal accounts emerge of those who faced abuse in detention.

A man presents flowers to passing cars' passengers during an opposition event
Image captionPeople have started coming out in the day to protest peacefully

Such violence has fuelled the anger amongst the people of Belarus. Instead of night protests with running battles, people now come out on to the streets during the daytime. Initially led by women, the movement has gathered pace across the country.

Major factories announced they were going on strike in protest against police brutality. At a meeting of workers of the famous BelAZ factory, which produces trucks and buses, workers chanted “Leave” – demanding Mr Lukashenko step down.

“We demand free elections,” said Pavel, a factory worker. “We demand a change of power, we demand freedom and democracy and peace in our homes,” he added, his voice breaking with emotion.

President Alexander Lukashenko holds a meeting in the Strategic Management Centre of the Belarusian Defence Ministry
Image captionLukashenko says that Russia has agreed to offer security assistance

These protests that are spreading across the country are a major blow to Alexander Lukashenko’s claim that he won more than 80% of the popular vote during the presidential election. His regime is under pressure like never before.

Even state TV employees declared they would go on strike from Monday. One of their demands is to stop the censorship on TV and allow objective coverage of events in the country.

Despite such an unprecedented challenge to his rule, Mr Lukashenko is not ready to give up power.

At a defence ministry meeting on Saturday, Mr Lukashenko said that he was worried about Nato military drills near the country’s borders. He claimed that he had reached an agreement with President Vladimir Putin for Russia to provide “comprehensive assistance to maintain security in Belarus”.

Many here interpret this statement as a direct threat to end the protests with a bloodbath with the Kremlin’s help.

The violence that was used by the regime before only fuelled more demonstrations. The question is how far Mr Lukashenko is willing to go in order to maintain his grip on power.

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