Belarusian in Latvia: A Letter to the Front Line

My name is Alexey Murashko and I'm a book designer. I have been living in Rīga for many years, but I was born and grew up in Belarus. I have never been a political activist, I'm more of a craftsman simply doing his job. But the time has come to express myself publicly. Such are the times, such the circumstances. First of all, I want to thank the many people in Latvia who have written to me expressing their support or asking me about the situation in Belarus. I was very touched by the multitude of people who arrived to the protest at the Embassy of Belarus in Rīga on August 12. Your interest is very important and I'm "forwarding" it to compatriots in my homeland. Many acquaintances here are asking me what's happening. I need but a few words to explain it: the authorities are waging war against the people. 

The en masse falsification of the election results didn't surprise anyone. It has happened before, truth be told it has been happening for the past twenty years or so. But this time the sheer shamelessness is record-breaking. Many of those who partook in falsifying the results have already come clean about the process. Even they couldn't hide the truth, despite the danger and the shame involved.

Another difference this time is in the way the authorities are reacting against public protests and outcry. At the same time as the warm evenings on [Rīga's] Tērbatas Street were filled with wine and heartfelt discussions between families with children, in Minsk and other Belarusian cities they were torturing people who had taken to the streets to engage in peaceful protest. I am being very careful with the words I use, but all signs suggest that the number of the people who've died is greater than what's been publicly reported. It is possible we will learn about this soon. About 50 people have been reported missing, and thus far no one has been able to find them.

Yes, I know that two Latvian citizens were detained and beaten. Their testimonies are available in Latvian now. But I would like to add three testimonies about what happened in Minsk from August 9 to August 13. All the below quotes have been extracted from respected media who went the extra mile to find people and talk them into sharing their experiences despite the fear and the humiliation that they want to forget as soon as possible.

Timur (16). He was about to go fishing to a summer house with a friend and went missing. As he had not arrived to his friend's place, the family started looking for their son. On August 13 his mother received a call from the school saying that Timur is at the hospital.

"We were able to talk to Timur yesterday. He had a panic attack hearing the word 'police'. They tried gouging out his eyes with a rubber stick," the teenager's mother said.

Here's Artyom, Timur's brother: "He was beaten during arrest, and then, as he was being transported, they stopped several times and beat him. He arrived at the hospital August 13. They had tased his heels, saying: 'You will sing the OMON anthem now!' He had refused, and then they had tilted his head back, put a wooden stick in his throat and pressed it in deep. Timur says he had been luckier than the others, as [security forces] had inserted the wooden stick into another man's rectum, while a 14-year-old boy received blows to his genitals."

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Alexey (14). On August 11 he didn't come home after private lessons. At three a.m. his mother received a call from the police saying that Alexey is at the precinct, even though police had earlier denied this to her and her husband.

"They treated him as a grown man," his mother said. "They held him for six hours. He was lying prostrate on the floor with his feet naked, in urine and dirt. There were 16- and 17-year-old boys together with him there. They had to hold their hands behind their head. The police jumped on the fingers of those who released their hands. All of this was accompanied by swearing and screaming." Alexey had told his mother that they had beaten his kidneys with a truncheon, doing this through a magazine so that no traces would remain. "They put a gun to teenagers' heads while reloading. They pressured them psychologically. I can't even tell you everything, it's so horrible. Such things shouldn't exist in nature, do you understand?" Alexey's mother said.

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Alina (20). On the night of August 9, she was driving with her friends to leave central Minsk. She didn't partake in the protests but was detained all the same.

"We were taken to confinement. A man was standing at the entrance. He was repeatedly saying, 'Move faster, bitches!' I asked him, 'Why are you saying this to us?' He grabbed me by the neck and pushed me against the wall, saying, 'Observe the floor, bitches. Then you'll learn where you should go and where you shouldn't.' All of us, thirteen girls in total, were placed in a four-person cell. Through the window we saw how they humiliated the boys. They were on their knees, half-naked, with their bottoms in the air and hands behind their backs. If someone moved, he was beaten with a stick. One of the girls started menstruating. 'Give me some toilet paper, please,' she asked. 'You can wipe yourself with your shirt,' they told her. As a result, she simply pulled down her underwear, washed it and repeated this until it became stained again. Now the only thing I want is to leave the country, take all my family and relatives with me, just so I don't have to remain here." 

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Indeed. Children, women, men and old people are being tortured in my native Belarus. The scale is not entirely clear but even now they are talking about thousands of people being detained and hundreds of people who have been humiliated and crippled. People are still in the hospital with wounds from rubber bullets and sound grenades, with multiple fractures from being beaten with truncheons. Despite the massive protests and strike actions, it's far from over. Even today journalists are reporting about new arrests.

I agree with [politics expert] Māris Zanders in that the Belarusian society needs support. And the matter is very pressing even now. I remember that in 2006, after another presidential election and the accompanying protests and repressions, Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks turned to leaders at Latvian universities asking them to consider admitting Belarusian students who are prevented from studying in their own country due to their political conviction. Do you know how it turned out? It ended with the reply that Belarusian students don't speak Latvian and therefore can't study here. The University of Latvia Foundation agreed granting only a single scholarship, while the Rīga Technical University said that Belarusian students can apply "following regular procedure". But I want to point out that real help was provided too, as when, shortly before joining the Schengen Area in 2006, Latvia lifted visa fees for Belarusian citizens wanting to enter.

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs has now announced that Latvia is ready to admit refugees from Belarus, while Interior Minister Sandis Ģirģens has offered Belarusian companies to move to Latvia. For now, however, these are just words. The same words from 2006. Without true, legal support mechanisms (especially taking into account the limitations over crossing the border introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic), these words are worth nothing. At the same time, Poland has started admitting the first refugees from Belarus on humanitarian visas. According to the information I have, not a single asylum request from Belarus has been accepted in Latvia in the past decade. Just a single refugee from Belarus has been given legal recognition, after contesting the refusal in court. 

On August 18 the Saeima adopted a declaration about the elections in Belarus, asking to carry out a repeat election according to international standards. But there's been enough talk, it's time for work. I am not a Latvian citizen and have no right to ask anything from the powers that be. But you are, and you have this right. The people who have been peaceful neighbors of Latvia for centuries are now in great distress. Belarusians need your help and support. You don't even know how difficult it is to me to read news and stories from the friends I have there. I received a letter from a well-known Belarusian writer at night: "The most important thing is to believe and not let this faith die out, as otherwise they'll simply shoot us all." Please don't this faith die out. Express yourself, pressure Latvian politicians and donate to aid campaigns!

Lastly, on the evening of August 13 I read a piece by Meduza [newswire] which described the arrest, torture and humiliation of Alexey, the 14-year-old boy mentioned above. I was horrified by everything I read. His mother's word made a great impression. "It is important to me that after all that happened my son isn't overtaken by thirst for revenge. I want him to realize what evil is, that he has experienced it, but that he now needs to leave it behind respectfully and build his future with his back straight." That very night I sent a letter to this boy. It got through to him and cheered him up. A few days later, it turned out that there are dozens of similar detention stories, some of which I mentioned earlier. For a long time, I doubted whether I should publish the exchange we had, as letters are a rather intimate thing. But the circumstances are extraordinary and I am sure that the recipient will understand, and that's why I'm publishing it.

"Hello, Alexey!

My name is Alexey Murashko and I'm a book designer. I have been living in Rīga for many years, but I was born and grew up in Belarus, where you are living now. I surmise that your real name is different and I understand why your real name was not provided. Such are the times, such the circumstances. I read news of your arrest and wrote this letter, asking the guys at Meduza to forward it to you, and they contacted your mother.

First of all, I want to say that I admire your endurance. I am afraid even to try to picture myself in your place. Everyone who has been sucked into the machinery of violence can break quickly, not because they're weak but because the balance of power is unequal. But you made it.

And yes, you don't have to be ashamed of your fear. Fear and cautiousness have always been mechanisms required for survival in extreme situations. But if you don't control your fear, it can turn into a poison that eats a person from inside. Fear breeds hate, which is even more poisonous. But I think that you won't let fear poison you, as you were able to go through all that horror without breaking. It is important to remember that there are people who, as if they were characters from the Harry Potter books, become stronger from feeding on the fear of other people. You shouldn't give them a chance like this. Only you should have the power over your own fear.

Evil is real, but there is light in people. And we know that it will defeat the darkness. In Belarus, too. You may ask, why should all this injustice take place? Because there are very different people among us. In 1997, after finishing high school, I decided to enroll at the Faculty of Law. Even then I was working in design, but my parents insisted I go to university. My specialization was criminal law, and graduates usually become investigators, prosecutors, judges and employees of other institutions sworn to uphold justice.

I was quite the careless student but liked the field and, for a moment, I even considered working in this area professionally. That is, until the time I finished my internship and saw how the system actually works. I visited courts and jails and worked together with an investigator for a month. It was then that I realized that it is a very dark environment I can't fix. People lose themselves very quickly there, some of them turn evil and some turn to drink. It was a time when they started using employees at justice institutions to oppress those Belarusians who thought differently and to restrict freedom of speech and expression. In the final courses at the university, they started explaining to us, rather carefully, of how to "correctly" vote in an election. After graduating, I have never worked in this area.

But not everyone does what I did. Some remain part of the system because they're weak. Others do because their character allows for resistance. Some find opportunities for carrying out their sadistic leanings just because that's the way justice structures have been working this way for almost a century. You probably know the history and know what I'm talking about. Despite this, however, even there you can find honest people who find it very hard to witness the current events. There are but a few of them, but we've been learning more and more about them in the past few days.

The road towards freedom is always long and hard. Every dark period of time comes to an end sooner or later, and the truth comes to light. Many of the cruel people you had to face have already been struck by loneliness, depression and alcoholism. Some, in the future, will have to answer for their crimes in a court of law. Or, and what's more terrifying, in the court of history. And their children, upon learning about their parents' behavior, will be ashamed of them and distance themselves from them. We know of many such cases from history.

You have absolutely wonderful parents who have carried out both the possible and the impossible to find you and set you free. Believe me, that's a lot! You are extremely lucky to have them. I would not wish it upon anyone to undergo arrests, violence and humiliation. But it happened to you, now, at such a tender age. It sometimes happens that children have to grow up faster, against their own will. Their circumstances make them unexpectedly look at the world from a completely different angle. But I believe that, with the help of your awesome parents, you'll be able to overcome what's happened and help them overcome it as well, as your parents have it very difficult, too. Please say hello to them from me!

The memories of what you've experienced may come back to you, but what's most important is not despairing. You have an entire life ahead of you, full of opportunities, moments of joy and streaks of luck, and, what's most important, full of people close to you. Barely anything can compete with that. But I will remember that there's a 14-year-old boy living in Belarus, a boy that didn't break and became my hero on August 13, 2020. 

Take care of yourself and your family. You have my most heartfelt good wishes from Rīga.

– Alexey"

(This piece originally appeared in Latvian on the Satori culture portal, August 20. It was first translated into Latvian by Santa Hirša and Aksels Hiršs.)

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