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“The feeling of helplessness prevails”. Photographers shooting the elections – on the protests in Belarus.

The protests, already described as the most massive in the history of independent Belarus, have been ongoing for the fourth day in a row. All this time, the Belarusians experienced Internet shutdown all around the country - the connection was restored only on August 12, which means that during the next day, photos of the demonstrators started appearing online. We asked the Belarusian photographers, who were working in the streets side by side with the protesters, to share their opinions on what they have witnessed and whether Belarus is going to change after these events.

Massive public outcry in Belarus began immediately after the closure of polling stations after the presidential elections on August 9. According to official data, the current president of the country, Alexander Lukashenko, won by a wide margin getting almost 80% of the vote.

People expressed their disagreement with such results and went off to the streets; Lukashenko’s main rival Svetlana Tikhanovskaya left the country. Tikhanovskaya’s headquarters refused to recognize the results of the vote: they claim that their candidate got 70-80% of the vote. In her video message, the opposition leader said, “No life is worth what is happening now.”

In the course of four days, hundreds of people were hospitalized after suffering injuries from water cannons, rubber bullets and stun grenades the security forces used against them. More than 6, 000 people were detained around country4 one demonstrator (Alexander Taraikovskyi) died.

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“After Maidan, people in Belarus people would say, ‘Let it not be like that with us.’

Eugene Erchak

TUT.BY photojournalist

— For the last three days I have been sleeping for four hours and working under stressful conditions. I did not expect that on the very first day it would come to violent street riots.

The Belarussian word “pamyarkounast’” (“moderation”) describes the character of the Belarusians best. People had been protesting before, too: serious clashes with the riot police occurred in 1996, when the Ukrainians came to join its participants. Or in 1999 during the Freedom March. But it is the first time that the riots are so violent, decentralized and large-scale. We have never had barricades on the streets before, especially in the sleeping areas. Yesterday, half of Minsk was blocked, because people were out in the streets everywhere. I have no idea what is happening in other cities so far – the Internet connection is still bad.

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None of my acquaintances have ever mentioned the fact of foreign involvement. But among the demonstrators there seems to be some people who are ready to confront the police and act radically. They perceive protests as clashes with riot police and barricades, and not a walk around the city with a white ribbon on the wrist.

Probably, over the past few years, Lukashenko has really lost his electoral majority. After Maidan, here in Belarus people said, “Let’s leave it as it is. If only not what they had in Ukraine”. Lukashenko, of course, does not have 3%, but still he is no longer supported by the majority. He is supported by the elderly and those who enjoy perks provided by the authorities: security officials and civil servants. I think 20-30% maximum.

Moreover, fatigue has grown in people, many were deeply offended by Alexander Grigorievich’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as by the arrests of Babariko and Tikhanovsky.

symbol of solidarity proposed by Tikhanovskaya

oppositional candidates who were not registered by official authorities due to far-fetched reasons

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“People are no longer afraid to discuss sensitive political issues on public transport and in queues.”

Siarhiej Leskiec

Freelance photographer, who shot protests for “Agence France-Presse”.

— No foreign media was accredited to shoot the elections. Although I am a documentary photographer working with long-term projects, I was helping a friend to shoot the presidential elections, because those had been expected to be fierce.

A friend of mine was arrested, so I had to shoot alone. I was not prepared, I had neither a bulletproof vest nor a helmet. Nor had I any experience of working without communication – when you cannot send or get messages. I was surprised by the solidarity of Belarusian journalists. There were a few spots in Minsk where the Internet was still functioning, and the colleagues shared addresses where you could connect and upload photos.

Before the elections the morale in the society was high. Like in the 1990s, people are no longer fearful of discussing sensitive political issues on public transport and in queues. It was not only intellectuals who went out to the streets, as in the previous 26 years. Now we could see numerous ordinary workers protesting with a younger generation side by side. One important trigger was the coronavirus – the impotence of the authorities, their reluctance to help and problem silencing during the pandemic.

The information vacuum made it hard to assess the scale of events. But people were joining the protests without any coordination, even in small towns far from the capital. For Belarus, this is nonsense. I have never seen such a solidarity before. The locals were opening entrances to their blocks of flats to hide protesters in their homes. Doctors went out in civilian clothes to help the wounded.

In my home town of Molodechno, the school headmaster refused to rig the elections and, having announced the information about Lukashenko’s loss, he resigned. People are tired of endless lies and complicity, they are tired of being afraid.

For the first two days, the security forces were not yet so aggressive and cruel. Journalists were not yet beaten, protesters were not shot with rubber bullets. In the early days, women were not attacked, either. This is a lesson learnt in 2010 when one girl was made disabled. Now the authorities are in agony. Even the minimal manifestations of civic activism are suppressed: you are not allowed to bring flowers at the places of protester’s death or file collective complaints.

These days have turned the country upside down. If now the authorities manage to strangle the people and keep the power, then it will not last for long. Nobody will tolerate such dirty provocations, hypocrisy and lies. I saw it even in the eyes of some riot policemen, when they stood over the bodies of the protesters lying unconscious on the ground, and the people were shouting “killers!” at them. If not today, then in a month, many of them will eventually resign from their departments

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“We fell on the floor. I felt like I was in a very bad Hollywood movie about war journalists.”

Maxim Sarychau

Photographer

— I still don’t clearly know about what is happening in other cities. I still don’t have a complete picture of what has happened.

Before the elections, I bought a mask with protective filters and was prepared for being arrested. Based on the experience of other actions held in Belarus, I did not assume that more serious equipment would be needed. On the first and even on the second day, people went to protests in T-shirts and shorts.

In my opinion, such a scale of protests has to do with the insufficient response of the state to the pandemic and Lukashenko’s disrespectful attitude towards the victims. The economic depression in the country, , an obvious election fraud. You hardly need any numbers to realize who was the most popular.

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Lukashenko is supported by retirees, people susceptible to propaganda messages, and officials. I’m not sure that the majority need freedom, whatever sad it might sound. There had never been protests of this scale before, although pressure on the press and the civil society has always existed. But Lukashenko allowed himself dismissive remarks during the pandemic, which caused discontent even among those who had supported him before.

So far, everything that is going on is perceived as a movie. My colleague videographer and I found ourselves into a cloud of tear gas and ran into the open door of some block of flats. A woman in a bright red robe let us in. We fell to the floor of the hallway. I felt like I was in a bad Hollywood movie about war journalists.

The feeling of helplessness prevails. Crowds of armed men attack defenseless protesters, and there is nothing I can do about it. Even my photos don’t solve anything. The testimonials from those who are shooting with their phone cameras provide even more insight into what is happening. I’m not sure that I’m actually needed there as a photographer.

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“Random people are being repressed along with activists”

Alexander Vasukovich

Photographer.

— I think there are several reasons why the protests have reached such a scale. First, our level of life has decreased. Secondly, there were candidates who called on people to fight for their better lives. Thirdly, Lukashenko was becoming more and more dismissive of the Belarusians – this was especially noticeable during the pandemic.

I thought that, as usual, they would detain us for a day, but when the grenades began to explode, we started to fear for our lives. I have a helmet and goggles, I put them on when joining the protests. Buying a real body armor is not possible, you have to use homemade ones.

I thought people would be unlikely to build barricades and throw Molotov cocktails. But when even the most powerful presidential candidates started being removed on far-fetched reasons, the population got more decisive. The changes have already taken place, the Belarusians are much less afraid and will never be the same. After all, now, both the activists and random people are being repressed.

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