Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) — Sergei stood on a small sheet of ice within the Dnieper River and breathed within the icy air arduous. He had escaped, however that aid was overwhelmed by each the ache of leaving his homeland and the concern he won’t survive the remainder of his perilous journey.
His was a very exceptional run to freedom. He crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and was not capable of stroll by the forest and throughout sheet ice, like many earlier than him had performed. In a rush, and surrounded by melting ice, Sergei placed on a wetsuit and flippers he had purchased — and swam.
In a video he filmed on his cellphone half-way by his two-hour journey, on New Yr’s Eve, he recorded a part of his escape, which concerned not solely swimming in freezing temperatures and thru dense reed, however stumbling over sheet ice and crawling by thick sludge. Such was his desperation to depart.
“My socks are freezing proper to the ice. I’ll attempt to crawl there and hope that I can’t freeze,” he mentioned at one level in his video.
“I am navigating by the celebrities,” he mentioned, audibly chilly. “The sensation is indescribable, and I’m on their lonesome right here.”
Sergei — who requested CNN to not reveal some particulars of his story and his actual identification — has now claimed asylum abroad, and he wished to share his story with CNN in order that the family members he left behind may someday learn what had occurred to him.
“I left my nation, my family and friends, with the bitterness of defeat,” he mentioned. “I merely turned a refugee and needed to begin once more, as if all I had achieved for years was abruptly nothing. To this present day, I’m mentally exhausted, and sleepless worrying about these left behind.”
CNN has spoken to a number of different Belarusians who’ve fled the repression of Lukashenko’s regime, illegally throughout the border into Ukraine, as a part of a two-month investigation into the crackdown contained in the nation. In dozens of interviews, protesters and opposition activists have spoken of torture — from systematic beatings, to rape with a police baton.
Defectors from the police drive have additionally provided CNN with movies from the police’s personal archives — bodycam, dashcam and surveillance footage — that show the extraordinary ferocity of riot police towards protesters who’re unarmed and peaceable, a lot of them youngsters.
The Lukashenko regime has, activists say, barely softened its techniques prior to now weeks, as concern has gripped the opposition motion. But there are considerations amongst activists the crackdown will intensify once more forward of a nationwide name to the streets on March 25.
The destiny of the Belarusian protest motion has gained better significance prior to now months as anti-government protests unfold inside neighboring Russia towards the tried homicide and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny.
Russian President Vladimir Putin swiftly moved to help Lukashenko in August with a $1.5 billion mortgage and different unspecified help. The Belarusian protests, nevertheless, have continued. Analysts say the Kremlin is worried each by a persistent protest motion for democracy on its doorstep, and the influence of unprecedented ranges of police violence on how a youthful era of Belarusians view Moscow.
After being offered with a abstract of CNN’s findings, a State Division spokesperson mentioned the US “strongly condemns the months-long post-election brutality carried out by the Lukashenka regime towards peaceable protesters.” The assertion added there have been over 500 documented instances of extreme abuse, 290 political prisoners and “quite a lot of people nonetheless reported lacking.”
“These violent actions have destroyed the Belarusian authorities’ legitimacy amongst their very own folks and the worldwide group,” they mentioned, demanding the “fast launch of political prisoners and all these unjustly detained, and … for these liable for extreme abuses to be held to account.”
‘He minimize my underwear utilizing this knife’
The police dashcam footage begins with a police automotive following a white SUV stuffed with protesters. It’s September 13, 2020, and the car is carrying activists away from an indication in central Minsk. The automotive pulls over, after which the devastating police onslaught begins.
The footage reveals batons hitting the automotive’s home windows. A police officer fires a stay spherical into the car. The protesters are yanked out violently, and compelled to lie face down on the bottom. Two males within the group are bleeding, one closely, and one other from his cheek after the aspect of his face is floor into the asphalt. The detainees lie immobile. Typically their heads are pulled again they usually state their names.
A police physique cam reveals an officer busy treating a small minimize on his hand from the glass. The closely bleeding protester is finally given a bandage for his head.
The scene — in video given solely to CNN by BYPOL, an opposition activist group of former Belarusian cops who’ve defected — is one in all dozens they’ve launched that element police ferocity. In some, detainees are seen on digicam, visibly overwhelmed, and marked with crimson paint, a grim signal of the police’s “site visitors lights” system of grading protesters in detention. These painted crimson ought to obtain the worst remedy.
Sexual assault allegations have additionally been made by women and men towards the police. Andrey, a protester from Minsk, informed CNN he was raped with a police baton in a bid by officers to make him unlock his cellphone. They wished the identification of his fellow protesters, he mentioned, asking that some particulars of his expertise and actual title not be disclosed for his security.
Andrey says he refused to present the password, and was overwhelmed. “They simply hit me once more. Presently, I most likely had mind trauma, as I began to really feel actually dizzy. It was arduous to maneuver in any respect,” he mentioned.
The police officer then threatened to assault him together with his baton, requested his colleagues for a condom to sheath the weapon, and took a knife from a colleague. “He minimize my underwear utilizing this knife. He requested me once more to present him the password. I refused once more, after which he did what he did.”
Andrey felt ache, but in addition shock that an individual might do that to a different. “It is not simply police anger — they prepare to do that,” he mentioned. “We’re simply seeing it now at an enormous scale for the primary time. It is touched practically each household in Belarus now.”
The Belarusian Ministry of Inside Affairs, Ministry of International Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Workplace didn’t instantly reply to CNN’s request for response to what the footage of police techniques and violence reveals and the allegations of abuse made.
Mass arrests at protests in Belarus are additionally typically met with such brutalities. One other leaked police video from BYPOL reveals the aftermath of an October protest, through which dozens of demonstrators are compelled to face in a packed police station hall, going through the wall, their heads bowed, some bleeding on the partitions, others affected by beatings or tear fuel they seem to have been uncovered to within the earlier protest.
Within the video, the police officer passes between detainees asking for his or her particulars, and why they have been on the protest. One man has had seven enamel smashed out. They’re all visibly shaken, and the bulk would go on to face prison prices for protesting, activists mentioned.
The footage additionally chillingly reveals police strolling over the unconscious physique of a teenage boy on the ground. CNN has realized the detainee seemingly suffered from an epileptic match, and was left on the ground by police, who move over him. Witnesses mentioned the boy was sometimes kicked by police to see if he was responsive. “Are you a boy or lady?” one witness recalled the police shouting. The minor was later launched from police custody, based on witnesses, who didn’t need to be named.
Police in that central station that night time have been additionally busy finding those that had escaped riot police, CNN has realized. One was Anya, an adolescent, who additionally didn’t need to reveal her actual title for her security.
She fled an advancing line of riot police, who have been throwing stun grenades at protesters. The explosion that caught her was captured on video.
“I did not fall,” she mentioned. “I froze like a deer. I simply stood, thought, breathed, regarded round.” She mentioned she didn’t consider she was intentionally focused, and was swiftly put in a taxi by protesters because the ambulances close by have been overloaded.
In hospital, she was put subsequent to a person who had been trampled by police till his hip broke, she mentioned. “I began screaming that I need assistance,” she mentioned. “Seven folks got here within the room. Everybody checked out me and at my physique. Like ‘Wow. What occurred to you?’ They did not assist. They simply checked out me.”
Medical doctors gave her primary remedy and painkillers, but in addition prioritized a blood alcohol check and informed the police of her whereabouts and accidents. She feared for her security and left together with her mom. However the police weren’t performed together with her, she mentioned.
She shared with CNN pictures of the accidents to her legs as she lay on a sofa at residence. That night, her cellphone rang.
“It was the police asking the place I had been,” Anya mentioned. “I started making up tales. They mentioned they might come and get me, a unit of them. And in the event that they take me, I assumed, then I can say goodbye to my limbs, as a result of nobody will take care of me. I used to be frightened they might torture me on my accidents.”
She left Belarus shortly afterwards and reveals CNN the fragments of grenade faraway from her leg. One fragment continues to be lodged in her thigh.
Anya hopes for change in Belarus for her era, and mentioned that whereas the present peaceable protests have not labored, it has led to an awakening. “There’s a saying amongst Belarusians now that we did not actually know one another till the summer season,” she mentioned, of the protests’ starting.
Her era’s want for wholesale change is a thorn not solely in Lukashenko’s aspect, but in addition the Kremlin’s. Some analysts counsel Putin is cautious of siding too intently with Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown, in case it turns youthful Belarusians towards Moscow completely.
For that, it might be too late.
“Lukashenko would not be so boastful and merciless with out the peace of mind of Russia all the time having his again,” Anya mentioned.
“We’re not their folks, we’re strangers. Russia doesn’t care what occurs to us.”