Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) — Sergei stood on a small sheet of ice within the Dnieper River and breathed within the icy air exhausting. He had escaped, however that reduction was overwhelmed by each the ache of leaving his homeland and the worry he won’t survive the remainder of his perilous journey.
His was a very outstanding run to freedom. He crossed the border into Ukraine illegally, and was not in a position to stroll by the forest and throughout sheet ice, like many earlier than him had executed. 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 telephone half-way by his two-hour journey, on New 12 months’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 go away.
“My socks are freezing right to the ice. I will try to crawl there and hope that I will not freeze,” he mentioned at one level in his video.
“I’m navigating by the stars,” he mentioned, audibly chilly. “The feeling is indescribable, and I am all alone here.”
Sergei — who requested CNN to not reveal some particulars of his story and his actual id — has now claimed asylum in a foreign country, and he wished to share his story with CNN in order that the family members he left behind would possibly at some point learn what had occurred to him.
“I left my country, my friends and family, with the bitterness of defeat,” he mentioned. “I simply became a refugee and had to start again, as if all I had achieved for years was suddenly nothing. To this day, I am mentally exhausted, and sleepless worrying about those 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 power have additionally equipped CNN with movies from the police’s personal archives — bodycam, dashcam and surveillance footage — that show the extraordinary ferocity of riot police in opposition to protesters who’re unarmed and peaceable, lots of them youngsters.
The Lukashenko regime has, activists say, barely softened its techniques up to now weeks, as worry has gripped the opposition motion. But there are issues 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 up to now months as anti-government protests unfold inside neighboring Russia in opposition to 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, nonetheless, 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 introduced 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 against peaceful protesters.” The assertion added there have been over 500 documented instances of extreme abuse, 290 political prisoners and “a number of individuals still reported missing.”
“These violent actions have destroyed the Belarusian authorities’ legitimacy among their own people and the international community,” they mentioned, demanding the “immediate release of political prisoners and all those unjustly detained, and … for those responsible for severe 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 automobile is carrying activists away from an illustration in central Minsk. The automotive pulls over, after which the devastating police onslaught begins.
The footage exhibits batons hitting the automotive’s home windows. A police officer fires a dwell spherical into the automobile. 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 facet of his face is floor into the asphalt. The detainees lie immobile. Typically their heads are pulled again and so they state their names.
A police physique cam exhibits an officer busy treating a small minimize on his hand from the glass. The closely bleeding protester is ultimately 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 among 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 “traffic lights” system of grading protesters in detention. These painted crimson ought to obtain the worst therapy.
Sexual assault allegations have additionally been made by women and men in opposition to 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 telephone. They wished the id of his fellow protesters, he mentioned, asking that some particulars of his expertise and actual identify not be disclosed for his security.
Andrey says he refused to present the password, and was overwhelmed. “They just hit me again. At this time, I probably had brain trauma, as I started to feel really dizzy. It was hard to move at all,” 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 cut my underwear using this knife. He asked me again to give him the password. I refused again, and then he did what he did.”
Andrey felt ache, but in addition shock that an individual might do that to a different. “It’s not just police anger — they train to do this,” he mentioned. “We are just seeing it now at a huge scale for the first time. It’s touched nearly every family in Belarus now.”
The Belarusian Ministry of Inside Affairs, Ministry of Overseas 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 exhibits 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 exhibits the aftermath of an October protest, through which dozens of demonstrators are pressured 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 gasoline 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 tooth smashed out. They’re all visibly shaken, and the bulk would go on to face felony fees for protesting, activists mentioned.
The footage additionally chillingly exhibits police strolling over the unconscious physique of a teenage boy on the ground. CNN has discovered the detainee seemingly suffered from an epileptic match, and was left on the ground by police, who cross over him. Witnesses mentioned the boy was often kicked by police to see if he was responsive. “Are you a boy or girl?” one witness recalled the police shouting. The minor was later launched from police custody, in line with witnesses, who didn’t wish to be named.
Police in that central station that night time have been additionally busy finding those that had escaped riot police, CNN has discovered. One was Anya, an adolescent, who additionally didn’t wish to reveal her actual identify 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 didn’t fall,” she mentioned. “I froze like a deer. I just stood, thought, breathed, looked around.” 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 started screaming that I need help,” she mentioned. “Seven people came in the room. Everyone looked at me and at my body. Like ‘Wow. What happened to you?’ They didn’t help. They just looked at me.”
Medical doctors gave her primary therapy and painkillers, but in addition prioritized a blood alcohol take a look at 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 executed together with her, she mentioned.
She shared with CNN pictures of the accidents to her legs as she lay on a sofa at dwelling. That night, her telephone rang.
“It was the police asking where I had been,” Anya mentioned. “I began making up stories. They said they would come and get me, a unit of them. And if they take me, I thought, then I can say goodbye to my limbs, because no one will look after me. I was worried they would torture me on my injuries.”
She left Belarus shortly afterwards and exhibits CNN the fragments of grenade faraway from her leg. One fragment remains 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 is a saying among Belarusians now that we didn’t really know each other until the summer,” she mentioned, of the protests’ starting.
Her era’s want for wholesale change is a thorn not solely in Lukashenko’s facet, but in addition the Kremlin’s. Some analysts recommend Putin is cautious of siding too intently with Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown, in case it turns youthful Belarusians in opposition to Moscow completely.
For that, it might be too late.
“Lukashenko wouldn’t be so arrogant and cruel without the assurance of Russia always having his back,” Anya mentioned.
“We are not their people, we are strangers. Russia does not care what happens to us.”