Twenty-three-year-old Danya * was sitting with his brother and his wife in Minsk Independence Square on Monday when black-clad men forced them into a van.
The trio were dressed in white ribbons, symbols of resistance to the re-election of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been widely condemned as a fraud. The official election results, released the day before and contested by protesters, showed that Lukashenko received 80.23% of the vote while. His opposition challenger, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, received only 9.9%.
The men forced the group to remove their ribbons and told them that if they reappeared in the square, they would be immediately imprisoned.
“When they took us, I did not understand why, and of course I was scared,”; she told the Guardian via a communication app. They held us for about 20 minutes, then they let us go, but my brother said “Belarus lives”, and he was caught again and taken away. Later he called and told me to come to a bus stop. “The men were there and they picked up my phone, started looking at the pictures and told me I was voting for the wrong person.”
Earlier in the week, the country’s internet was turned off, an action activists said was aimed at silencing them and preventing them from organizing. Hundreds of people using VPNs and messaging apps contacted the Guardian in response to a call for their experiences.
“I want people to know the truth,” Danya said. “We are afraid to go outside and need some help.”
According to Minsk residents, thousands of people are still in custody after being arrested while protesting peacefully against the election result. Many say the detainees are being tortured, with 20 or even 50 people being held in cells designed for only four. Others said the detainees were denied food.
Official figures show 6,000 people had been held since Wednesday morning, but reporters at the scene suggested this had risen to around 7,000 overnight.
Katina *, a lawyer in Minsk who works to support detainees, said: “Many people have been arrested. There are people who go out to throw garbage, but because they do not have their passports, they are stopped. We do not know where they are.
“People are released from prisons at four or five in the morning, and their belongings are not returned to them. Volunteers waiting for them can not go near the prison or the place of arrest, or they will be detained as well.
“Yesterday, they started stopping cars, beating and arresting drivers,” she added. “When they beat people, they are doing it in front of others because they want to spread that fear.”
Katina is helping create a platform to connect lawyers, while working pro bono, with those who have been banned. “For those lawyers, it is a big risk. Previously, they were risking their license, now they are risking their lives,” she said.
Katina also said those who opposed the election result had been massively fired from their jobs. “Some people have been fired by the police and prisons because they refused to carry out orders or to launch small initiatives [to help detainees]. “Many teachers were fired because they refused to sign the protocol regarding the election results,” she said.
“We do not know how many, we think hundreds of thousands. It started mostly after the election, but it was happening earlier if people were showing support for independent candidates.”
According to accounts from those at the scene, the protests have diminished as police brutality increases.
Katina said that on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, people “had hope and confidence for future changes”, but that had diminished. “It was so beautiful, and then they were scared to death,” she said.
One of those “angry and scared” by the events is Anastasia *, who left Minsk on Tuesday with her husband after the offices of her IT firm were evacuated after raids on nearby companies.
Colleagues encouraged him to delete all social media and browsing history, following reports that authorities would seize phones and use Facebook groups or news sites that people had entered as evidence to stop them.
Protests have spread around the couple’s downtown apartment. “On Sunday night, after the election results were announced, we saw a lot of people walking through the crowds down the road. Just walking, that’s it, and cars were kicking,” she said.
“Then we saw special forces cars, cars I had never seen before in my life, with big shields in front of them to disperse people, and then came black cars without license plates. We saw the doors open, and “Special forces started coming out of them, and chased the protesters down the road. A boy was chased and beaten, and then they took him by car and left.”
In the reflection of her windows, Anastasia saw explosions, “like fireworks” and heard shots. Like others who spoke to the Guardian, Anastasia said armed teams had arrived at ambulances to approach the protesters without suspicion, before being thrown out and arrested.
“They just stop people, they don’t need a special reason,” she said. “If they want to do that, they will put you in jail. There is no law there anymore, the law does not work.”
For hours on Thursday, Victor *, who had been an independent election observer, stood with hundreds of others in a chain running through the capital. He said activists tied the guns in silent protest.
Viktar said he had seen election fraud for himself: in some polling stations he and his team of observers had counted and photographed the number of voters, but when they checked their figures against official election commission data, hundreds of votes appeared. had been added.
He said the votes had also been seized by police and the votes had changed to those for Lukashenko. “There is no help for the people of Belarus anywhere,” he said. “People are just scared because at the moment, almost every family has someone oppressed in one way or another: beaten, abducted, or seen these atrocities live on when they live.”
“I was at a protest on Wednesday where police were firing rubber bullets at people and throwing grenades. There was a lot of blood,” he said. “Almost everyone in the area was beaten or escaped.”
At the IT firm where he works, three people in his 12-person department have been detained, and two are still in jail.
“It’s awful,” Victor said. “Like a war.”
* Names have been changed