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Belarus: "Speaking about what I suffered has been a relief."

Edgar Bashmakov is a 32-year-old photographer who lives in Helsinki. In August 2020, he decided to visit Minsk as Belarus was gearing up for a presidential election that many hoped would end Aleksandr Lukashenka's 26 years in power. Little did he know what expected him.


What happened to you in August 2020?

I went to Belarus to visit friends and see the election of a new president after 26 years of dictatorship. As my mother was born in Belarus, and I had heard many stories about life there, I wanted to see for myself.

On August 9, election day, I found myself in the centre of Minsk, where the protests were taking place. It was the first time in my life that I saw such a big crowd of people without a leader but with a common goal: to show, peacefully, that they wanted change.

The police behaved with incredible brutality, driving through the crowds with their trucks, shooting with illegal rubber bullets that ripped apart legs and hands, and even killing one person.

My friends and I managed to get back safely. The next day, we did not go to the city centre and were having a couple of beers in front of my friend's house when a police car appeared, and we got arrested.

They beat me up several times in different places; they forced me to get naked and be on my knees, my forehead on the ground and hands behind my back for eight hours, occasionally pouring cold water on us. I didn't know if I'd still be alive in the morning, whether I would ever see my family again. It was, by far, the scariest time of my life.

In the morning, we were allowed to stand, put our clothes back on and were sent to a nearby cell. It was meant for eight people, but there were 55 of us. We had neither food nor water and weren't even allowed to go to the toilet for around 60 hours. When I was let out of the Akrestina detention centre, I was so happy to see my people waiting for me that I even had a smile.

You left Belarus but didn't speak publicly about your experience for two years. Why?

Initially, I wanted to let people know what had happened, but something inside prevented me from doing any of that.

What changed?

I decided to create a charity project to raise awareness of the situation and help financially Belarusians who went through or are still experiencing the same sort of abuse as me. Shortly after I had this idea, I was asked if I would like to speak about my story at an event, in Denmark, in front of a large audience but in a safe environment. I understood that the time to speak out had arrived.

How has speaking about your experience affected you?

When I was creating the photo series, I would listen to the same music as in August 2020, visualising those moments again and again and again. I have never been so emotional as during that time. Later, when presenting this project in Copenhagen, it was as if many of the feelings that had smothered me for two years had evaporated. Speaking about it all was such a relief. I thought I was heard and understood and felt massive support from the audience.

How could the justice system help you in your journey to recovery?

I know that the chances for this to happen are meagre. Still, I'd love to see some of the people who tortured me in jail. The other important step in my journey toward recovery would be to bring my artistic project to as many eyes and ears as possible, to raise awareness of what's happening in Belarus and help other survivors.

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