Iryna Arakhouskaya: “I just want to be able to come back to Belarus”

Iryna Arakhouskaya, 29, has been working as an independent photojournalist since 2012. Like other reporters, she did have issues with the Belarusian authorities, but they remained relatively minor. Until last year that is, when she started reporting on the presidential election, popular protests, and police violence. On August 11, 2020, policemen shot rubber bullets at Iryna, despite her wearing clear identification as a member of the media and carrying her professional equipment.

  • What strikes you most when you look back on the past year?

When I remember 2020, I am happy because now I know who the Belarusians are. I saw how a free Minsk could look like and feel, I saw so many happy people and so much love.

  • One year ago, what were you hoping for Belarus?

I thought that we would succeed, that we would achieve everything. Did you see how many people stood in the queues to vote, how many people went out on the streets? I postponed all my private activities to “after the election” – I postponed my dentist, my holidays, my education. Now I understand that I should have done all these before the elections. Because afterwards, there was no time left for normal activities: I was too busy reporting on the crackdown.

  • How has the repression affected you personally?

I worked as a photographer. Three days into the protests that followed the August 9 election, I was injured by a rubber bullet. I complained to the police. The result was that, two months later, police searched my apartment as part of a “criminal case related to mass disorder”. I was lucky to be abroad for work at the time. I didn’t return to Belarus.

  • · How has your determination to change things evolved?

There are now hundreds of political detainees in the Belarusian prisons. We don’t even know many of their names. People who have been identified as protesters see their homes searched. When they are arrested, they are beaten, tortured, their detention conditions are unbearable. All this has one objective: create fear. Speaking out is prohibited. There are currently 28 journalists in prison, independent media have lost their accreditations. Many have been threatened with criminal indictments. Many have left Belarus. There is no legal protection anymore, as lawyers are being deprived of their licences. The threshold for “committing a crime” is now so very low: people have been detained just for wearing white and red (the colours of an ancient Belarusian flag, adopted by the protesters). Citizens are being detained every day under the flimsiest charges.

  • What do you wish for the future?

I just want to be able to come back home, together with thousands of independent journalists, and welcome people as they are freed from prison. And then we’ll see.