Yelena Leuchanka was mendacity on a chilly, onerous mattress in a detention heart in Minsk in late September when she heard different detainees singing.
“I simply laid there as a result of I used to be nonetheless in shock,” she recalled. “And the following factor I hear are ladies singing Kupalinka. It is a Belarus music that ladies, once they go on their marches, they sing this music.”
She joined in. “I’ve by no means skilled that kind of vitality or something like that,” she mentioned, “this greatness, this unity.”
Leuchanka, a former WNBA basketball heart from Belarus who performed on her nation’s Olympics staff, spoke in regards to the 15 harrowing days she spent in a flea-ridden cell throughout an occasion held on-line earlier this month, hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Ladies, Peace and Safety.
Ladies have been on the forefront of protests in opposition to the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko, whose declare of victory in an August election is extensively disputed. Holding flowers and flags, they collect weekly, risking arrest, harassment and beating by safety forces.
“The face of what’s taking place in Belarus is basically the face of girls,” says Melanne Verveer, the Georgetown institute’s government director and a former U.S. ambassador at giant for girls’s points. This, she says, is one thing “sudden in a area largely male-dominated, actually in politics.”
The protests started after Belarus’ disputed Aug. 9 reelection. Lukhashenko, who has been in energy since 1994, claimed victory over Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the spouse of a jailed opposition determine. Since then, Lukashenko has led a brutal crackdown, jailing key opposition leaders or forcing them into exile. Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania.
After her launch, Leuchanka managed to depart Belarus for Greece — however one in every of her cellmates was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail for attempting to tear off a policeman’s balaklava at a protest.
“It is like at the moment you understand that you’re there not since you did one thing, not since you dedicated a criminal offense. You might be there since you are preventing for freedom. And the spirit of individuals, I imply, I used to be so amazed,” Leuchanka mentioned.
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Not one of the Belarusian officers accused of torturing and raping ladies in jail have been held to account, she mentioned. However, she mentioned, “Not one girl that I’ve been in a cell with mentioned, ‘I’m regretting that I did this, I remorse that I am right here.’ We’ll proceed to battle and converse and lift our voices… Do you perceive the power I’m speaking about?”
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Tikhonovskaya in August, and Congress not too long ago weighed in with laws to assist the protesters. However President Trump has been silent about Belarus. Verveer says Trump’s effort to overturn his personal election loss has tarnished America’s picture overseas.
“I believe it doesn’t simply undermine our credibility, however our skill to advertise democratic values, to advertise democracy, to be what we have now at all times claimed to be and as a rule acted on,” she tells NPR.
Nonetheless, the ladies of Belarus wish to the U.S. for assist and have excessive hopes for President-elect Joe Biden.
“We positively do assume that Biden administration will likely be completely completely different from the Trump administration,” Natalia Kaliada mentioned on the Georgetown occasion. Kaliada cofounded the Belarus Free Theatre, a bunch that has carried out in secret for greater than a decade. Kaliada now lives in exile within the U.Ok.
Kaliada mentioned Biden can have an early likelihood to supply his assist: Tikhanovskaya is planning a visit to Washington, D.C., in January, across the time of Biden’s inauguration.
“We won’t waste time anymore,” mentioned Kaliada.
She mentioned the individuals of Belarus are able to sacrifice and are sending “a Might Day message to the world now.”