My 10-Day Ordeal in a Belarus Prison Cell

By Weronika Samolinska

U.S. Vice President Cheney assailed Belarus in late April as "Europe's last dictatorship.'' In March, Weronika Samolinska, a Polish journalist, joined thousands protesting in Belarus against the reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko. She and scores of other demonstrators were rounded up by police and jailed. Here is her account of what followed:

In jail, the guards did body searches of everyone. They took everything from me, including my glasses and tampons. Finally they escorted us - 14 young women - into one cell, where for the first time we were able to smoke a cigarette.

We introduced ourselves and helped calm one another. One girl, who had sneaked in her cell phone, called her sister. "Masha, tell everybody that I am attending an academic conference in Polock,'' she whispered. "Don't tell anybody that I am in jail.''

After a while we began to sing, and the men in the neighboring cell joined in. They shouted out "Long live Belarus,'' nearly screaming, and we replied just as ferociously. Before long at least half of those who'd been arrested joined in.

An enraged guard began to threaten us, but by then we felt comfortable in our solidarity. Soon, they took away all the Belarussians for trial, while the journalists - the Ukrainians, Russians, one Canadian and I - were led from room to room. They evidently did not know what to do with us. In the end, they left me alone in a cell.

The Polish consul came to see me. He had been waiting in front of the jail since 4 a.m., but they would not let him in. He had been told that no Polish citizens were being held. There were actually three of us, including Mariusz Maszkiewicz, a former Polish ambassador to Minsk, who also had been arrested on the main square. I received my first glass of water when the consul came in. He promised that he would take care of us and bring anything we needed. Then they took me to have another body search, during which I was able to retrieve my tampons, cigarettes and glasses.

They locked me up in a cell with a relative of Maszkiewicz's. She is a Belarussian citizen who is a permanent resident of Poland, but the authorities identified her as Polish. She had been horribly beaten and seemed to have suffered a concussion.

Late at night, we were joined by a Georgian freelance journalist who had been arrested while taking pictures of the inmates' relatives around the jail. They arrested her for not having her official government registration card with her. She told the militia that her card was at her hotel, and they replied, "Then let us go to the hotel.'' The cab that picked them up then drove them straight to jail.

Three days later, during her trial, she discovered that she was being sentenced for hooliganism. She smiled, recounting her judge's post-sentencing comment: "They could not have thought up something more unlikely, could they?''

The three of us sat in our cell. The lights remained on throughout our stay and we were forbidden to open the windows, so I began to confuse day and night. There were always crowds of supporters outside, singing, waiting, and some even getting arrested, if only to offer hope for the imprisoned. Random bits of information reached us about what was happening in the city.

Our cell was a small room, outfitted with solid tables on which we slept, ate and sat. There was a toilet in the open. We had no soap, no toilet paper; just ice-cold water from a tap. There was a terrible stench. A dirty room, mold on the walls, holes in the windows.

The food consisted mainly of some form of gruel and the odd cutlet, which we were given only at the end of the day. We could scarcely touch this repulsive stuff, even though we were very hungry. The tea was awful as well. A broth with cabbage in it would follow. We could not eat that, either, because of its strong odor. Only the bread was edible - good, fresh and dark.

The first night in jail was unbearable, since it was very cold. We huddled together. The next day the consul brought us sleeping bags. I also received warm sweaters, socks, basic hygienic goods and - most important - bread, meat, cheese.

After three days, Maszkiewicz's relative was released. Two days later, another cellmate got out. By this time, two Belarussians had been added to my cell, arrested for participating in a public meeting. They told me about their farce of a trial. No counsel was present.

Those inmates who knew their rights called out: "I would like legal representation'' or "I ask for witnesses'' or "I wish to submit a complaint.'' Every plea was ignored. They entered the courtroom. They listened to the charges read to them. Ten days' sentence. End of story.

My own trial was attended by the Polish consul, a lawyer, and even a witness - the militiaman who arrested me. At least that is what he claimed (every militiaman at the demonstration was masked). He told the courtroom that he had heard me scream anti-statist slogans such as "Out with Lukashenko,'' "Out with the powers'' and "We cannot live like this.'' He claimed to have stood within a few feet of me, an outrageous fabrication. I was sentenced to 10 days.

My new cellmates and I mainly spent our time reading aloud from

Henryk Sienkiewicz's "Quo Vadis'' in Belarussian. We sang as well. When the guard told us to stop, we merely sang louder. By then the two women had stopped feeling afraid; the 10-day sentence had become bearable. "If they throw us out of university, so be it,'' they said. "But we are no longer afraid.''

One day the guards led me to the warden's office, where I saw a lieutenant. He introduced himself as a KGB man who was leading an investigation against an illegal group called the Young Front. I asked that the Polish consul be present for the discussion, but was reprimanded for my request. This was a secret criminal matter, I was told, and I could not refuse to answer any questions.

I became frightened and decided to play stupid: I did not know anybody in Minsk, and if I was near the protesters' tents it was because they were giving out cups of tea. I also made sure to emphasize that I knew nothing about politics, and that I knew of no political organizations whatsoever. At first the lieutenant was very sweet, but the facade eventually fell. He did not get any information out of me, and sent me back to the cell.

I was transferred to a cell for "nonpolitical'' inmates. I was put in with two so-called bums, women without passports, documents or a designated residence. One was an illegal Uzbek, and the other a young woman arrested for alleged thefts. The cell was filthy, and the women smoked cheap unfiltered cigarettes.

I had difficulty understanding them. They spoke poorly, every other word a profanity. Before meeting them I thought I understood more or less every Belarussian curse; now I know better. But I began to grasp their language a little, and they went out of their way to care for me. They made sure that I stayed warm, that I ate my rations. In such circumstances we got to know one another.

Finally, one night at 3:15 a.m., I was released with several others. As we walked outside, throngs of people greeted us with flowers, champagne and cheers.

I am happy to have glimpsed a free Belarus, for what I saw on the protesters' square was a brief yet definitive moment of Belarussian freedom. And despite the loathsome discomforts and deplorable realities of jail life, sitting in there with those people was an honor for me. They are heroes.

Weronika Samolinska is a reporter for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, where this article first appeared. It was translated by Jakub Krolczyk for The Washington Post.