Alyaksey and Maryya Dalbenka cast their votes for Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the Belarusian presidential election at a polling station in Minsk on August 9, 2020, and then headed for their cottage in the countryside cautiously optimistic.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka had been accused of falsifying all elections in Belarus since coming to power in 1994, but the Dalbenkas were hopeful things would be different this time.
They were convinced, like many others, that Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and last-minute replacement for her husband Syarhey, a popular anti-corruption vlogger who was arrested along with other serious potential challengers during the presidential campaign, had struck a chord in Belarusians fed up with decades of Lukashenka's authoritarian rule.
"I was in contact with a lot of different people and even people at the Interior Ministry were saying they were going to vote for Tsikhanouskaya," Alyaksey Dalbenka, 59, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service in an interview.
Despite dwindling public support -- largely the result of his refusal to institute lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing Belarus to have one of Europe's highest coronavirus infection rates -- Lukashenka was declared the winner with some 80 percent of the vote. Tsikhanouskaya finished second, officially, with just over 10 percent, an outcome that was widely dismissed as a sham.
Peaceful protests erupted in Minsk before the official result was released, after a state-sponsored exit poll indicated that Lukashenka would win again. Riot police used tear gas and truncheons to beat back the demonstrators, to the horror of the Dalbenkas, who were following developments online at their cottage.
"We had turned on the Internet and began to read about all that was happening. We immediately decided to return to Minsk," Dalbenka said.
Over the coming weeks and months, Belarus would be swept up by a wave of protests on a scale unprecedented in the country's post-Soviet history, with up to 200,000 turning out for one demonstration in the capital in August.
Long intolerant of dissent and facing the biggest challenge to his hold on power, Lukashenka met the protesters with a crackdown whose brutally exceeded the pressure applied on opponents and society throughout his rule. More than 32,000 Belarusians have gone through police detention. Hundreds have been beaten by police on the streets and in custody, and reports of torture are frequent. At least three deaths were linked to the authorities' crackdown. Opposition leaders were either locked up or forced to flee, including Tsikhanouskaya, who left for neighboring Lithuania a day after the election. NGOs and independent media have faced raids on their offices and arrests.
Dalbenka said he and his wife were active in the protests. He spoke at one rally on a central square in Minsk, and later joined the Coordination Council established by Tsikhanouskaya to guide, it was hoped, a peaceful transfer of power.
"I spoke myself on Independence Square. Maybe I upset my family, but I said everything I thought about the Lukashenka family. Then I joined the Coordination Council as a member. My wife did the same later. She also was active in the Committee Against Torture, documenting cases of the victims of police abuse," said Dalbenka.
Although they had evaded arrest, Dalbenka, who knew people in government, was tipped off that they were being watched.
"We were very visible at the protest marches. Maryya and I were told that [the police] would come for us soon," Dalbenka said. By September, they decided it was time leave Belarus.
"We had secured Canadian visas, but Canada was mostly closed due to COVID-19. However, first Maryya, and then I, managed to get to Toronto. When I boarded the plane, I prayed that I would be free and that the plane would take off," Dalbenka added, speaking from the Canadian metropolis.
A Growing Diaspora
The joined a growing number of Belarusians abroad -- many, like the Dalbenkas, fearing persecution if they stayed behind. The IT sector, one of the few to flourish in the country's still largely inefficient, state-managed economy, was decimated as many high-skilled workers left Belarus.
No figures on how many Belarusians have left the country are readily available. At the height of the protests, in September and October 2020, the Belarusian Interior Ministry said some 13,000 Belarusians had left, mainly for neighboring Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
With the true figure believed to now be much higher, Lukashenka made it harder for most Belarusians to get out. In June, his government banned most Belarusians from traveling abroad, citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
That move came a month after Lukashenka shocked most of the world by diverting a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to Minsk, where the blogger and journalist Raman Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend were arrested. Western officials denounced it as a "state-sponsored hijacking," and the European Union and the United States stepped up sanctions against Lukashenka's regime.
Dalbenka said he and his wife feel welcome in Canada.
"In Toronto, at least half of the population are migrants. You don't feel what nationality you are here. People can come to the store in pajamas, no one cares how you are dressed, what hairstyle you have. People just enjoy life," he said. "Everyone smiles and they're not fake ones either! They smile at you to show you that everything is okay, that they are welcoming and mean you no harm. I was riding my bike and it broke down. The police rushed to help me. It was just fantastic."
Some 7,000 kilometers from Belarus, Toronto is distant in many ways from the life the couple left behind, and particularly from their younger years in the Soviet Union.
Born in southwestern Belarus in 1962 and educated partly in Ukraine, Alyaksey Dalbenka said he "joined the dissident ranks" at a Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces base where was sent to serve in the 1980s in Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk region, a site used for secret nuclear bomb testing.
"I read a lot, including much classified material. Something just clicked in my head. I realized what a disgrace this union (the U.S.S.R.) was. In Kazakhstan I saw all the abominations of the Soviet regime," Dalbenka recounted. In 1987, he said, refused to serve any longer in the army and was subsequently kicked out of the Communist Party.
When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Dalbenka was elated. "I felt so happy when I realized this horrible empire was collapsing. I had a lot of hope for the future."
Half a world away from Belarus, he and his wife remain active, pressing for changes at home.
He believes that the events of the past year have united Belarusians, including those living abroad, with young people now proudly declaring themselves Belarusians.
"It's great. We are finally coming together. Back in the 1980s, I tried to unite Belarusians in the army, but in vain. We were all out for ourselves. Now we are united. I'm convinced we will be here for a short time and return home soon."
Alyona Lyavonchanka, a Belarusian living in Toronto for 13 years and chairwoman of the Association of Belarusians in Canada, says compatriots in Canada have been active since the disputed election, holding pickets, and creating support groups on Telegram and Facebook.
"People have come together to help Belarusians back home. I can't say who because there might be consequences as a result. We organized concerts, both offline and online, zoom meetings, and collected donations to help Belarusians," said Lyavonchanka.
With the future of Belarus in the balance, Dalbenka is convinced the country must steer clear of Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin appears to be increasing Moscow's influence on the much smaller, weaker country as Lukashenka faces increasing isolation from the West.
"We need to make clear we are for the European option," Dalbenka said. "What the hell do we need Russia for? It will only destroy us."