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 'I Wanted To See My Mom And Granddad:' Belarusian Doctor Speaks After 105 Days In Prison

Anastasia Peravoshchykava, a doctor based in Homel, was released on May 9 after spending more than three months in prison for attending protests.
Anastasia Peravoshchykava, a doctor based in Homel, was released on May 9 after spending more than three months in prison for attending protests.

HOMEL, Belarus -- For more than three months, Anastasia Peravoshchykava saw little of the outdoors from her prison cell in southeastern Belarus where she was serving a sentence for attending the protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his disputed reelection last August.

To stop herself from "going crazy," Peravoshchykava said she spent time writing poetry and sketching pictures.

One of thousands swept up in Lukashenka's brutal crackdown, she was finally released from prison in Buda-Kashalyova in the Homel region on May 9.

"I was so happy that I was released and especially that I was able to see my mom and granddad again," Peravoschchykava, 32, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"I was floored that everything around me was green. From my cell, all I had been able to see was the branches of trees, and they were far away," Peravoshchykava said. "All I saw was gray."

Anastasia Peravoshchykava reunites with her mother on May 9.
Anastasia Peravoshchykava reunites with her mother on May 9.

Belarus has been roiled by its worst political turmoil since August, when Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of the election. Opposition groups said the vote was rigged against Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and arguably the biggest threat to his decades-long rule.

In the crackdown that followed, more than 30,000 were detained and thousands beaten or even tortured.

The NGO Vyasna says there are now 369 political prisoners in Belarus. Many opposition leaders are either in prison or have fled the country. Hundreds of journalists have been targeted as well, many simply for reporting on the protests.

Protests that once attracted as many as 200,000 people in the capital, Minsk, are long a thing of the past. In recent months, flash mobs and other subtler forms of protest have become the norm.

'Going Crazy'

Peravoshchykava was arrested for the first time in Homel on January 22 and charged with taking part in 10 unsanctioned rallies.

At the time of her arrest, her home in Homel was searched, with her laptop and other items seized by police. Her grandfather's nearby home was also searched.

Sentenced to 15 days in jail, she was released on February 6, before being arrested and sentenced again just two days later, again for taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations.

While in prison in Buda-Kashalyova, her detention was extended by six times.

In prison, Peravoshchykava said she received letters of support -- up to 20 a day -- not only from people inside Belarus, but abroad as well, including from the United States, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia.

"Generally, a letter for someone in prison means a lot, each letter. After all, you experience so little there, and you can experience some of that through letters. I especially liked when people wrote jokes," she explained, adding she was pleasantly surprised by all the international support.

One of the drawings Anastasia Peravoshchykava made while she was in prison.
One of the drawings Anastasia Peravoshchykava made while she was in prison.

To help time pass and avoid "going crazy," Peravoshchykava said she etched drawings and wrote poetry: one poem she titled Rose In The Wasteland, based on The Dark Tower series of books by the U.S. fiction writer Stephen King.

"I remembered lines from one of the books and I created poetry based on that," she said. "I dedicated it to my family."

By the end of March, prison authorities stopped delivering her mail. They also took away paper, pencils, and other materials for writing and drawing.

Conditions in the cell also become more inhumane, she said.

"It became difficult when on April 1 they took out all the mattresses and blankets. They didn't explain why," Peravoshchykava said. "It was cold. I put on all the clothes I had to try to keep warm."

Other imprisoned Belarusians have also spoken of their conditions and treatment worsening around the end of March.

At that time, Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania in August, had hoped to reignite the mass demonstrations, which had lost momentum due to winter cold, fatigue, and fear of the government's brutal tactics.

Tsikhanouskaya, who said the movement had "lost the streets," urged Belarusians to turn out on March 25, when Belarus marked the anniversary of the founding of the first, short-lived, democratic republic in 1918.

No large-scale turnout ever materialized, however, amid a new wave of arrests, threats, and allegations of foreign-inspired plots to destabilize the country.

'Tied To My Homeland'

According to rights groups, prisoners in Belarus have complained of having mattresses and other items taken away, as well as harsher tactics by prison guards, including throwing buckets of bleach into cells, making breathing a struggle.

Human Rights Watch has reported systematic beatings and even the torture of imprisoned protesters.

Anastasia Peravoshchykava is met by friends and family upon her release from prison on May 9.
Anastasia Peravoshchykava is met by friends and family upon her release from prison on May 9.

"Of course, it's difficult being in prison for such a long time, especially for people with loved ones outside. It's psychologically hard, but a person can adapt to anything and become used to it," Peravoshchykava said. "I'd look at the stains on the walls, I'd see images of animals and people, remember my favorite places and people. Somehow, one's imagination just starts to take over."

She said she was haunted by a recurring dream.

"I dreamed that I had been released from prison and was walking the streets of Homel, and the city was completely empty, there was no one left. Empty streets, empty Lenin square," she said, adding many of her friends and acquaintances have fled the country.

"It's sad. People left before, and now I'm seeing them leave as well," Peravoshchykava said.

"I have no plans to leave. This is my country, my home; my mother and grandfather are here," she said. "I'm tied to my homeland with all my heart."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on an interview by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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