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'We Haven't Forgotten': One Year Later, Activists Of Minsk's Change Square Battle Feelings Of Anger, Disappointment

Once known as "Change Square," it's all quiet here now.
Once known as "Change Square," it's all quiet here now.

MINSK – On November 15, 2020, the last major protest took place on the informally dubbed Change Square, an apartment-bloc courtyard just north of the center of Minsk.

Locals who had been protesting regularly in the yard since Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed victory in a deeply disputed August election came out once again to express anger and sorrow over the death in custody of pro-democracy protester Raman Bandarenka three days before.

A year later, Change Square is oddly quiet and there are few signs of the tumult that dominated the area in the weeks following the election.

"Nothing is happening," said Yauhen, a local who is working on a book about Change Square and who asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of repercussions. "People talk to one another, discuss events. But it all happens very secretly."

Over the last few months, Yauhen has conducted more than a dozen interviews and studied video and photographic materials about Change Square.

"Every day I remember those events while working on the book," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "Whether I like it or not, I find myself returning to those events."

Opposition supporters gather in Change Square to protest against the government and commemorate Raman Bandarenka on November 15.
Opposition supporters gather in Change Square to protest against the government and commemorate Raman Bandarenka on November 15.

Throughout the autumn of 2020, Change Square was a hub of dissent against Lukashenka's government, its resistance to democratic reform, and its brutal crackdown on protesters. In the early weeks following the August 9 election, protests were held there every evening and the area quickly became a symbol of anti-Lukashenka resistance.

A focus of the protests was a mural painted in the yard that honored two disc jockeys -- Kiryl Halanav and Uladzislau Sakalouski -- who were punished for playing a popular Soviet-era protest song at a pro-government rally two days before the election. The two were arrested and sentenced to 10 days in jail for supposedly hijacking the event by playing Viktor Tsoi's protest anthem We Want Changes.

The mural focused the dissent of the neighborhood, Yauhen says, and the name Change Square began to circulate widely.

"People didn't talk about life, but about how they could work together in the political space," he said. "One by one they were drawn to this place and the square just formed itself."

'More Than I Could Bear'

City workers, usually guarded by armed police, painted over the mural more than 10 times, and each time the Change Square protesters repainted it.

Locals in the courtyard developed a tradition of heckling security forces from their windows.

However, the atmosphere in the courtyard began to change with Bandarenka's death and the November 15 protest, which was brutally suppressed by the authorities. Hundreds of people were detained, and hundreds more hid out for hours in the apartments and basements of nearby houses.

"In the first days after that, we didn't even think about going out there," Yauhen said. "Rather, I thought about it, but it was more than I could bear. The memorial in our courtyard was also a difficult thing to take emotionally. Our yard now was not only a protest area, but also a memorial. And that made things difficult."

"For the first few weeks, nothing really happened," he recalled. "There were regular police patrols and the whole area was constantly watched day and night. There was always a car with people in police uniforms, whoever they were. They were watching everything that happened."

'We Haven't Surrendered'

In mid-December, locals began appearing again on Change Square, holding silent protests after dark illuminated by their phones. There were no further detentions, Yauhen said. The permanent police surveillance ended in late March 2021.

Once again, Yauhen says, the anger and frustration are simmering far beneath the surface.

"It has moved so deeply underground that it is difficult for ordinary passersby to notice," he said. "So it doesn't have much effect. I would say it is mostly now about supporting one another and easing each other's consciences. Telling each other that we did something. We haven't surrendered. We haven't forgotten and we haven't forgiven."

"Change Square" shows no signs of protest anymore.
"Change Square" shows no signs of protest anymore.

The Change Square protesters went through a traumatic experience from the euphoria of expecting quick change to the despair of feeling like a nobody who can be crushed at any moment, Yauhen concludes.

"The question remains -- did these people emerge from this trauma even angrier, or, on the contrary, completely disappointed?"

Robert Coalson contributed to this report
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