With his dog and cat by his side, Maksim Karaleuski stood in the square, the red-and-white flag of the first independent Belarusian republic draped over his shoulders, joining calls for Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down.
Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power for 26 years, was declared the winner of the August 9 presidential election, which critics charge was blatantly rigged.
Authorities have brutally suppressed many of the demonstrations in Minsk and elsewhere, detaining thousands and beating hundreds -- including Karaleuski, who was arrested as he bicycled home late on August 11, long after protests that day had ended.
But this time, Karaleuski did not fear arrest: He was in Kyiv, not Minsk, demonstrating alongside fellow Belarusians in Ukraine and other supporters of the protests against Lukashenka and his government.
Amid the current political turmoil, many firms in the IT sector, one of the few economic success stories in Belarus, have either moved or are contemplating it, taking their skilled employees with them. Other IT workers have decided on their own to leave, some after being swept up in the police crackdown on protests over the disputed election.
A survey in late August of 34 IT companies in Belarus by the tech news site Dev.by found that 167 of their employees had been detained by security forces over just four days, August 9-12.
Karaleuski arrived in the Ukrainian capital earlier this month after a horrific night in Minsk's notorious Akrestsina jail -- where "lawlessness and torture" reigned, he said.
"At the beginning of the night, they ordered us on our knees, and then put us in a different cell -- there were 127 people in there," he told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "We didn't get any water, no food, it was very cold, but no one cared. We faced constant abuse. If you moved or asked for something, you could get slugged. If you asked for a lawyer, a fair trial, or disputed the police report, they could brutally beat you."
Karaleuski said he suffered beatings all over his body, his testimony echoing much of what others held there say they endured.
"I had bruises all over, on my back, legs, thighs, and face. When they detained me, they shaved a cross on the back of my head. I didn't know why or understand the reason because I have short hair. It was violence for the sake of violence," he explained. "They cut up my shorts and ordered me to unlock my phone. But they ended up doing it themselves, with my finger, because my phone has a fingerprint ID sensor."
Karaleuski was relatively fortunate: He was freed the next day, on August 12, along with some others. Their release seemed timed to a visit to the jail by Deputy Interior Minister Alyaksandr Barsukou -- who had himself been accused of beating detainees at Akrestsina -- that seemed aimed to quiet charges of alleged torture inside.
Freed, Karaleuski and his lawyer documented his injuries and hoped to file a complaint, in what would be a fruitless effort.
"I went to the Investigative Committee about the illegal detention and beatings. My lawyer and I were able to get confirmation of the beatings at the State Service of Medical Forensic Expertise, but [the Investigative Committee] did not respond. There was no movement at all on the matter," he said. "They never called me in to give testimony."
Lucky To Get Out
Shortly after that, Karaleuski, an orphan whose only relative in Minsk is his grandmother, decided it was time to take his pets and leave Belarus as the authorities began rounding up opposition leaders or forcing them to flee the country -- including presidential candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now in Lithuania, who claims she was the real winner of the election.
"When there was news that the Ukrainian government would facilitate the resettlement of Belarusians -- it was on September 3 -- I decided to move. I had an invitation to work, but at the border I wasn't asked about it. I only showed my passport and COVID-19 insurance. They did not ask for anything else," Karaleuski said. "It was good timing, because afterward I heard that at the border they began to ask for certain documents. But I was lucky."
He worried that his dog, Ostsin (Austin), and his cat, Palina (Pauline) wouldn't be so lucky – but they also made it to Ukraine.
"Of course, it wasn't easy, but I wouldn't abandon them at any cost and was ready to do whatever was necessary to make sure we all got across the border successfully. However, there were no problems at the border. I brought them in. They rode in the minibus quietly, resting the whole trip. We were able to cross the border because we had everything – [identity] chips, vaccines, passports, documents," Karaleuski said.
A Big Loss
The exodus of IT workers and businesses has dealt a further blow to the Belarusian economy, already negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also been crippled by strike actions connected with the anti-Lukashenka protests and a run on the banks, as jittery Belarusians withdraw deposits as the Belarusian ruble tumbles.
An online survey found that at least 12 IT companies were completely relocating, 59 partially relocating, and 112 examining options for moving.
"The Belarusian IT sector makes up 6.2 percent of the country's GDP, and more than 13 percent of the service sector. More than 90 percent of IT services are used by foreign clients. So they bring in foreign-currency revenue. It's big money," Dzyanis Maroz, an IT consultant, recently told Current Time, a Russian-language channel led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
The Minsk Hi-Tech Park is home to 750 companies, or was. It was founded by Valer Tsapkala, who sought to challenge Lukashenka but was barred from the ballot for reasons he contends were groundless and politically motivated and fled Belarus a few weeks before the disputed election. He said he'd been threatened by state prosecutors.
"The high-tech sector, it's all about trust, not about expensive hardware or equipment. How can you build anything if trust has been violated?" Tsapkala told RFE/RL in August. "There's no trust in the government, in Lukashenka's words anymore."
That sentiment is echoed by Karaleuski, who said he also didn't want to support a "usurper" -- a word many Belarusians who believe the election was stolen use to refer to Lukashenka.
"I came here so I could express my opinions openly and not pay taxes to the usurper of power," he explained, adding that he hadn't shut the door on his homeland.
"If the regime changes, I will gladly return to Belarus to work in a new country," he said.