Minsk border guards watched journalists like they were prisoners

Journalists being detained at the Minsk Airport.

PHOTO: Erik Tikan

We aimed to travel to Minsk for a week to bring the uprising against the dictatorship there – in some ways similar to Estonia’s national awakening – to the Estonian reader through words and images. Our quest ended on Tuesday before it could really begin. We were pulled aside at passport inspection upon arriving at Minsk Airport at 7 p.m. and had to spend the next 19 hours locked up without our passports.

“What is the purpose of your trip?”

“Vacation.”

“How long will you be staying?”

“One week.”

“Do you speak Russian?”

“A little.”

“Where will you be staying?”

“At a friend’s apartment.”

“Who is your host?”

“Yan.”

Lying was a necessity because Belarus’ autocratic leader Aleksandr Lukashenko is doing his utmost to keep journalists out of the country. Europe’s last and now likely outgoing dictator is blaming unrest in the country on foreign journalists and has made it impossible to secure accreditation to make sure the violence he is visiting upon his people is not reported abroad. Nevertheless, we had to try to offer at least some kind of coverage of the uprising.

Everything went south from the moment we reached passport inspection. We were put in a corner where people pulled aside from the previous flight were already sitting. The Brit sitting next to us asked us where we were from and about our reasons for visiting Belarus. I was too nervous for small talk. I simply said we were on vacation and turned the other way.

Our anxiety grew because there are some truly gruesome tales of how journalists who are arrested in Belarus are treated. Then, a woman wearing a militia uniform appeared and said with a clammy Russian accent: “Karl Johan.” What now?!

“Hey, what’s happening here?” I asked the young Brit. He told me that the militia were pulling people into the interrogation room one by one and asking them stupid questions. “They searched through all of my luggage and spent a long time looking at my swimming pool membership card. I don’t know the reason,” the man said naively. The young teacher had no idea what the people who were being pulled aside had in common.

It dawned on me now. They are looking for journalists and their press cards. We had left them in our bags. My cameraman Erik and I once again repeat our more or less credible fairy tale of being on vacation to visit a friend.

The woman reappears and calls: “Erik Tikan.” My colleague gets up and follows her into the interrogation room.

The interrogation of Erik

Erik’s interrogation according to his own words: “I was led into a small room with three other people: an official sitting behind a computer, a female border guard to act as interpreter and a man weighing almost 150 kilograms and wearing a black shirt two sizes too small for him. It was he who asked the questions.

While my belongings were being searched, he kept firing questions at me: “Who sent you? Who is paying you for being here? Where are you staying? Who are you working for? Can you sell your pictures to anyone?”

The girl had barely had enough time to translate the questions before he continued, cracking his knuckles as he spoke. I only had time to answer a few questions and they were not really listening to my answers. I was asked to pack up my stuff and return to the others.”

Even though our passports did not have a single press visa, my travel document or the answers I gave held something suspicious for the young militiawoman. They had basically made their decision by then: we were not to be allowed into Belarus. We were not told why. The Brit was confused and started asking for the reason rather emotionally. “We have done nothing wrong. We are not journalists or spies,” he said. Once the group finally accepted the situation, it became clear almost everyone was a journalist. The only tourist in our midst was the unfortunate Brit. “But why the hell am I here,” he asked disappointedly.

Did they Google the names of all foreigners before their arrival? I don’t think so, as it turned out later that quite a few journalists had slipped through. We were not given back our passports or our luggage. We were escorted to the detention chamber that only had two beds for ten people by young border guards wearing truncheons. Another identical room was next to ours. The quickest among us claimed the beds, while the rest had to sleep on chairs, on the ground or a few couches. We settled in on the stone windowsill. The next 19 hours were spent under the watchful eyes of the border guards.

Uncertainty and fear

The scariest thing at first was not knowing what would happen to us. Stories of how journalists had been treated to the business end of batons in Minsk swirled around in my head. How long would they detain us? Will there be food? A young man from Russia who said he was an entrepreneur and had settled in quite comfortably had spent five hours in the chamber by the time we arrived. “Perhaps an airline representative will come by tomorrow and propose a flight back,” he said. Luckily, we were allowed to keep our mobile phones and carry-ons and could therefore contact the Estonian embassy in Minsk. The secretary there Kalvi Noormägi suggested we wait for the morning. “Contact us if you’re still in the dark by then,” he said. The two detention chambers were guarded by five young soldiers and a so-called shift commander, with the girl in uniform keeping an eye on us via security cameras. As the hours passed, I became increasingly convinced that the men and women in uniform did not see us as enemies of the people. They were friendly, even though they did not know how to help us. Every time we asked whether we could get something to eat or when we would be allowed to leave, the shift commander called their superiors on a green rotary dial phone. “Unfortunately, there is no food as everything is closed,” they said. We concluded together with our Dutch colleague that Lukashenko’s authoritarian power was no longer on a secure footing. Push things a little further and these young border guard officials, who can see life developing in neighboring democracies via social media that is their primary source of information, might simply stop following orders.

Befriending a border guard

The uniformed woman who watched us on the security cameras found one of her captives so enticing that she looked them up on Facebook. “Look who added me as a friend,” the young Brit told me.

We were paid a visit by a representative of Belavia, the airline that had flown us into Belarus, at around midnight: Gentlemen, there will be a plane to Helsinki at 3.30 p.m. tomorrow. You will need to buy your own tickets to Tallinn from there. We accepted. The airline rep was friendly and sympathized with our situation. Half an hour later, he knocked on the door again and brought us some airline food and while it was no great feast, a few pickles and slices of ham between two sides of a bun made our stay a lot more pleasant. The detainees included French, German and Dutch journalists. “We repeatedly tried to secure official accreditation to work here, but the Belarusian foreign ministry refused. We tried to enter as tourists, tried to see whether we could enter the country and do our job,” Laurence from a French television network said. He speculated that the border guard was combing the internet for information on passengers carrying foreign passports and leaving behind the door everyone who looks like they might be with the press.

The night spent sleeping on a stone windowsill went as might be expected. An hour on one side, then an hour lying flat on my back, an hour on my right side etc. When the morning came, we again passed the time talking to our colleagues.

“We are disappointed as we simply wanted to do our jobs and cover the political situation here, but we cannot,” Laurence said. His colleague Ocean described the situation as peculiar. “At least we got something to eat. We can use the lavatory. It is a little cold because of the air conditioner, but we are fine otherwise. It is just an extraordinary situation as we are used to freedoms that makes staying here strange,” he said. Member of a Dutch news crew Marie said the feeling was like being in prison. “Very strange. It’s as if we have no power left. We cannot go out for a cup of coffee. It’s like being in prison,” she said.

We all agree that warding off journalists cannot save Lukashenko – people have cameras on their phones and it is impossible to turn off the internet for good. Social media is a real nuisance for dictators. Three o’clock finally rolls around and border guards come for us with our passports and tickets. We are expelled from the country. Three guards escort us all the way to the plane where they will stay until the very last second before takeoff to make sure we don’t escape. All the best and until we meet again, Belarus!

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