Yana* had never taken an interest in politics before, but last summer's events in Belarus changed everything.
She was one of thousands to hit the streets after the disputed reelection of Alexander Lukashenko as president.
During one demonstration, Yana says she tore off a riot police officer's mask as hewas punching another girl on the ground.
Quickly realising her actions could lead to a long prison sentence, she scrambled to get her eight-year-old son and left the country with a half-empty backpack and almost no money. They headed to Poland and asked for political asylum.
Yana’s story is not unique. The number of Belarusian asylum seekers in Europe has risen sharply since the election last August.
Around 995 people sought shelter in EU countries between August and December 2020 compared with 545 over the same period in 2019.
'She tried to escape, but he pressed her neck with his foot'
Recalling her fateful moment in Belarus last year, Yana remembers it was very sunny as she headed to the demonstration.
Soon, she says, several minivans without number plates arrived. Men in balaclavas and without police uniforms started to detain protestors.
“One of the men grabbed the girl, twisted her arms, and threw her face down on the ground,” recalls Yana.
“She tried to escape, but he pressed her neck with his foot. I saw how it hurt her. I knew it was better not to do this, but I tore off his mask.”
Prison terms for such conduct became common in Belarus. In December 2020, Natalia Hershe, who has Belarusian and Swiss nationality, was sentenced to two and a half years for ripping off a police officer's mask.
“They wear balaclavas everywhere and are very afraid that their face will be recognised,” said Yana.
Startled by her own actions, Yana saw the angry face of the attacker, heard several Russian swear words and then fled.
“I cannot explain my actions logically. I did everything out of fear,” she confesses. “One could ask why I went to the protests if my child could be taken, but I wasn’t able to do otherwise. When others go and risk their families, I could not stay away.”
Yana grabbed her most important belongings and went to a friend's house, where her son was waiting for her. The next morning, a neighbour called to warn that the door to Yana’s apartment had been broken open.
“I was in a panic,” said Yana. “I called my mum who lives in Italy, and she advised me to flee as soon as possible. I booked the nearest bus to Belostok (a city just over the border in Poland) and decided to apply for political asylum.”
'I never wanted to leave Belarus'
According to a report from Viasna, a human rights centre based in Belarus, since the beginning of the election campaign in Belarus, more than 30,000 people have been detained for participating in demonstrations. Some of them have been tortured. Many Belarusians had to flee from persecution.
“If people have time, they get a humanitarian visa and choose the best time to leave Belarus,” said Ewa Ostaszewska-Żuk, a lawyer of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland.
“When they see that the police are looking for them, they don’t wait. Very often a person with only a backpack is staying on the border. Decisions are made very quickly, and they are not prepared generally.”
The biggest part of the applicants went to Poland, followed by Germany and France. Poland received about 405 applications in the months following the elections, which is eleven times higher than for the same period of 2019. Eurostat did not have data for Ukraine, which is also known to have taken in migrants from Belarus.
“Belarusians receive positive decisions very quickly. The policy is to support Belarus,” said Ostaszewska-Żuk.
“The Poles welcomed us very well,” admits Yana. “They said: "Do not be afraid, we will give you a shelter'. I didn’t expect that we would get so much help. I was preparing for the unknown future and for the fact that we will find ourselves at the very bottom. But it was better than being in prison in Belarus.”
After her arrival, Yana was transferred several times between refugee camps. Now she studies Polish, and her son goes to school. She is grateful for the support of Polish people, but you can still hear sadness in her voice.
“I never wanted to leave Belarus, although my mother invited me to live with her in Italy,” Yana confesses.
“I really want to come back to my friends and family, but to be honest, I am very afraid of the man from whom I tore off the mask. Even if the government will change, I am afraid of his personal revenge.”
“More Belarusians are coming and asking for asylum,” notes Ewa Ostaszewska-Żuk. “But as I see, most of the people do not want to do it.
"If they can, they obtain a humanitarian visa and wait in Poland hoping that the situation in Belarus will change. To keep the possibility of going back.”
* We have withheld Yana's surname and other details to protect her identity.
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