"I didn't expect such mockery"

Ruslan Kulevich,
journalist at the Hrodna.life portal of Grodno
"I didn't expect such mockery"
Ruslan Kulevich,
journalist at the Hrodna.life portal of Grodno
On August 11, Ruslan Kulevich was forcibly detained. He was beaten and sentenced to seven days in the prison isolation unit. But after a day and a half he was unexpectedly released. After that, the correspondent spent five days in hospital: he was diagnosed with a head injury and closed fractures of both hands. In addition, Ruslan and his family faced harrassment: strangers wrote and phoned them and made threats...
A month and a half has passed since all these events, since August 9 (The interview was recorded at the end of September. – Ed.). I was detained on August 11 as a journalist, and I don't know whether it was accidental or not.

The hardest blow is that I was detained together with my wife. I did not expect to be detained, and I was sure that they knew who I was in the city. I am a journalist who has been working and writing in the city for seven years. I have two books published.
"Put on your vest, everyone knows you, everything will be okay"
I had talked to the mayor before the arrest, who had promised to help me get out in case of detention without any days of arrest and fines. That morning, I called the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking, "Guys, how are we supposed to work?" I was told that everything was going to be just fine, we could go out and work. "But people are being shot in Minsk!" "Put on your press vest, everyone knows you, everything will be okay," the press service said.

Only later did I realize that it might have been a signal for someone to detain me. I had avoided wearing a vest before as people know me without it, I walk with a camera.
"So, you got caught!"
In the evening, my wife and I rode out on bicycles and got detained forty minutes later in an auto parts store. Why did we go to the store? We saw a convoy of military and police vehicles. We got scared, so we went into the store to avoid attention. At that time, I was already wearing the vest. The store employees let us in without any problems. No sooner had the doors closed than people in masks ran in, shouting, "On the floor!" with obscenities. I can hardly recall all this. I didn't see where my wife ran: the auto parts store was big. I ran into some compartment or behind the counter, I don't remember. And that was it: a man in a mask ran at me with a baton. I don't even know if he was an ordinary police officer or a riot police officer. I had no time to look at his pants – I distinguished them by their pants.

I shouted, "I am a journalist! Do not touch me! I am a journalist!" He shouted, "Your last name!" "Kulevich." "So, you got caught! On the ground, on the ground!" I lay, and he started beating me with a baton, so I covered my head with my hands. He hit me on the arms, on the back. I heard my wife screaming. I didn't know what happened to her. I shouted to them not to touch her. We were taken out of the store together with her and a store employee. No one else was detained then. So, I guess, it was a targeted hunt for me.

They put us in a paddy wagon. Of course, the detention was brutal. In the paddy wagon, they ripped off my bag, but my phone was in my pocket. I managed to call the mayor of the city and say, "I have been detained! Mechislav Bronislavovich, help me! You know that I am a journalist, that I have done a lot for this city!" He said to me, "Why would you go there?" "Where? We got detained in the center of the city!" He would later tell everyone that it was out of his sphere of competence: he was not in charge of the police, but in charge of roads and buildings. Well, if you are the head of the city, if such chaos is around, you should try to help! Moreover, we are called "friends" in the city. I would have helped in such a situation. I would have come and seen the conditions in which people were kept in prison or the temporary detention facility. I would have stopped the lawlessness. On the other hand, I understand that he was powerless. All the orders came from Minsk, from the capital.

I called the editor and said that I had been detained. I called my brother. And that was it. One of the guards heard me calling, ran to me, hit me with a baton, and took the phone away. Then we rode a little around the city, taking a few more people on board.
"Bring out the marked one!"
Me, my wife, two officers, and some other people were taken to the Oktyabrsky District Police Department. I was the first to be taken out of the paddy wagon. They shouted, "Bring out the marked one! The marked one!" I didn't even understand what that meant. Who were 'the marked ones'? I thought the marked meant journalists. I remember that the officers lined up in two rows, and another one started dragging me forward. It was very scary. I didn't know what to expect. The thought that they would bury me somewhere, and no one would even know where, scared me to death.

They walked me through that row. I don't remember whether they beat me or not. They laughed, making fun of the fact a journalist had been caught, saying, "Hey, you're not going to take pictures anymore." They twisted my legs, doing some hold. I shouted, "Guys, I'm a journalist! Calm down!" I shouted for my wife not to be touched.

Then we were all divided. I was taken to a pound, or whatever this yard for inmates' exercise is called, and put against the wall. I said that I could not stand because my leg hurt. It started hurting after the maneuver they had performed on me before. I sat down in protest. It was already a matter of principle to me. No one said a word to me. I saw other guys brought in and put against the wall with their arms up, feet shoulder-width apart. And I said, "Guys, sit down. They won't do anything to us. We will not be killed. Everything will be fine."
"They tried to plant a balaclava and a white-red-white flag in my stuff"
Five minutes later, they took me and escorted me to some room where other officers were sorting our things and putting them in bags with names. I saw my stuff and my wife's things among them.

They tried to plant a black balaclava and a white-red-white flag in my bag. I said, "Guys, I can see what you are doing." It was against any logic: why would a journalist go to an event with a flag and a balaclava? I said that I could see everything, and they would be held liable for such things. They turned away and told me to turn away as well.

However, when I was leaving, I was given that balaclava and the white-red-white flag. I said, "This is not mine, you planted it!" I gave it back to them at the entrance.

They escorted me for interrogation through a courtyard. There were 30 officers there. Everyone was wearing a mask, only a few were not. They looked so cool in their black T-shirts with batons in their hands. I told them I could not walk, lay down on the ground and said, "Guys, I am a Grodno journalist Ruslan Kulevich. You read my books, you read my articles. You all know me very well. Help me get there." They started laughing. Two or three people came out of this laughing crowd, took me by the arms and pulled me. One was wearing a mask, the other one was not. They had kind faces. I don't know them, but they pulled me to the room.

I didn't expect to be treated like that. I used to think they would treat me properly because I was an educated person, a journalist.

I was taken to the third floor where I talked with the investigator. At first, he was disrespectful too, spoke obscenely. He was a captain, I don't remember his last name. I said, "Take a look at my stuff." He looked through my documents, including an international press card, a certificate, a piece of paper reading "call the mayor of the city in case of arrest" with the mayor's mobile number. He went out and talked to someone. When he returned, his attitude changed a little. Another masked man came, also speaking rudely at first, "Hey you, stand astride, quickly!" Someone told him, "He is a journalist." I was not completely stripped of my clothes, unlike the others.

They drew up a protocol saying I had participated in an unauthorized mass event. How could I have participated? I was told to sign it, but I refused. And that was it. I was escorted through a hallway to the detention center.

While they were escorting me, everyone was laughing too. I remember one officer passing by, twirling his truncheon, I guess he was a riot police officer, and saying, "You got caught, huh? You will not take pictures anymore!" I answered, "Damn, I'm a journalist. I was doing my job." They laughed and walked me further to my cell, where a guy was sitting. He had been detained while leaving a store with some beer on his way home from fishing, and the fish still lay in the car. There were also two other guys, a builder and an engineer. People had been just going home. Can you imagine the level of lawlessness if they had detained bystanders?

I didn't know what had happened to my wife. It turned out that she had been released at night for health reasons: she had felt sick.

Five minutes later, they took me and escorted me to some room where other officers were sorting our things and putting them in bags with names. I saw my stuff and my wife's things among them.

They tried to plant a black balaclava and a white-red-white flag in my bag. I said, "Guys, I can see what you are doing." It was against any logic: why would a journalist go to an event with a flag and a balaclava? I said that I could see everything, and they would be held liable for such things. They turned away and told me to turn away as well.

However, when I was leaving, I was given that balaclava and the white-red-white flag. I said, "This is not mine, you planted it!" I gave it back to them at the entrance.

They escorted me for interrogation through a courtyard. There were 30 officers there. Everyone was wearing a mask, only a few were not. They looked so cool in their black T-shirts with batons in their hands. I told them I could not walk, lay down on the ground and said, "Guys, I am a Grodno journalist Ruslan Kulevich. You read my books, you read my articles. You all know me very well. Help me get there." They started laughing. Two or three people came out of this laughing crowd, took me by the arms and pulled me. One was wearing a mask, the other one was not. They had kind faces. I don't know them, but they pulled me to the room.

I didn't expect to be treated like that. I used to think they would treat me properly because I was an educated person, a journalist.

I was taken to the third floor where I talked with the investigator. At first, he was disrespectful too, spoke obscenely. He was a captain, I don't remember his last name. I said, "Take a look at my stuff." He looked through my documents, including an international press card, a certificate, a piece of paper reading "call the mayor of the city in case of arrest" with the mayor's mobile number. He went out and talked to someone. When he returned, his attitude changed a little. Another masked man came, also speaking rudely at first, "Hey you, stand astride, quickly!" Someone told him, "He is a journalist." I was not completely stripped of my clothes, unlike the others.

They drew up a protocol saying I had participated in an unauthorized mass event. How could I have participated? I was told to sign it, but I refused. And that was it. I was escorted through a hallway to the detention center.

While they were escorting me, everyone was laughing too. I remember one officer passing by, twirling his truncheon, I guess he was a riot police officer, and saying, "You got caught, huh? You will not take pictures anymore!" I answered, "Damn, I'm a journalist. I was doing my job." They laughed and walked me further to my cell, where a guy was sitting. He had been detained while leaving a store with some beer on his way home from fishing, and the fish still lay in the car. There were also two other guys, a builder and an engineer. People had been just going home. Can you imagine the level of lawlessness if they had detained bystanders?

I didn't know what had happened to my wife. It turned out that she had been released at night for health reasons: she had felt sick.
"I am a bad judge, mention that in your memoirs"
My trial took place the next day in the evening. A judge came. I had seen him before, he had been trying people for political reasons even before the elections. He started delivering a verdict straightway, but I said, "Hold on. I am a journalist. Call the mayor. Call the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs." He left the room, but a woman came in instead who started recording a video on her phone. She asked me to introduce myself, and so I did, "I am journalist Ruslan Kulevich. Call the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They know me."

She called only to be told I was "not a journalist actually." Actually! How come? I had been invited to a press conference by the head of the police department, who had given comments on various events. I had been invited when Shunevich, a former minister, had come to Grodno to formally open a new building of the police department. The employees of the press service are young guys, who look like someone I could even grab a beer with. Normal guys, journalists just like me but in uniform.

The judge went out somewhere to check my documents; I had many accreditations from football and hockey matches. I had anticipated the possibility of being detained, so I had taken everything I had.

He came in again and said, "Well, Ruslan Vyacheslavovich, I'm a bad judge. Mention that in your memoirs. I sentence you to seven days of arrest. Get your documents in order." I asked to call my brother to find out about my wife and to ask him tell my parents. His secretary wrote down the number and called later, I guess.

A month later, a relative of the judge texted me asking, "Who tried you? This judge's name has now been added to the list of the hit squad members. Can you do anything to remove it?" I don't know who did that, I haven't heard of such a list at all. But if the judge tried innocent people without consideration, he was involved. I don't know who put him on the list, however. I didn't ask anyone.

Someday I'll meet him and look him in the eye. I think that he already realizes what he has done.

So, I was sentenced to seven days of arrest. There were three guys in the cell: a blacksmith (a real craftsman), an employee of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and some other guy who had been detained when riding a bicycle. We had all been detained for our civic beliefs. We talked, and somehow I felt better.

We were not fed for two days. We slept on boards, on bare bunks, with no mattresses, no sheets. We only drank water. We thought, okay, we can hold on for seven days.

On the third day around lunchtime, the food hatch opened, "You've got a parcel." My wife had handed over some clothes, sweets, my book. I had told her earlier to bring me my book if I got detained. I made it a gift for the guys in the cell, who said that was the best presentation they had ever attended.

I sat down and burst into tears, probably from the happiness I felt when I learned that my wife was ok. She had come home, so everything was fine, I could spend those seven days there in peace. Although there was a sense that the seven days would not be the end – we could easily get incriminated for something else. We consoled ourselves saying, "If you haven't been arrested, you are not a Belarusian!"

Then the hatch opened again, "More parcels over here." We got holy water and cookies: I realized that the priests had brought water and food, some basic necessities. We were also fed, quite well actually: pasta, a cutlet, soup.
"That's it. Go wherever you want. It felt strange"
After the parcels and the lunch, we felt better. We talked, played word games. We prepared our minds to spend a long time there. My lawyer came and asked if I would file an appeal or something else. I replied that I could not write, my hand ached. Both hands, actually, I couldn't do anything with my left hand either. The lawyer wrote an appeal to the detention center instead of me.

Dinner was brought, when they came abruptly and said, "Pack your stuff, you are leaving." Who is leaving and where? We thought we would be taken to Volkovysk, to some penal colony there. We asked, "Where are we going?" only to hear, "You will probably go home." We could not understand what was going on, "How is that even possible? We have been sentenced to 10, 15 days… I have to spend seven days here." We were given our personal stuff, told to sign some papers, I guess, regarding our food, and escorted out.

That was it. We could go wherever we wanted. It was weird. I went up to a passer-by and said, "Please give me five rubles for a taxi, I have no money. I'll give it back to you later." He said, "I know you, Ruslan. It's okay. Here's the money." I forgot to ask him to use his phone, so I went up to another person on the street and said, "Please give me your telephone for a call." I was wearing shoes without laces, I was dirty – no wonder the woman ignored me, but then she came back and said, "I am sorry, I know you. Here is the phone, call whoever you want." I called a taxi and got home.
"Look, he is holding a dog, how can his arms be broken?"
15 minutes later, my colleague came to make a breaking interview about me, journalist Ruslan Kulevich, being released. Our dog had run away just before he came, so we caught it, and I held it in my arms during the interview.

Later, the propagandists would use this fact against me. They made a screenshot from the video as if to say "look, he is holding a dog: how can his arms be broken?" But what they failed to mention was that in the video, I also showed swollen hands, lifted my T-shirt and showed the blows from the batons. They did not show that. Yes, I could write, but I had closed fractures of my wrists.

In the morning, we went to make X-rays and have the injuries verified. The X-rays showed that my hands were broken, and I needed casts. We scanned the skull to find out a mild traumatic brain injury. They said I needed hospitalization because I was very stressed. I was admitted for five days.

There, in the hospital, I started my Hospital-News column, in which I recorded victims' stories. There was a bass player from the DZIЕCIUKI band who had been beaten on the first day; some IT guys beaten on August 10 and 11.

I remember watching the live broadcast when 50,000 people came out in Grodno, and the mayor addressed them on the square; I saw the workers of the Azot plant ask the head of the police department about me; I felt so proud of the people, because they stood in solidarity. There were tens of thousands of people on the square, and I got a call from there right to the hospital; someone put a microphone to the phone, and I thanked people for their support and regretted that I could not be with them at the moment, that I had no camera and was in hospital.
"They started calling home, asking my wife to show her breasts"
When I was discharged from the hospital, we had to pay more attention to my wife's health – she had developed some complications. One day, when I was sitting in the hospital and waiting for her, I started receiving messages and calls to WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, Viber. I couldn't understand what was going on. I read, "Hide! They want to detain you! Leave!" What was that? A fake? Then I got a screenshot showing that some Telegram channel had published all my data, my wife's identity, our addresses. We started calling home, calling my mom. I had not been prepared for this: I was shaken, worried about myself and my family. The information was published on the 'Yellow Plums' Telegram channel. I think that the administrator of the channel is the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the KGB, because they are the only ones who could have such data.

We went outside the city. A few days later, I got a call that we had been shown on TV, the ONT channel, together with the same material that was published in these 'Yellow Plums'. The security forces had started publishing our personal data on television. I was shaking trying to figure out what to do.

We returned to the city. Everything seemed to have calmed down. But soon the calls and the texts resumed; we were also shown on another TV-channel, the BT.

This went on for a month. They broadcast something, they wrote something. I didn't respond to anyone. I remained silent until the end of August.

I continued writing and working, but various threats poured in.

They started calling home, asking for my wife to show her breasts for donations. They started monitoring her Instagram page. This is probably the worst thing – the exhausting pressure.
"Independent journalists have probably been labeled enemies"
They can currently detain any person and then come up with a case, make a search or something else. We are not protected at all. No law works in the country. Lawyers cannot defend, because they also get imprisoned. There is a war going on: a war against the people of the country.

The police do not want to understand that the people taking to the streets have peaceful intentions. Journalists want to show the truth; and they are ready to cover the other side of the story – to show it. I texted some riot police officers asking them to tell their story, to open up about the pressure they experience, so that they don't think the journalists only show one side. I was ready to show the other side as well. But they said, "Oh, we are considered criminals anyway. It's too late to say anything." Nobody has contacted me yet.

I used to be invited to various press conferences, to shake hands; not any more, though. They give no comments. Nothing.

I don't even know whether I will greet the mayor when we meet. I no longer call the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Independent journalists have probably been labeled enemies, enemies of the state. Genuine journalists, that is: who are completely devoted to their work.

A riot police commander once told me, "Go write your books!" I replied, "I would love to write books if the situation in the country were not so bad."

I want to continue writing books. I don't know whether I will write one about the current events. Probably. However, I'm not the only one who should do this. Perhaps, Hrodna.life editorial board can make a book about this period.

Nowadays, many journalists cannot work with a cool head. I am afraid of losing people, sources, contacts from the pre-war period. I wanted to publish a third book based on their memories. Now I cannot approach them.

Many events are similar to the 1930s – repressions, war against the intellectual class. It also resembles 1939. Grodno residents defended the city from the Soviets and communists; the youth went to defend the city. I feel something similar happened on August 9-10. People took to the streets peacefully to defend the city, and they were shot at. Moreover, all the major events took place in the same locations as decades before: the city center, the narrow streets, the old bridge. Everything was the same as 80 years ago. It's a shame that I can lose connection to the people who are 90-95 years old because of all these events – the people who can tell something about those historical events that they haven't yet told anyone in their life. Their memories…

They were born in our city, they witnessed the arrival of the communists in 1939, the change of power, the first Soviet period, the Germans, the second Soviet period, the formation of independent Belarus. They have something to compare everything with. We must now speak to them and listen to them, because they have faced all this before – the changing eras, the countless occupations.
On November 24, Ruslan Kulevich and his wife Tatyana were refused the right to initiate a criminal case on the basis of the infliction of actual bodily harm on them. A single answer from the Investigative Committee came to both of them: it transpired that a criminal case could not be initiated “because of the absence of evidence of a criminal act taking place.”