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There’s a Brutal Crackdown Underway in Belarus. It Should Be a Wake-up Call for America.

On Thursday, Belarusian authorities began releasing prisoners from the jails. These were people who had been arrested during the days of protest following Sunday’s presidential election, which European officials said “was neither free nor fair” and in which Aleksander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus for 26 years, claimed to win over 80 precent of the vote. After the country broke out in protest, Lukahsenko dismissed the people in the streets as foreign-funded “puppets” and police rounded up some 6,000 protestors. Their families and lawyers had no way to get in touch or to learn what was happening to their loved ones. All signs, however, pointed to the utterly terrifying. Agonized screams could be heard outside prison walls, and those protestors who were being let out, had usually been leaving in the back of ambulances.

But on Thursday, a clearer picture began to emerge of what had transpired inside the jails. After hundreds of protestors and journalists were released, they described being severely beaten and humiliated, handcuffed and packed in jail cells and forced to lie face down on the concrete, “like a living carpet,” in pools of their own blood. Others described being in a cell with 65 other people and being given one loaf of bread for everyone to share. People fainted from hunger, thirst, and a lack of fresh air. “A toilet was also a luxury and our trips there were supervised by mockery and yelling,” one young protestor wrote on Instagram. “Three people peed at one time so that we’d all have a chance to go during the allotted time.” One young woman, in tears, recounted how the police beat her and pulled off her pants, telling her, “We’ll fuck you so hard, your own mother won’t recognize you.” A young man claimed that gay men were singled out for special humiliation: the police threatened to force them to perform oral sex on each other. People posted gruesome photos of their injuries, along with the clinical descriptions of what they had endured: “traumatic injury of the rectum, blunt trauma of the scrotum and perineum, multiple fractures, concussion.”

In the meantime, liberal, pro-Western Russians and Belarussians are asking: where are the Americans? Russia and Belarus are tied by a common history and culture, and Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin are mostly allies, which explains why the Russian opposition is watching the events in Belarus closely and cheering on the protestors—seeing in them a sliver of hope that they too can challenge their authoritarian ruler and perhaps build a democracy.

But the events in Belarus have barely registered here in the U.S. We have been so consumed with our own chaos—a pandemic that has taken the lives of 165,000 Americans and cratered the economy, a once-in-a-generation reckoning over systemic racism, and a presidential race where the fate of the nation really does seem to hang in the balance—that there is little bandwidth left to face what’s happening anywhere else, which is exactly how people like Lukashenko and Putin want it. As long as America is chasing its own tail, it will be too busy to bother with the rest of the world.

But what’s happening in tiny little Belarus should be a lesson for us all. Lukashenko is known as the “last dictator of Europe,” but he didn’t start out that way. When he was first elected in 1994, he was the change candidate, the one offering to shake things up. He has been in power ever since, winning rigged election after rigged election. Many of the people who are now protesting his rule, the ones suffering the most horrible consequences for their protest, had not even been born when Lukashenko first took office. They have never had any real experience of democracy, but they are willing to risk their lives and limbs for the idea of a free election—something they had never once participated in. But it isn’t just idealistic young people flooding the streets. Factory workers all over the country walked out of their jobs to demand free and fair elections, risking their livelihood for a concept that is as basic as it is vague, especially in comparison with feeding your family. And the tales of police sadism haven’t had the effect that the regime may have intended: soldiers and police officers are resigning because they don’t want to take part in brutalizing their fellow citizens.

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